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Everyday Materials Fuel Creative Product

Lab Immerses Students in STEM

Sarah Whiteside doesn’t mind the normal middle school routine, but the eighth-grader really looks forward to the new Innovation Lab class that encourages exploration through unique, hands-on science and technology projects.

“I can create whatever I want,” Sarah said of the school’s Innovation Lab. “I have freedom and all the materials I need. Everybody has a lot of creativity, there’s always something new.”

Tony Rossi works on his 3-D printer house, one of many projects students work on during Innovative Lab
Tony Rossi works on his 3-D printer house, one of many projects students work on during Innovative Lab

The lab is part of the East Grand Rapids program for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (STEAM), connected to the Next Generation Science Standards that Michigan schools will begin using in 2018.

The Innovation Lab allows students to construct “anything their brains could think up and their hands could draft” while using online software, said Doug Jenkins, EGR director of technology and assessment.

Held over two nine-week sessions for eighth-graders, the lab contains nine stations where students can conjure up such projects as a scrolling 8-ball with LED light, a motion sensor cat,  3-D robots, a motion-based skeleton and a homemade flashlight.
Funded by grants, the lab includes simple materials found in any home such as straws, popsicle sticks and glue. Students also use a donation cabinet filled with items as simple as Lincoln logs or Play-Doh or as complicated as computer monitors, fans and outdated VCRs.

Construction ideas are inhibited only by students’ imaginations, teacher Kevin Vance said. “Many of the projects are made from scratch. It’s all up here,” said Vance, pointing to his brain. “Students explore and I just try to keep up with them.”

Vance said the lab is constantly seeking items that can be transformed into cool projects. It’s the first year of the Innovation Lab, which was part of the three-year-old “Maker’s Club,” a similar after-school activity that included constructing projects through a 3-D printer.

EGR teacher Kevin Vance assists a student with a project during class

Students Explore, Make Mistakes and Help Each Other

Response to the club was so popular that Innovation Lab was born, Vance said. Not only do students learn patience, the satisfaction of success and working together as a team; the lab also teaches students to shake off mistakes.

“Seeing students’ enthusiasm for these groups, our staff envisioned a space where this could move from the after-hours schedule into a daytime class where teachers could apply these concepts every day.”

One of the lab’s greatest assets is that students learn to chip in with help while offering feedback on their classmates’ projects. That practice quickly became a given, Vance said.

Ben Sykes works on a ball before sending it down a programmed course during the Innovative Lab

“A lot of the kids on their own began helping others out,” he said. “I think it helps them believe that they have the skill to teach someone else. There is definitely an interest and excitement, an enjoyment that follows what each of the students is doing.”

Jenkins said the school is excited by the buzz among students created by the lab. “Students take pride in their designs,” he said, adding some students apply their designs to Science Olympiad projects such as bridge-building and robotics. “We have many students work countless hours during the winter season passionately preparing for their Science Olympiad camp.

For now, the class is limited to eighth-graders, but seventh-graders may be able to take it next year.

“Kids really enjoy it,” Vance said. “They love making things, but also embrace their mistakes. The kids are resilient. I just try to not get in their way and give them access to tools.”

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