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Learning by doing at GMS

Feb 27, 2017 09:59AM ● Published by Neighbors Magazines

This school year marks the opening of the “21st Century Learning Lab” at Grace McWayne Elementary School.

With much input from GMS students at all grade levels, two unused and adjoining classrooms were transformed into a space to encourage “21st Century Learning Skills,” which include critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, com­munication, and creativity. Generous (and continuous) donations from Grace McWayne families and the GMS PTO, and lots of sweat equity from GMS staff and parents made the transformation possible.

In the lab, all GMS students and teachers have access to an assortment of building materials, Legos® and handcrafted Lego table, electronic and circuit kits, loom, microscopes and a grow tower to grow plants indoors.

What they do with these tools is up to them.

Kelly Woodard’s second grade class recently used the lab to take on the challenges posted on one of the lab walls. Each month, these challenges change, thanks to GMS fourth-grade teacher Sue Palombella.

Palombella is passionate about the lab and enjoys creating the STEM-inspired (Science, Technology, Engineer­ing, and Mathematics) mind benders along with newsletters to teachers with more ideas on how to use the lab to extend classroom learning.

“Going from struc­tured classrooms to a lab where students are free to structure their own experience is a huge mind shift,” said Palombella. “I wanted to give teachers and students a focus for when they came to the Lab. I did a lot of research on what other teachers/schools were doing in their makerspaces.”

During the month of January, stu­dents were faced with the following winter-themed challenges:

• Engineer a paper snowflake that is 6-, 8-, and 12-sided and check out task cards with more geometry challenges.

• Design paper snowflakes that fall as quickly and as slowly as possible from a high height. Time the free fall with a stop watch.

• Reverse engineer a paper snow­flake.

• Build a launcher that can send a snowball flying through the air.

“The first time my class came to the lab, we just explored everything that is available,” said Woodard. “My students love it here!”

Prior to Woodard’s class visiting the lab, another class was leaving with structures built out of cardboard boxes, tubes, and popsicle sticks.

“Right before winter break, I saw a few ‘Elf on the Shelf’ homes, beds, and accessories being constructed in the Lab,” said GMS Principal Jeff Modaff. “Free play is a big part of learning, too, which we encourage in the Lab.”

Palombella echoes Modaff’s thoughts. “The best part about the lab is that students get to play while learning. There is a lot of research out there about the importance of play. The challenge becomes how to work in activities that feel like play but have a purpose.”

Chad Clarey, a second grade teacher at GMS, often brings his class to the lab to put specific skills and vo­cabulary into action after a lesson in the classroom. Recently, Clarey’s class was researching the weight of polar bears, and wanted to figure out if it’s possible pull a polar bear up to the top of a mountain. In their classroom, students viewed selected videos on pulley systems, followed by project designs to build a pulley-driven tool. The next step was a visit to the 21st Century Learning Lab to build a pulley to pull “Penny the Polar Bear” up a mountain—and learn how to ef­fectively multiply force. Students used pipe cleaners, paper cups, cardboard, Legos, string, straws, paper tubes, tape, and more to get Penny hoisted. Students recorded and reflected on their progress in SeeSaw, which was shared with parents.

“We want this to be a very energiz­ing place where kids get inspired to explore their own inquires,” said Modaff. “We strive to keep the lab student-centered and plan to focus future growth on how and what the students tell us they want to learn.”

Before winter break, Modaff received an email from a parent who told him that her daughter was going to the lab the next day.

“This student was so excited that the mom equated it to Christmas Eve,” said Palombella. “The kids re­ally love their experiences in the lab which makes it all worthwhile.”

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