How often have you heard a student ask, "Why am I learning this?" or "How am I going to be able to use this in the real world?"
Saline Area Schools' new Innovation Lab program sounds like it will address those questions while shifting the paradigm of teaching kids "what" to think to one where they're shown "how" to think, according to program heads Kelly Widman and Julie Myers.
Innovation Lab will be available to students in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade as one of the "specials" that rotate through students' daily schedule. Depending on grade level and building, Innovation Lab will be experienced by students every three to six days.
The program will be paired up with the Media Lab special and will involve what is called "design thinking," as well as a makerspace component, and cap it off with what is being referred to as "Genius Hour."
As explained by Widman and Myers, the design thinking component will involve communicating and empathizing with others to understand the problems that others face, in order to build a foundation for creating an idea or solution and then eventually crafting it into a real-world application.
"It's wonderful because this builds in communication that all kids need to be practicing, it generates ideas to solve problems, and they get feedback and learn how to receive constructive criticism," Widman explained.
The idea is to help students "get an idea out of their heads to see if they can build it with their hands."
For those unfamiliar with "makerspace," the concept involves a literal space where those with ideas congregate to mutually mull over their ideas and concepts, bring those concepts into being as a tangible or applicable real-world product or method, and hone said product or method through constructive feedback and reflection.
The hope of Innovation Lab is that students take a hold of their educations like an inventor takes a hold of their latest and greatest idea, while acquiring the ability to apply their learning.
The third component, Genius Hour, is a period where students can freely explore their own interests outside of the restraints or the district's broader curriculum plan.
A good example that Widman shared with the school board involved one of her students who has an interest in World War 2, but isn't quite yet to the ninth grade where SAS students are exposed to learning about mankind's greatest war.
This student wears two buttons with likenesses of Winston Churchill, one of which is easily recognizable as the old Churchill that most people can recognize. The other button is of a younger Churchill closer in age to the student wearing it, which not even Widman recognized at first.
"We dictate a lot of what kids learn in school, but they have their own curiosities that they are really interested in ... fifth graders we found are really interested in World War 2 but in the curriculum we don't get to that until ninth grade," Widman said.
Genius Hour is intended to encourage academic exploration by students outside of the curriculum that shapes the bulk of their education experience.
Myers posited a challenge she would like to bring to the first crap of Innovation Lab students involving improving bicycle safety.
"All kids drive bikes," Myers explained, adding that students could easily put their heads together to take stock of deficiencies in bicycle safety and bring those over to the makerspace component of Innovation Lab to craft real world solutions.
"We could take the kids through the design process and they using makerspace materials make prototypes of the thing," said said.
Widman added that a Saline student of hers designed neon lights that are installed in bicycle tires to improve visibility. Both teachers expressed a strong desire to see what other ideas could come of Innovation Lab.
"There's not just one right answer," Widman said. "There are many right answers."
Myers pointed out that the jobs that today's students in the age groups that Innovation Lab is aimed at don't exist yet and that nobody knows what they're going to look like this far out.
She and Widman are banking on those jobs requiring creativity and ingenuity at the sort of levels that only an early intervention program like Innovation Lab can foster starting in the earliest years of a child's educational experience.