Design and landscaping specs of Grosse Pointe Academy's new garden classroom project. Photo courtesy of Joe Backer
October 10, 2013Picture this: a classroom of students, in pairs or in small groups of three or four, the optimal numbers for design-thinking, with each group at its own table.
At each table, the students are laying across it, they're laughing and sharing and problem-solving and collaborating, all in an effort to design and program a LEGO robotic to complete some type of assigned task.
A task like picking up an object or a goalkeeper moving side to side to make a save.
For the teachers at Grosse Pointe Academy, this scene has started playing out on a weekly basis in the school's new Innovation and Design Lab as part of the school's STEM initiative, which also will include a garden classroom.
"It's just so cool," said Wendy Jerome, a middle school math and science teacher who, with other Academy teachers, took part in a two-day LEGO training workshop. "It's our first time through this, and I think we're discovering right along with the kids, which is really exciting for us."
"We're just trying to get children to be problem-solvers and just to think differently," said Didi DeBoer, a fourth grade science teacher. "It's all about collaboration and being okay with, It wasn't exactly what I thought and it turned out, and I'm okay with this, and not being afraid to try."
The Academy's STEM initiative was born of two influencing factors, according to Lars Kuelling, head of school. One, the Academy's recent technology initiative rollout, which involved switching from PC to Apple products and providing 1:1 iPads for students in grades 1 to 8.
With this, Kuelling noticed a change in the classroom dynamic, where teachers were teaching differently and students learning differently.
Classrooms became more student-centered, with the teacher as facilitator, as opposed to the more traditional teacher-centered approach.
A second factor was a summer 2012 project-based learning conference at Michigan Technological University several teachers attended and returned from "really jazzed up about the ability to get students thinking differently."
"For me, those were two things that came together," Kuelling said. "As we saw teachers getting excited, we said what are some of the best ways to do real-world experiences for students? And STEM is one of those areas to get problem-solving going, communication and collaboration."
Kuelling and others found as well, the STEM approach, that of group work and collaboration, of hands-on, sensorial learning, real-world experiences and practical life elements, wasn't far from the Academy's Montessori philosophy in place at the early school.
"Montessori, in and of itself, is extremely student-centered," said Lawrence DeLuca, principal of grades 4 to 8. "I mean, it's the kids working at their own pace, working in smaller groups together. That mentality is going up across the entire school."
The similarities in approach has allowed teachers to simply use STEM-based learning to augment the curriculum rather than completely overhaul it.
"Integration is what it's all about," said Robert Rochte, director of technology. "If this is just glitz, then you might as well save your money. It needs to be integrated into something that you're doing that makes sense in the curriculum. And it will."
"And the more cross-curricular ties you can make to it, the more benefit we will see to all the investment, from investment of time and obviously expense," said Jennifer Kendall, principal at the early and lower schools.
Expenses for the STEM initiative were underwritten from funds raised during the paddle-raising portion of the Academy's Action Auction last year.
In addition to the lab, funds also underwrote a garden classroom, which is another source of hands-on learning, but also a way for the Academy to honor its roots.
When it first started in 1885, as the Religious of the Sacred Heart, the order of nuns in charge aimed to make it a farm to allow for self-sufficiency.
With the garden classroom, the Academy will again become self-sufficient, and each grade level will receive a garden plot and be challenged to design the plot to fit the curriculum. Meaning, a third-grade class learning about Native Americans might grow a three-sisters garden of beans, corn and squash.
"It'll be interesting to see what each grade level does, but we want it to be meaningful to the kids," Kuelling said.
Once the garden classroom is in use, it's likely the experience outside will mirror that in the design lab with the robotics, with students, in their groups, laughing and sharing and problem-solving and collaborating.
"These kids, you go down and you see they're all working in teams, whether it's pairs or three or whatever," DeLuca said. "It's always collaborative. It's just great to see them process through everything. To me, I just love the process of the kids actually hands on, using these robotics, working together and have this final result."