What is now the innovation lab at Cottonwood Plains Elementary School once housed rows of computers.
Students would come to use those bulky desktops twice a week for various educational purposes before going back to their classrooms.
Now, most every student in the Thompson School District has a Chromebook laptop issued by the district, and suites of computers ceased to be necessary. The district was then faced with the question of what to do with all the space.
At Cottonwood Plains and other schools across the district, the answer is the innovation lab.
Cottonwood Plains Elementary School Principal Eric Harting said that the center, which was being developed before the pandemic but was only completed this year, has given the school more flexibility to try new things with technology and creativity.
“We used to have libraries and computer labs in specials,” he said. “Now we have this.”
Modular tables and shelves on wheels allow space, consisting of a large room that still serves as a library and a smaller side room that houses some of the more advanced technology, to be quickly reconfigured to suit various needs.
The library features a green screen for video projects, and the technology room houses 3D printers, robots, and plenty of space for students to spread out and work with their laptops on coding projects and research. Students of all ages at the elementary school make use of the lab, with simpler activities used with younger students and more advanced technology topics reserved for the older ones.
“Some of the robotics are designed more for the older kids,” Harting said. “But we kind of scale it up so they can still do the same type of stuff.”
Third grader Mohammad Alajmi said that he enjoyed math and technology topics as he worked on repairing a robot’s disconnected arm in the innovation lab. As he worked, he tested the robot using commands sent from an iPad, moving it forward and backward, checking the robot’s arm to see if it could grip objects, and making it move its head, blink its eye and make noises.
“I just like to fix and invent,” Alajmi said. “I love to fix computers.”
The lab is flexible by design, but also by necessity. There is no established curriculum for an innovation lab anywhere in the district. The school and the teachers that staff the lab are therefore required to be as creative as the students they teach, coming up with new project ideas and building lesson plans from scratch.
“This is our introductory year with our equipment, so we’re just kind of learning all of our equipment this year,” said Kelly Hoefle, an innovation center teacher at Cottonwood Plains. “The hope is to tie it with the classroom science standards, and tie in lessons with the classroom.”
Hoefle said that the committee that planned what would take place in the innovation lab touched other nearby schools from other districts that had done similar projects with their old media centers to create the makeshift curriculum, and received robotics training.
“I think it’s just a different way to learn, hands on,” Hoefle said. “It allows them to be more creative, try something, try again, learn how to fail. One of the biggest things is seeing kids work with each other. That’s huge.