Innovation Space Sparks Collaboration and Creativity

If there is one word to describe the John Christophe Schlesinger ’89 Library since it reopened this fall, it is versatile. With the addition of the new Amicus Foundation Innovation Space, it has been a hub of inspiration and collaboration combining the best of traditional and cutting-edge resources. The space was designed to offer flexibility with moveable furniture, write-on tables, and a variety of seating (or standing) options, in addition to shelves stocked with books and robotics kits.
In less than three months, it has served as a cozy space for parent coffees, a design studio for engineering challenges, a quiet research space for history classes, an electronic music studio, a collaborative think tank space for the Board of Trustees, a meeting place for Buddies, a hub for Homework Central and the after-school Kindergarten “Mighty Makers” club, a race track for mini robots, a launchpad for the new virtual reality drone club, a home for the Festival of Books book fair, and so much more.

“This space just invites you to dream,” said Director of Innovation and Academic Technology Aron Back, who shares the space with veteran Librarian Mary Ann Landsdale.

On one recent afternoon, a Grade 1 maker class worked on rock drawings, bringing elements from the natural world into the lab to sketch them on their iPads, while a seventh grade history class researched trade routes through the library’s more traditional book collection. A half hour later, it completely transformed into a music lab with sixth graders connecting their laptops to inanimate objects like fruit and hopscotch pads using “makey makeys” to turn these objects into musical instruments.

“The best part is that students get completely into it,” said Mr. Back. “It becomes a full body experience. They are up out of their seats or they’re on the floor and they are trying things without a sense of judgement. They are totally in the moment. That’s what design thinking is all about.”

One of Mr. Back’s goals of the school’s innovation curriculum is to expose students to technology including robotics, virtual reality and artificial intelligence. A highlight for him has been watching faculty find new ways to integrate the technology with other academic disciplines.

“It allows the teachers to think very dynamically about their curriculum and ways to enhance or change what they’ve been doing,” said Mr. Back.

Julie Porter’s fifth grade class enjoyed using the space for a writing “scavenger hunt”. Students scoured the library books collecting opening lines of fiction and then worked in groups using the whiteboard tables to categorize the lines into six different ways to start works of narrative.

Mr. Back has been working with faculty across all grades on ways to enhance curriculum and the ideas just keep coming. He and woodshop teacher Chris Lawler are looking at ways to combine digital architectural design with hands-on woodworking. He is collaborating with the sixth grade team to add a green screen component to the sixth grade speeches, and with the second grade team to add a virtual reality element to their states study.

Upper School science teacher Sanj Maliakal is excited to bring his seventh graders to the space when they work on their endangered species project in the spring. In this culminating project of their unit on Earth's natural resources, students research an endangered species and make a mask of it. Students then create a movie to convey the natural history of their species, the threats it faces and the conservation efforts underway to protect the species. Students wear their masks and play the starring role as the species. This year, to enhance the project, students will use a green screen and augmented reality to transport themselves into their species' habitat.

Another, equally important, objective of the new space is to encourage students to practice their mission skills: teamwork, creativity, ethics, resilience, curiosity and time management.

“Throughout the day you hear students sighing when their first attempt doesn’t work, then cheering when they get a breakthrough,” said Mr. Back. “That’s the highlight of my day.”

Special thanks to the Schlesinger family, the Amicus Foundation and the Class of 1989 for their generous support, which made this new space possible and enables us to continue to deepen our innovation curriculum.