Fair Haven’s Innovation Labs – The unSTEM Labs

Fair Haven’s Innovation Labs – The unSTEM Labs

With the trust and support of my leadership team, I’ve been given the green light to design and co-teach the class of my dreams. Since joining Fair Haven last December, and through this summer, I’ve spent hours designing and beta testing a class that I believe will become a national model for student-centered learning. Our Innovation Labs, part of our Fair Haven Innovates initiative, is made up of Sickles Studios and Knollwood Labs. We launched last week and Monday was the first day students got to get their hands dirty and start on their Quests. I wanted to give an overview of the Innovation Labs and the ideas behind them, so I can dive deeper throughout the year.

The first thing I had to do to make the class run the way I envisioned was rethink the way we presented, and kids accessed, the curriculum and their work. For that, I turned to my mega-talented partner in crime Ellen Spears. Ellen is our Curriculum Director and together we created a new style of curriculum. A new type of curriculum was needed because, as we both agreed, curriculum generally just collect dust in closets instead of being part of the teaching practice in the room. We wanted to create a living, breathing curriculum that grew throughout the year right along with the teacher, class, and the kids. We call our new creation the Fresh Air curriculum.

The Fresh Air curriculum takes the content from paper pages and moves it to web pages. We bought the domain fairhaveninnovates.com as a portal for students and parents to access this new curriculum. Since it is on the web, everyday, whether from home or school, students and parents have access to the curriculum and can see what they are supposed to be learning and thanks to the ease of Google Apps for Education, it’s a breeze to update (check out that site history!). On top of all that, digitizing curriculum allows for differentiated, self-paced, self-directed learning. I plan on diving into specifics in the future. In the meantime, feel free to steal what I’ve done and use it or make it your own.

On top of the new curriculum, you had to have known there would be Gamification. While Sickles Studios doesn’t feature any Gamification, Knollwood Labs is totally gamified. Our Pioneers develop Heroic Traits as they work on Quests and unlock Achievements while they earn XP as part of our yearlong Class vs. Class and Grade vs. Grade game. Quests can be completed in single player mode, multiplayer mode, or as part of a Raid Team where students become problem finders. I’ll talk more about Gamification in the Labs and the modification I’ve made to my system soon, but you can see it on the Knollwood Labs page if you’d like a sneak peek.

So what goes on in the Innovation Labs?

Stuff like this:

Stuff like:

Sickles Studios is our elementary school (K-3) Innovation Lab. In Sickles Studios, we take a Project-Based Learning, small group approach in helping kids to start learning about Computer Science and Design & Engineering. Whether through our Wonder Wall or Design Thinking based conversations, as a class we decide what projects to tackle as a school. We see every grade once a week for an hour per day. One of our first projects, with the help of my talented co-teachers, is going to be to design a garden next to the school. We will do a mock up of the garden in Sketch Up and play around with what shape the kid think would be best and why. We plan on giving each grade a section of the garden and then subdividing those areas to allow for experimentation (fertilizer vs. no fertilizer, for example). It doesn’t stop there, though!

Over the last year or so, I’ve fallen in love with Raspberry Pi. If you are not familiar with this single-board computer that has taken the CompSci world by storm, you need to be. You’ll be hearing a lot more about Raspberry Pi on here, so for now I’ll explain how we are going to use the Pi to tech up our garden. We are starting the Code.org curriculum with all our students in Sickles Studios. Once they have a sufficient understanding of the type of syntax/thinking that goes into coding, the classes and I are going to write code for the Raspberry Pi that will allow it to monitor our garden in real time! For instance, I can imagine asking a class IF the garden is dry, what should we do? Well, obviously we will need to water it. On the Raspberry Pi, I can then write some code that will be able to predict the weather and if there is a < 50% chance of rain, let us know so we can water the garden, or even better the Pi can turn on the water for us. We can also keep a live updating Google Doc that tracks wind speed, direction, temperature, pressure, and the humidity of our Garden in real time. With this data we can decide what would be the best thing to do for our garden. That’s just one example of the awesome projects we are going to be doing. I’m playing around with the idea of building bird houses and attaching a Pi with a camera to it, so we can see what goes on inside a birdhouse during the winter.

In Knollwood Labs, 5th and 6th graders take a more autonomous and Problem-Based Learning approach to learning Computer Science and Design & Engineering skills. Whether through Minecraft(EDU), MakeyMakey kits, Raspberry Pis, Learn to Mod, CAD Programs, or true coding, students are given the option via their QuestsMaps to add agency to their learning. Now that the class has been explained to them, students come into the Knollwood Labs and get right to work.

This sounds awfully lot like a makerspace or STEM lab!

Shhhhhhhhhh, we don’t say those words around here for two reasons:

1) Education is too fad driven. STEM and Makerspaces are the new fad right now. Remember classes like Wood Shop? I’d argue they were the first Makerspaces and they have (sadly) been on the decline since 1980s and are now all but extinct. In five or ten years, STEM will likely suffer the same fate as shop classes when we fill the millions of STEM jobs, the new fad arrives, budgets need to be slashed, or the pendulum swings back toward the importance of the Arts (I see you creeping in, STEAM). Even the move to Chromebooks from PCs in most schools is helping kill the movement unless more companies go Chrome/Cloud compatible.

Don’t get me wrong or write me mean emails, STEM and Makerspaces are great. I love them, but when I look at the Makerspace, I don’t see STEM. I see student-centered learning. Letting the kids lead the way and giving them choice, voice, and autonomy in what they do, no matter the subject, will look a lot like a Makerspace. Honestly, in my mind, our Innovation Labs are English classes (Plot Twist!). What happens in our Innovation Labs look a lot like how I taught my high school English class. I let the kids create authentic learning experiences (they could do almost anything they wanted) during which they wrote argumentatively during their Quests and reflectively after they completed them. Our Labs feature a ton of writing and students in both schools are expected to capture evidence of learning, reflect, then tell the stories about their adventures in the Labs.

2) When you call something a STEM lab or Makerspace, people have preconceived notions. They have an idea in their head of what it should look like and what should be happening in them. I don’t like that. It limits our ability to grow, adapt, and experiment. By branding the initiative Fair Haven Innovates, Sickles Studios, and Knollwood Labs we have the ability to grow and change with the times. Now the Labs look like X, but in ten years they can look like Y. We define what happens in our Labs and that ensures they will always have a place in our community.

Community is incredibly important to me. In a place like Fair Haven where we have amazingly talented, passionate parents, how could we not use them as a resource? By branding the initiative, it gives everyone something to get excited about and be proud of. Remember how I called my take on Genius Hour and 20% time the Be About It project? After just two years, even elementary school kids and people in the community without kids in the district would stop me to talk about it. Business owners offered their ideas and asked to get involved. That kind of stuff is important to me. By branding the Innovation Labs, I’m ensuring they will be around and relevant as long as we like and creating a program of pride in our district.

I’ve never been more excited to be in education than I am today. This class is my baby and I’m excited to watch it grow along with the kids in it. I’m proud that the Labs are already catching the attention of many talented educators and companies who want to come visit us and believe in us enough to have made substantial donations to support the Labs.

I am hoping that our Innovation Labs will become a national model for student-centered learning. I think it will help prove the amazing things that are possible when we trust our students and let them lead the way. Everything I have and will design for this class is made with replication in mind. I want to be able to turn around and share my resources and methods with any educators who are interested, but I still have some kinks to work out, so stay tuned. Either way, strap in, it’s going to be an amazing ride!

On a personal note, I just got an email inviting me to be a guest lecturer at UPenn to talk Gamification in education. I’m only bringing it up because in high school, my counselor told me not to bother applying because I’d never get in. I listened. Now, I’m proud to be part of a group of educators who believe in kids.

Until Next Time,


cross-posted at Teched Up Teacher

Chris Aviles presents on education topics including gamification, technology integration, BYOD, blended learning, and the flipped classroom. Read more at Teched Up Teacher.

Chris Aviles is a STEM teacher, edtech specialist, and president of Garden State Esports. He is also a regular contributor to Tech & Learning.