Make the space speak to the kids: Experience from a visit at Bourn Idea Lab

(This blog post was written in Feb 2015. Thanks to Sylvia Martinez for editing this blog post.)

Last week, I got a chance to visit the Bourn Idea Lab, a FabLab@School at Castilleja School in Palo Alto. I spent one and a half hours observing interactions in a maker class for my study about learning environment and interaction in maker lab. I’d like to share my learning experience in this post about how impressed I was by the wonderful learning environment in the school’s maker lab. Thank you Angi Chau and Heather Pang for supporting my visit.

Learning Dynamic in Maker’s Lab. In the class, there were about 14 girls ages 11-14 years old. There were 4 different learning goals in that session. Students moved around the class working on their tasks. The teachers moved around too, facilitating students in different corners. Some students were designing on their laptops,  others were downloading software or struggling with computer network. Some students were learning how to 3D print with a teacher coaching them closely. Some students were learning how to use soldering kits with the other teacher. This seems like normal working environment in any maker lab. Teachers came to me and said that “Feel free to ask any question. This is quite chaotic here but please make yourself comfortable.”

I was impressed with the high level of student motivation as they worked on their projects.There were many students in the class walking around freely, talking to each other, and making noise as they accomplished goals. I saw many instances of sharing with each other as well as self-learning in this class. As I looked around, I asked myself,  “What makes this happen?” and “How do the teachers make the learning so personal, yet so productive in this environment?”

Decentralized Educative Experience Through Physical Learning Materials. The teacher teams at Castilleja have done a great job in combining a variety of learning resources and designing a space that supports self-learning very well. All the materials were labeled, easy to find, easy to clean up, and not it was not difficult to learn how to use them. The space was designed to separate different kind of tasks, so that students know where to go. All learning materials had good detailed instructions that make it easy for students to read and self-check by themselves. Even all the small electronics pieces are color-coded, which is very helpful for the beginner to get started on their own just from reading instructions.

Teacher instruction is still essential in some tasks that may need high-level skills.

Although the room had a high energy level, the conversations were not loud and chaotic at all. This is because most of the learning took place in “silent conversations” between students and all the well-planned materials and instructions. I witnessed these effective “silent conversations” with a girl, as I sat next to her and observed her laser focus in her work continuously for 45 minutes. She was working quietly by herself with a booklet telling her how to make a radio project.
3P’s of Educative Learning Space. The Bourn Idea Lab is a wonderful example of how the teachers orchestrate the learning environment to support dynamic and personalized learning. I’d like to summarize with 3 Ps that I learned.

1. People
– Design how teachers work in class; assign clear tasks to teams supporting students
– Design a culture that encourages peer learning. Students are encouraged to help and learn from each other.

2. Platform
– Design a space that “tells stories” or “gives instructions”.
– Use labels to help novice makers feel comfortable trying new things by themselves.

3. Process
–  Design units of learning that allow students to correct mistakes and move on to the next steps by themselves.
– Teachers coach students one-on-one or in small groups in high skill level tasks. Teachers also walk around to help solve emerging problems.
– After the end of the class, teachers reflect about the class and discuss the emerging issues to come up with solutions together.

We know that projects encourage students to deeply connect to their own learning in a personal and highly motivating way. However, it can be frustrating for novices to try to make projects without any support and even more frustrating to have too much support and no personal choice. What I witnessed at Castilleja School was the way that real-time teacher facilitation, combined with the carefully designed space and high quality instructional materials creates the balance needed to solve this challenge. I will take the “3 Ps” I learned here into consideration as I continue to explore learning environments in maker labs.