Year in Review: Lessons from the Innovation Lab

techedupteacherI came up with the Innovation Lab, our take on the makerspace, when I first got to Fair Haven eighteen months ago. The goal was to make an engaging technology “special” to replace our more traditional computer class which we pushed down toward the elementary school. I spent the bulk of this year’s afternoons working in the Innovation Lab with Ms. Smith and her 5th and 6th grade students. In the Innovation Lab, students learned about Design & Engineering, Computer Science, the Digital Arts, and, for a few months, Entrepreneurship. After our first full year in the Lab, I wanted to share the lessons I’ve learned.

Lesson Learned: Blended Learning is best, but not without a learning curve. I blended my high school English class for the last five years I was there. My sophomores received little direct instruction. Instead when they came into class, student work and the resources they needed to be successful were already online in our Learning Management System waiting for them. This worked incredibly well for my Sophomores, so I decided to bring blending to the Innovation Lab.


In the blended classroom, a teacher creates videos instead of providing extended, whole class instruction because if you are talking to the whole class, the whole class isn’t listening. The teacher also curates resources to share with students, but most of all a teacher becomes a guide or coach rather than the keeper of knowledge. In return, students learn information literacy and they receive a self-paced, self-directed learning experience with support from a teacher who works with them one-on-one or in small groups. Most of our 5th and 6th graders had never learned in a blended environment before they came to Innovation Lab, so we had a bit of a learning curve to work through.

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The above pictures show the adoption rate of our blended learning videos over time along with a graph that outlines the Diffusion of Innovation theory. The Diffusion of Innovation theory seeks to explain how, why, and at what rate new ideas and technology spread through a society. I feel the DoI applies to the classroom as well. Starting with little experience, it took about seven months for the “late majority” of students to adopt blending. Anecdotally, where I saw choice paralysis with some for the first few months, after time and staying the course, most of these students found blending empowering.

I will see my fifth graders again next year as sixth graders. I’m confident I can continue to grow the blended model and reach the “laggards” quickly. As the EDTech coach for the district, I also had an ulterior motive for blending the Innovation Lab. I’m hoping to familiarize students with the blended model so it will make onboarding easier for both teachers and students as blending starts to pop up in other classrooms around the district.

The blended Innovation Lab was a good decision because it allowed students to walk down the Innovation Path (Design & Engineering, Comp Sci, Digital Arts, Entrepreneurship) of their choosing as their own pace. This leads to higher engagement and motivation than if we were to tell them what to do, when. Voice and choice matter. Direct instruction in the Labs took the form of Demo Slams, our name for pop-up, small group direct instruction based on student need. In the blended learning classroom, teachers teach to the trouble. At their time of highest need, we can swoop in and provide support and encouragement for students that isn’t possible in a direct instruction heavy classroom. Blending is all about keeping a student in the Zone of Proximal development. To push students out of their comfort zones, we adopted a “Yes! And…” strategy were we encouraged students to take their creations further. “Yes! And wouldn’t it be cool to try… “Yes! And do you think you can also…” worked well in getting students to stretch outside their comfort zones.

Lesson Learned: Design Thinking is king. Design Thinking, especially in the Standford sense, is the backbone of the entire Innovation Lab. I didn’t know this at first. I had originally paired it with only the Engineering path, but the more I learned about it and the more I worked with students the more I realized that Design Thinking permeates everything going on in the Lab. Whether podcasting, making videos, building in Minecraft, or designing Parts to Arts, I found our conversations with students centered around the concept of Design Thinking. To this end I am doubling down on both my personal learning and understanding of Design Thinking, but also by taking Design out of the Engineering path and making it the tree trunk from which all other branches of Innovation Lab grow. I am lucky to be close in both distance and relationship to Kevin Jarrett who is leading the way with Design Thinking in middle school. I encourage everyone to follow the amazing things he is doing. I will be bribing him with burgers to learn more about Design Thinking.

Lesson Learned: we’re not the only hot mess in town. I was lucky enough to hang out in a bunch of makerspaces this year. Whether high school or middle school, city, suburb, or any label in between, every makerspace teacher confided in me that no matter what they did their space was a mess at the end of the day. Supplies were wasted, tools put back in the wrong spots, things left out, and stuff strewn about. It felt strangely liberating to know it was not just our space. Maybe it sounds silly, but learning this allowed me to take a step back, a deep breath, and be less frustrated at the end of the day.

Lesson Learned, probably: in middle school breadth over depth is fine. We saw our kids once a week for the school year. A week is a long time for middle schoolers. Our students often forgot what they were working on when they came to the Lab after a week. If they didn’t forget, they came in wanting to work on something else with someone else. There is something to be said for sticking with a project long term, but I’m OK with middle schoolers dipping their toes in a bunch of different maker pools. From third to eighth grade, I think students should be showing what they know with technology and learning not to be afraid of technology; comfortable with being uncomfortable, ya know. In high school. I would expect students to have a finished product, and I am going to work toward getting more finished products using Gizmos, but I’m OK with students who go wide instead of deep.

Lesson Learned: there is a place for entrepreneurship in the makerspace. I’ve written about Gizmos, our online, student run store here. I’m excited for a full launch this September. Not only will we be running the Innovation Lab with a gamified narrative about being a startup, we’ll be teaching students valuable business skills that are hard to find in education. The Design Thinking piece fits perfectly with the integration of entrepreneurship and the school store helps solve a lot of problems in the Innovation Lab like waste and the aforementioned finished product situation. Like the integration of Art into STEM, I encourage more makerspaces to think about integrating elements of entrepreneurship into making. Please, though, let’s avoid calling it STEAME….

I have a few more Lessons Learned I’m still unpacking, but these were the ones I’m ready to share now. I’ll probably do a part two toward the end of the summer. To wrap this up, I wanted to list some goals for the Innovation Lab this coming year.

  • Build a small lunch/recess program for elite makers
  • Build a parent/student maker night once a month
  • Build at least one more partnership with the community. We’ve teamed with Red Bicycle to build a bike shop behind the school which I want to grow, but I’d also love to do something with the hospital or businesses in town. Community is so important to teach students.
  • Build an Innovation Lab that centers on Design Thinking
  • Improve on our Digital Portfolio process. I can’t find anyone who makes a good, shareable digital portfolio. Looks like I’ll be sticking with Google Sites.
  • Integrate the new ISTE student standards into the Lab. ISTE nailed it

More to come. Stay tuned.

Until next time,