Lower School Innovation Hub “Creates an Amazing Learning Experience”

Lower School Innovation Hub “Creates an Amazing Learning Experience”
  • Makers
Stacy Calfo

The space, made possible by a lead gift from parents Margaret and Ken Kennedy ’87, “ignites the desire for learning” in our youngest Ravens.

It’s no secret that the best way to prepare budding thinkers and creators for success in our increasingly technology-driven world is through hands-on exploration of STEM fields such as engineering and computer science — and no one enjoys hands-on exploration more than the enthusiastic learners in PreK through fifth grades. With the opening of the Lower School Innovation Hub last fall, what was once a traditional desktop computer lab has been transformed into a makerspace of technology, design and iterative thinking that captures the imagination and harnesses the creativity of our youngest Ravens.

“The things that we can do in the Hub are endless,” Head of Lower School Nicole Girvan said. “You can step into the brightly lit space and see a cardboard classroom sign being cut on the laser cutter. You may find students building Lego structures. You may even get to watch a small group of Kindergarten students enthusiastically working together to build a tower without the blocks falling.”

The Innovation Hub — made possible by a lead gift from parents Margaret and Ken Kennedy ’87, with additional funding from the Parents’ Association and several endowments — means all three divisions are well equipped with modern tools and technology in service of the school’s educational mission.

In this Innovation Hub project, Kindergarteners and first-graders, including Abigail Staal, work to build the tallest tower possible with a limited amount of supplies.

In an expansion of the Tower Challenge, students in second through fifth grades construct the tallest tower possible on a balance, planning how to account for the weight on the opposite side; here, fifth-graders Angel Torres and Andrew Nunalee collaborate on their project.

“A great evolution”

Sarah Wike, Director of Educational Technology, said the idea for a different kind of Innovation, Design and Engineering space started to grow once early computer skills, such as learning to type, were integrated into everyday classroom instruction. From there, a plan took shape to reimagine the increasingly underutilized Lower School computer lab into a space for PreK through fifth-grade students to practice makerspace ideas.

“The Hub is designed to let students tinker,” she said. “Laser cutters, a fully enclosed CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machine and 3-D printers allow students to develop projects using a variety of machines. We also offer a Chromebook cart in case students need to do something web-based and a cart of iPads for our youngest learners. This was a great evolution for the space — and we are grateful for how quickly we’ve been able to outfit it for our current needs.”

As Girvan noted, it’s also an inherently flexible space.

“We look forward to upcoming programmatic additions,” she said, “including using the Hub for robotics, building circuits and powering up hand tools.”

Of course, the Hub makes use of more than just manipulatives, tools and technology.

“In order to create value in these things, the most important resource we have is the imagination, creativity and motivation of the students who are in here,” Innovation Hub Coordinator Danny Carlson said. “The work we do in the Hub adds to their bank of knowledge and experience to enable them to develop as more creative problem solvers and innovators.

“The brains we have in here are the real assets,” he added. “All other things are the catalyst to help show how these students are amazing at problem solving.”

Second-grader Jacob Shirley tackles the Zoo Construction project, creating enclosures for different animals while safely separating predators from prey animals.

First-grader Shawn Yang shows off his Treehouse Architecture project, in which budding engineers were tasked with designing their perfect backyard treehouse.

“Ignite the desire for learning”

The Lower School’s IDE curriculum focuses on four major areas divided into each quarter of the academic year (see sidebar below) — with a healthy understanding of age-appropriate norms. As Carlson noted, that means it’s okay to act like a kid in this makerspace.

“Making a mess and making some noise is all part of the process,” he said. “That said, there’s an organization that I try to model for my students. Your physical resources and your academic resources have to be organized in some way to maximize the efficiency with which you’re solving your problem.”

Emphasizing that balance creates opportunities for students to further explore the citizen leader competencies of Lead From Here.

“When they are given a set of materials, students must inventory them before and after class to ensure the next class is set up for success. This gives them accountability to others,” Carlson explained. “In their Hub assignments, there is a lot of reflection to encourage accountability to themselves.”

Supporting such innovative teaching and learning in the Lower School is what inspired the Kennedy family to make their gift.

“I’m proud to help Ravenscroft grow in the efforts to ignite the desire for learning in an already strong environment for it,” Ken Kennedy said. “As a graduate of Ravenscroft myself, and also having three children going to school there, I’m excited to see these advancements made that will benefit all of the students.”

Lower School students enthusiastically concur.

“Innovation, Design and Engineering in the Innovation Hub expands our creativity in a way that helps us think more mathematically through real-world examples,” Kira Davis, a fifth-grader in Michelle Schulze’s class, concluded. “It enhances our ability to explore different forces while doing fun experiments with partners to create an amazing learning experience.”

In the Chain Reaction activity, first-grader Gavin Hewish works on building a domino-style chain reaction that climbs a set of stairs and knocks a block off of the top and into a container.
Fifth-grader Kaia Perry works with Mr. Carlson to input her text for the Glowforge laser cutter as part of the Desk Organizer project. Watch a video of this activity, below.
In this video, fifth-graders use different high-tech tools in the Innovation Hub — Tinkercad (a computer-aided design tool ideal for younger students), the Carbide Nomad 3D CNC carver, the Glowforge laser cutter/engraver and the MakerBot 3D printer — to create a Desk Organizer. See the project specifications here.

The Lower School IDE Curriculum: “Hands-on experiences with endless opportunities of exploration”

The Lower School’s Innovation, Design and Engineering curriculum is divided into four areas explored over the course of the school year:

1.              Computing skills beyond day-to-day use: Youngest Ravens begin learning about Cloud computing because they’ll need that in Middle School classes. Digital citizenship, as well as in-depth formatting, are covered as well. “We have seen they need this education earlier than before because of the increase in gaming and online activities,” IDE Department chair Sarah Wike said.

2.              Design thinking: Kindergartners begin with the basics of a design process. By the time the students reach fifth grade, their projects will be much more in-depth and complicated. 

3.              Computational thinking and coding basics: First-graders learn the basics of algorithms. By the time they enter fourth grade, they are using code.org. This focus introduces basic computer science skills to each student in the hopes they’ll continue to explore this field in electives in the Middle and Upper Schools. 

4.              Early robotics: Beginning with the 2022-23 academic year, first-graders begin with Lego WeDo to develop an interest in robotics by exploring how robots are created. Beginning in third grade, students start using Lego Mindstorms, the same robots used by the Middle School competition team.

“The earlier you can start embedding skills into the school day, the easier it is for the student in the long run,” Wike said. “For example, the earlier you introduce a foreign language — whether it’s Spanish or javascript — it sinks in easier.”

“I am thrilled our students have the opportunity to plan, design and create in our new Innovation Hub,” kindergarten teacher Laura Higginson ’10 said. “This space allows students to have hands-on experiences with endless opportunities of exploration. It is the perfect space to spark interest in other engineering and design classes available in Middle and Upper School.”

Above, first-grader Daniela Couture works on the Treehouse Architecture project, in which students consider the challenges of building a structure that is not on the ground.
First page of the PDF file: RavenscroftDesignProcess
Work in all three divisions’ IDE classes is guided by the Ravenscroft Design Process, which encourages student creators to envision, prototype and refine their projects in a cycle of continuous improvement through user feedback.


STEM+ and innovation shine in all three divisions.

Discovering and Designing in IDE Specials (April 12, 2021)

Honors Engineering Reimagines Rube Goldberg Machines (Jan. 22, 2021)

Hands-On Learning Thrives in the Digital Classroom (April 22, 2020)

Celebrating the “E” in STEM+: Lower School Engineering Week (March 11, 2019)

Design Thinking in the Arts: Props for “Beauty and the Beast” (March 20, 2019)

Banned Books Research Project Uses Design Thinking (Jan. 22, 2019)