SmartLab makes for 'SmartKids'

By: 
Jamie Hult, Staff writer

Sam Klein and Grayson Terhark test gears on their custom-built car in SmartLab last week. Jamie Hult/BV Journal

Brandon Valley Middle School eighth-graders tinker with an original ringtone in Garage Band. Jamie Hult/BV Journal

Izzy Stone and Ellen Joseph design a flipbook in Animation-ish. Jamie Hult/BV Journal

Brandon middle-schoolers are building, creating and asking questions in new learning environment
 
Twenty-five years ago, computer class consisted of not much more than typing practice and playing Oregon Trail. 
Today, students are programming robots, making movies, building cars, composing ringtones and a lot more in SmartLab.
While the class is new to Brandon Valley Middle School, this learning environment isn’t new to the school district. SmartLab debuted at the intermediate school in 2015.
One of the first things you notice about this learning environment: Pencil and paper aren’t required. 
“Class is very hands-on,” said Sam Kruse, SmartLab director at BVMS. 
Fifteen computer workstations fill the front of the room. The back half consists of tables and chairs, shelves and equipment: cameras, tripods, a green screen, a photo box, building kits, and lots and lots of Legos. 
Students pick a station, pair off, and spend seven days on one activity before moving on to the next, completing a total of five projects in one quarter. 
The variety of activities is wide, but they all fall under one umbrella: STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math).
Nick Hokenstad, an eighth-grader, is learning to balance a Ping Pong ball with air at the pneumatics station. In a few days, he’ll build a machine to crush aluminum cans. 
“Usually I don’t think of doing this stuff on my own. It gives you ideas and makes you think outside the box, I guess you could say,” he said.
As a sixth-grader he built a suspension bridge and designed a 3D house when SmartLab was new at BVIS. 
“That’s kind of where I learned architecture,” said Hokenstad, who wants to be an architect when he grows up. “Dimensions are way more important than I thought they were. You have to have exact measurements.”
At one station, students design a video game. Another is creating a digital flipbook.
Others are more scientific, like experimenting with solar water pasteurization, or geared more toward engineering: building a bridge, or working with simple machines.
But the most popular SmartLab station so far, Kruse said, is 3-D printing. Many ideas have worked – one student created a divet repair tool used in golf – but it’s a lot of trial and error, he said, getting a two-dimensional image from the screen to the real world. 
“It makes them think,” Kruse said. “‘Yes, there is something I can dream up and possibly I can print it, but I still have to think about how it’s going to work.’”
There’s also the video production station, which not only teaches students to storyboard, shoot and edit video in iMovie, but also allows them to broadcast brief morning announcements to the entire middle school. Adjacent is the audio booth, where students work in Garage Band to make their own ringtones, remix songs and lay down an original track. 
Stop-motion animation is a popular station, too. After illustrating objects in a landscape, students bring in a prop from home, put it in the photo box, and take many, many pictures of their prop in slightly different positions. Put together, those frames trick the eye into seeing the object move. 
Food is a popular prop, Kruse said, and Legos animate surprisingly well, too. 
“From a content standpoint, this is giving them hands-on exposure to STEM. From a creative side, it lets them be creative and exposes that creative side,” Kruse said. “The big thing for me is that they’re learning things and still having the freedom to be creative and still making that practical.”
Because the seventh- and eighth-graders at BVMS are taking their second year of SmartLab, Kruse encourages them to pick projects and stations they haven’t done before.
He asks them to think a little harder, too. 
“Now that they’re in middle school, I want them to think more about the ‘why.’ Now they know they can handle this, so we’re adding the ‘why.’ You’re building a bridge, but why are you building a bridge? It’s to be thinking about materials, swapping them out, how to make that more cost-effective. Why am I doing this, and how can I show Mr. Kruse what I figured out?”
The 3D home design station also gets students to reason out decisions. Students roll a multi-sided cube and spin a wheel to find out the criteria of the home they’ll design, like how many people will live there, the budget for the project and a wild card element they have to work into the budget, such as a three-car garage or a second kitchen. 
“If they want a swimming pool on top of the house – why? ‘Because someone’s paying us to do it’ – it is an answer, and it isn’t,” Kruse said. “If you’re an architect someday, you’re going to have a customer who wants something and it will be out of your control. These are questions to be thinking about.”
SmartLab is also prepping these seventh- and eighth-graders for the more immediate future. Several stations deal with renewable energy, solar power, chain reactions – topics the students will hit again in high school science classes. 
And for students who aren’t familiar with Apple computers, the lab is gearing them up for when they enter Brandon Valley High School and get their own Mac laptops.   
Throughout SmartLab, students work at their own pace, each stopping at different points at the end of seven days – but, as Kruse emphasizes to his classes, they’re never “done.”
And at the end of the 10-week class, there’s a lot for students to take with them. 
Though BVMS just began its second quarter of SmartLab, principal Brad Thorson has already noticed the students’ enthusiasm.
“Kids love it,” he said. “It’s awesome to see kids use their creativity and create different ideas. It’s an awesome addition to our school.”

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