Inola High School students are learning by failure this semester in the school’s new smart lab, run by teacher and coach Todd Dixon.
Although the smart lab, where students get hands-on experience in STEAM subjects, is not a completely new idea, it is still a break from centuries of an academic focus on memorization.
“It’s just a different look at how education should be done,” Dixon said. “Instead of pretest, teach, test, it’s more exploratory and learning by failure, learning by doing it over and over and over. It’s very student lead.”
More than 100 students are currently enrolled in one of five class hours. Students work in pairs at one of 12 stations.
The two computers at each station have specific software for the project at that station, and students rotate around the room spending two weeks on each project.
Students devote the first two days at a station to exploring the new software and coming up with a design of the project they want to complete. Then they work diligently towards their goal.
Dixon said that the classroom “is put together in a format where kids can explore, have fun and learn tons of different things, whether it’s programming, circuitry, alternative energies, there are a ton of different things that they can do.”
The class is targeted to juniors and seniors, and appears on their transcript as a science credit.
“You’d think ‘How can you manage 24 students with all these computers’ but they are so focused,” Dixon said. “I’ll look out and there are no phones on.”
Some of the dozen concurrent projects are a group trying to construct a tower that can hold three textbooks with extremely limited supplies, designing the architecture of a house, learning how engineering and medical technologies accurately measure information, building working cranes and cars including learning the physics that makes them work and stop motion photography.
For a group that is designing a usable bridge, Dixon said, “they’ll learn about struts and pressure and excavations.” and even beyond the academic world they’re learning some real, viable, tools that might help them.”
One set of computers has the software to design 3-dimensional objects which then can be printed on the classroom’s 3d printer.
Each class also has a station dedicated to programming robots. One class is programming a miniature of the mars rover the same examination capabilities. Another class is programming an elephant to be able to walk to, identify and pick up a toy with its trunk.
“There are so many different directions that kids can go in here,” Dixon said. “There are some stations that are harder than others, but I’m shocked at how much the kids want to be in here.”
Dixon said that he has had students skip lunch and try to get out of their other classes in order to spend time on their projects. He said the projects have also sparked an overflow of creativity.
“Even in our first rotation, I’ve seen so much better design than I could have come up,” Dixon said. “They can play around with what they think might work, and if it fails they fix it. I think that’s a tool a kid could use anywhere after high school.”
This skills go far beyond college halls and industrial parks, Dixon said.
“Each person has to work with a partner for 16 weeks, so it teaches collaboration; it teaches discovery; it teaches that you can fail over and over and still work toward what you’re working,” he said. “That can be good in college, it can be good in the tech field, it can be good in the military. There’s a ton of different things that I think are being taught here. Chase your imagination to where it might go.”
Dixon has big plans for the future of the program, starting with implementing the tools and projects they just haven’t gotten to yet.
“There is three years of material here,” he said. “They could take this class for three years and not get everything.”
“We’re really trying to feel out the process of what it could turn into,” Dixon said.
One of his goals is to put students to work using their tools to solve a real life problem.
“I think it could be really, really good for the community and for the kids as they go beyond high school to what’s possible out there,” he said.
As an example he highlighted a group of sixth and seventh graders at another smart lab school that developed a water feeder for honey bees.
The Inola lab was funded by a grant from the Mid America Industrial Park in Pryor, which has, over the last several years, has given grants to multiple area schools to prepare students for STEAM careers.
Dixon said that this lab is valuable to students for two reasons.
“This invites almost every different learning style. For those kids that like to tinker and ask the question ‘how does that work?’, this really strikes up someone's imagination and creativity,” Dixon said.
Somebody invented a car at one time, before anyone else had even dreamed the notion, Dixon said.
Programs like this one allow kids to think about what’s possible and then experience the trial and error process to get to the point where they figure something out.
“It’s not just, ‘Did you learn the four stages of mitosis?’ It’s more about ‘Where can you take your imagine through science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics?’,” he said. “It stops limiting kids to things that we know already, and it takes those things that we know and says what can we learn now?”
“I think the second most important thing is that this is where society is going,” Dixon said.
Nearly every field increasingly requires employees to be familiar with technology and how to use it.
“I think this lab allows kids to play around in that a little bit before they get out of high school, which gives them a huge head start over kids that don’t have it,” Dixon said.
“Those two things, striking the imaginations and allowing kids to roam with ideas and then preparing them for what they are probably going to see out there in the world. That’s why this lab is important.”