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Low Stakes, High Choice: Open Lab Hours Further Support Early STEM Learning

Since its opening in fall 2022, the McCarthey Campus’s TREC Lab—short for ​​Technology, Robotics, Engineering, and Coding Lab—has been an exciting place for students to explore a variety of STEM projects during their specialty classes. This year, the lab expanded its offerings with a new opportunity: Open Lab.

Offered twice a week and available to all McCarthey Campus students, Open Lab allows classes, small groups, and individual students to access the TREC Lab outside designated class time. Students can use the space—and its tools, technology, and materials—to work on projects, as well as exercise choice and voice as they explore the STEM activities and supplies they’re most interested in, including micro:bits, Scratch coding software, 3D printers, LEGOs, and even craft supplies. 

Open Lab can be an adventure of choice. It’s time to use the lab’s tools, figure out a way to put things together, do collaborative work rooted in play, and explore.—Kaelis Sandstrom, TREC teacher

“Open Lab can be an adventure of choice,” said TREC teacher Kaelis Sandstrom. “It’s time to use the lab’s tools, figure out a way to put things together, do collaborative work rooted in play, and explore.” 

Whatever a child chooses during Open Lab, they’re engaging in active and beneficial learning, getting familiar with STEM thinking in all its forms. That’s because giving children chances to tinker freely helps them get familiar with materials, experiment and explore, problem solve, get resourceful, and engage in design thinking, among other benefits. Fifth-grade classmates Jules O. and Zoe Y., for example, have enjoyed Open Lab this year because it gives them the chance to experiment and build with the TREC Lab’s wooden domino sets. Both girls say the tactile nature of this activity is important to them.

“I think the most fun things in TREC involve building,” explained Zoe. “A robot can be coded for you, but dominoes are something physical. It’s a lot more fun when you can see something physical happen. You can understand how it’s working.”

Both Zoe and Jules became interested in dominoes during a TREC specialty class where they learned about the domino effect—the cumulative effect that’s produced when one event initiates a succession of similar events (such as when a line of dominoes falls). While in class each group had to build in a four-by-four square, the girls love that in Open Lab they can take their domino experimentation to new lengths … literally. “We use, like, half of the room,” laughed Jules.

And the classmates appreciate that Open Lab gives them a say in what they want to learn about and lets them work through any problems they may encounter on their own. “There’s more freedom,” said Zoe, “and when you can be creative and do whatever you want to, it’s a lot more interesting. When things don’t work, it’s not for adults to fix. It’s nice to have that time.”

Importantly, these types of experiences are open to any student on the McCarthey Campus. While the TREC specialty starts in second grade, students from 3PreK through first grade can also take part in Open Lab. Liz Ellison, one of the Beginning School’s 3PreK lead teachers, has enjoyed this new resource and said it’s super beneficial for early childhood learning.

3PreK students enjoy Open Lab hours at independent private school Rowland Hall.

3PreK students dance with a robot during Open Lab.


“Young children are so drawn to building, creating, and making, and this is open space for them to explore and start building the foundation of bigger skills,” she said.

They’re creating that story about themselves: we are coders or creators or builders. It’s ownership and positive labeling. If you tell yourself, ‘I am a mathematician or innovator,’ you become that.—Liz Ellison, 3PreK lead teacher

Liz has signed up her class for Open Lab slots multiple times this year and said students always look forward to walking over to the TREC Lab, where they’ve participated in a variety of activities, including mapping and setting up mazes, creating a market out of cardboard boxes, constructing ice castles with colored cups, and building with a type of block that’s not available in their own classroom. These activities are not only an age-appropriate introduction to the kind of knowledge that will support these students’ future STEM learning, but they’re also helping the students understand their capabilities.

“They’re creating that story about themselves: we are coders or creators or builders,” said Liz. “It’s ownership and positive labeling. If you tell yourself, ‘I am a mathematician or innovator,’ you become that.”

And it’s moments like this that show the magic of Open Lab—a time for pressure-free activities that quietly build students’ self-esteem.

“It’s low-stakes, high-choice exploration,” said Kaelis. “It’s a time where students can build confidence in skills they may not be as confident in, or explore without the pressure of a final outcome. They can take risks and it’s not as scary.”

STEM

Low Stakes, High Choice: Open Lab Hours Further Support Early STEM Learning

Since its opening in fall 2022, the McCarthey Campus’s TREC Lab—short for ​​Technology, Robotics, Engineering, and Coding Lab—has been an exciting place for students to explore a variety of STEM projects during their specialty classes. This year, the lab expanded its offerings with a new opportunity: Open Lab.

Offered twice a week and available to all McCarthey Campus students, Open Lab allows classes, small groups, and individual students to access the TREC Lab outside designated class time. Students can use the space—and its tools, technology, and materials—to work on projects, as well as exercise choice and voice as they explore the STEM activities and supplies they’re most interested in, including micro:bits, Scratch coding software, 3D printers, LEGOs, and even craft supplies. 

Open Lab can be an adventure of choice. It’s time to use the lab’s tools, figure out a way to put things together, do collaborative work rooted in play, and explore.—Kaelis Sandstrom, TREC teacher

“Open Lab can be an adventure of choice,” said TREC teacher Kaelis Sandstrom. “It’s time to use the lab’s tools, figure out a way to put things together, do collaborative work rooted in play, and explore.” 

Whatever a child chooses during Open Lab, they’re engaging in active and beneficial learning, getting familiar with STEM thinking in all its forms. That’s because giving children chances to tinker freely helps them get familiar with materials, experiment and explore, problem solve, get resourceful, and engage in design thinking, among other benefits. Fifth-grade classmates Jules O. and Zoe Y., for example, have enjoyed Open Lab this year because it gives them the chance to experiment and build with the TREC Lab’s wooden domino sets. Both girls say the tactile nature of this activity is important to them.

“I think the most fun things in TREC involve building,” explained Zoe. “A robot can be coded for you, but dominoes are something physical. It’s a lot more fun when you can see something physical happen. You can understand how it’s working.”

Both Zoe and Jules became interested in dominoes during a TREC specialty class where they learned about the domino effect—the cumulative effect that’s produced when one event initiates a succession of similar events (such as when a line of dominoes falls). While in class each group had to build in a four-by-four square, the girls love that in Open Lab they can take their domino experimentation to new lengths … literally. “We use, like, half of the room,” laughed Jules.

And the classmates appreciate that Open Lab gives them a say in what they want to learn about and lets them work through any problems they may encounter on their own. “There’s more freedom,” said Zoe, “and when you can be creative and do whatever you want to, it’s a lot more interesting. When things don’t work, it’s not for adults to fix. It’s nice to have that time.”

Importantly, these types of experiences are open to any student on the McCarthey Campus. While the TREC specialty starts in second grade, students from 3PreK through first grade can also take part in Open Lab. Liz Ellison, one of the Beginning School’s 3PreK lead teachers, has enjoyed this new resource and said it’s super beneficial for early childhood learning.

3PreK students enjoy Open Lab hours at independent private school Rowland Hall.

3PreK students dance with a robot during Open Lab.


“Young children are so drawn to building, creating, and making, and this is open space for them to explore and start building the foundation of bigger skills,” she said.

They’re creating that story about themselves: we are coders or creators or builders. It’s ownership and positive labeling. If you tell yourself, ‘I am a mathematician or innovator,’ you become that.—Liz Ellison, 3PreK lead teacher

Liz has signed up her class for Open Lab slots multiple times this year and said students always look forward to walking over to the TREC Lab, where they’ve participated in a variety of activities, including mapping and setting up mazes, creating a market out of cardboard boxes, constructing ice castles with colored cups, and building with a type of block that’s not available in their own classroom. These activities are not only an age-appropriate introduction to the kind of knowledge that will support these students’ future STEM learning, but they’re also helping the students understand their capabilities.

“They’re creating that story about themselves: we are coders or creators or builders,” said Liz. “It’s ownership and positive labeling. If you tell yourself, ‘I am a mathematician or innovator,’ you become that.”

And it’s moments like this that show the magic of Open Lab—a time for pressure-free activities that quietly build students’ self-esteem.

“It’s low-stakes, high-choice exploration,” said Kaelis. “It’s a time where students can build confidence in skills they may not be as confident in, or explore without the pressure of a final outcome. They can take risks and it’s not as scary.”

STEM

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