Reframe: Episode 66

The Wonder Lab: Where All Children Learn to Love School

We visit special space where all children seem to find their place. The Wonder Lab at Lakota Local Schools is a STEAM-based classroom that sparks curiosity and critical thinking among our youngest learners by using the environment itself to nurture creative exploration.

Created in part with the Cincinnati Museum Center, the Wonder Lab also helps children build important soft skills like communication, collaboration, and a capacity for empathy.

Read the transcript

James Loy: This is Reframe, the podcast from the College of Education, Health and Society on the campus of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

James Loy: If you haven't been in a classroom recently, you may not realize just how much has changed, and some classrooms have changed even more than most. On this episode, we visit a very different kind of classroom called the Wonder Lab, which is designed for young learners at Lakota Local Schools in Cincinnati. The lab uses concepts of STEAM learning, which focuses on science, technology, engineering, the arts, and math. It's all about sparking curiosity by using the environment itself to nurture creative exploration. And on this particular day, the first-graders here were learning all about spiders and how to make their own spider webs.

Lauren Seal: So, the STEAM bins that we have open are four and five and six. There's different things in there that you might be able to make a spider or a spider web with. The workbenches are open today if you want to take a STEAM bin over there. The pegboard, the light table has some things that you might be able to make a glowing spiderweb with, the Lego wall is open to do the challenge at, the drawing station is at our flower table. There is paper there, pencils, pictures of spiders, books about spiders.

James Loy: This was the day before Halloween too. So, lots more about spiders. We also spoke to Lauren Seal. She's the teacher you just heard. Lauren is a Miami graduate and a teacher here at Lakota, where she explained how the Wonder Lab helps young children imagine new possibilities by teaching them how to solve problems and to think critically. It's also about building important soft skills, like creativity and communication and collaboration. And here at Lakota, it's even become a special space where those who seem to struggle the most in school also find their place.

Lauren Seal: So I'm Lauren Seal and I've been in Lakota for 19 years. I taught kindergarten and first grade in the classroom, up until last year. The idea of STEAM for kindergarten first and second came about, and they put out a call for who might want to teach this. And I thought, "This is perfect." I've been doing it in my classroom and love just the excitement that the kids bring to it. So, was hired on, and we are officially called the Wonder Lab, and there's three of us in Lakota that teach at all the early childhood buildings.

James Loy: That's the room we're sitting in right now.

Lauren Seal: Yes.

James Loy: So, can you give us-

Lauren Seal: This is the Wonder Lab.

James Loy: A bit of a description of what this room is and what it's all about.

Lauren Seal: Sure. So, the idea when we were building this room, and we built it from scratch, was for it to, first of all, spark curiosity. So to have things in the room, nature items, things that, I have spool tables that are big electrical spools, things that look like something else and are used for different purposes. We've got pulleys in here, we've got a big magnet wall, lots of hands-on, lots of choice, different kinds of seating, things that can become messy and do hard work on and just a place that they love to come.

James Loy: So, you were brought on to kind of create this lab.

Lauren Seal: Yes.

James Loy: Correct?

Lauren Seal: Yes.

James Loy: How did that start?

Lauren Seal: Most of the elementary school buildings had STEAM labs. And two years ago, we did a little bit of a shift, and our second grade, first, and kindergarten became buildings, and three through six became buildings. So there was a shift in the grades in Lakota. And so, they decided to put these labs in. In this building, it had never existed. So they said, "What do you want to do?" Which was amazing to be able to have that ownership and the choice. And my principal and everybody at central office was really supportive, and "here's some money and go to it," so.

James Loy: So kind of like a blank canvas to paint.

Lauren Seal: We did. It was pretty amazing. And it's still a work in progress but we've come a long way in a year.

James Loy: Now, this is a big shift towards the STEAM-based learning. Can you tell us a bit about what STEAM is? I think there is a lot of emphasis on STEM careers, now STEAM careers. What is so important about that type of learning today in society?

Lauren Seal: Sure. So, STEAM stands for science, technology, engineering, art, and math. It's an integrated approach to teaching kids, and it really helps, in my opinion, them with soft skills like problem-solving and risk-taking and being okay with failure, able to work in teams, and ask questions. And through all the different activities we do in here, they're working on those same things and they take those back to their classroom, they take them to their jobs, to college, to their sports teams, and they're really just life skills that every kid can start to develop even at age five and six years old.

James Loy: Mm-hmm (affirmative). What is different about, do you think, about how you teach in this class and the kind of lessons you build that are different from or maybe potentially different from the way current adults viewed school? Is this a very different learning environment than what some of us are used to?

Lauren Seal: Yes, yes. It's very different. I mean, I don't know about you but when I was in school, the desks were in rows.

James Loy: I remember that.

Lauren Seal: And we studied and we read chapters and we took tests and all of that memorization kind of thing. And it was very teacher-driven. And STEAM and a lot of the educational practices now are student-driven. They're making their choices, they're deciding what to make and build and learn about. It's about the process much more than the product or a test. And I think that's so much more beneficial than probably the way that we learned.

James Loy: Is that a bit of a reversal? Was it used be about the product and now it's about the process?

Lauren Seal: Right.

James Loy: It seems like a switch.

Lauren Seal: Yes, for sure. Yeah, yeah. I'm much more interested in how they built a building than is it the tallest in the group. Or I want to see their creativity. I do want to see them fail, to see how they pick themselves back up again.

James Loy: And I imagine the thinking process that goes along with the, how is it that you failed? At what point along the journey did you fail, and now you know what to fix next time.

Lauren Seal: Right. And I think, at this age, being able to communicate that is a big piece. Just listening to the kids talk and form their ideas and form their questions and kind of nudging them along the way is a big benefit.

James Loy: That's actually exactly what I wanted to ask next. You hear a lot about middle school students learning about STEAM and STEM and you learn about high school students that are doing the same thing, but you're dealing with like, today was a first-grade class, correct?

Lauren Seal: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

James Loy: And what are the age ranges that you do work with?

Lauren Seal: I work with kindergarten, first, and second grade.

James Loy: So, is there a particular benefit for teaching these types of skills to the very youngest learners?

Lauren Seal: Sure. I see it as a natural fit for them. They already want to ask questions, they want to play, they want to tinker, they want to take things apart, they want to build. I think it was all the things that kids love to do, and we're just taking it a step further and incorporating those problem-solving skills and risk-taking and things like that. And I think it's just a really natural fit for this age level. I think too, it's breaking down some stereotypes that "I'm not a good math person" or "I didn't like science." I hate to say this but I didn't like science when I was growing up, and now I'm a science teacher. So, I think it's right at the earliest age, breaking down barriers for those kids.

James Loy: I hear a lot of teachers and teacher educators talk about how the curiosity is sort of killed in kids, at least it used to, maybe back in the way school used to be done. And that's one of the missions they seem to have is to sort of reintroduce that curiosity to older learners. But now it seems like this is a way to nurture it and keep it alive.

Lauren Seal: Yes, I would agree with that.

James Loy: So kind of like hopefully, that continues then at the later grades.

Lauren Seal: Yeah. Yeah.

James Loy: So how does the lab accomplish that goal? I've heard that this is a very special space, unlike any other classroom, and about how the environment itself has been said to be like the third teacher, and that that is a very important part of this learning process. So what do you mean by that? What does the environment itself bring to it?

Lauren Seal: So, we often say the third teacher is the classroom teacher, or me as one teacher and the students are another teacher, and the third teacher is the environment in that it invites them in, to wonder and touch and build and create and get interested. They help each other. So I think the lab just really invokes that curiosity for them.

James Loy: Can you talk a bit about some of the specific lessons? I know today, you learned about spiders and spiderwebs and building spiderwebs. I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about that lesson or some other specific lessons that are kind of what happens on a day-to-day basis here.

Lauren Seal: Sure. So last year, we kind of had a blank canvas and we worked with the Cincinnati Museum Center and brainstormed, how are we going to come up with a curriculum for our STEAM classrooms? And the early childhood level, we came up with three questions for each trimester. The first one is, what are things made of? The second is, how do things work? And then the third is, what problems can we solve? So we took those kind of big overarching questions, talked about our goals, and then we came up with units inside of those. We were talking about nature just recently, and structures in nature. So that was the spiderwebs. We are moving on to our tool unit, which was a big favorite last year. We get actual tools out, let them use screwdrivers and hammers. They get to take things apart, which every kid wants to do.

Lauren Seal: Then we have some other kinds of building sets that they use to create things. And we had things like last year, a parent emailing me and saying, "My daughter wants a toolset for Christmas this year. How do I do that?" And "my son's helping my husband do this siding on the side of the house and he's really excited about it." So, bringing in some other types of things they might not have access to. It's not just Legos and robots but we also do a sewing unit and a textile unit. So, giving them experiences with sewing machines and things like that. We really have the freedom to develop that curriculum last year and it was huge.

James Loy: I think it's really good to point out too, that's interesting because I think everyone, I think, well, not everyone, but STEM and STEAM is becoming a big part of just the zeitgeist and people know what it means more and more. But I think there is that immediate thought of it, "Oh, it's robots and chemistry." But that's interesting to hear about all these different things you're doing that are moving beyond that.

Lauren Seal: Yeah. I think at this age, we say the word tinker a lot and wonder and it's really just experimenting with things. And yes, coding is part of it and we do have robots and things like that, but it's so much more important, like those soft skills we talked about, teaching them how to problem-solve and risk-take, and carrying that over into lots of different things, and getting their hands in, experiencing lots of different things.

James Loy: You mentioned the Cincinnati Museum Center being involved. What does that partnership entail and how do you see that continuing to evolve?

Lauren Seal: Sure. So we met several times last year, I'm not sure quite how many. And we would go down to their kids space and met with their team who works with kids facing with their STEM lab. And we talked about philosophy of learners, different types of learners, how to reach all of those different types. You have the kids, the perfectionist, or you have the kids that can't work with other, the lone wolf kind of kids. So we talked a lot about learner types and what could we do to really reach everybody. And they helped us with our framework and our curriculum. They came out to Lakota a couple of times and we talked, just shared a lot of information. We'll meet again this year to further our curriculum. And things at the museum center are always changing. So they're teaching us and we're teaching them about how to reach kids in their space as well.

James Loy: Mm-hmm (affirmative). And you mentioned some of the different ways that students are being introduced to these concepts and getting interested in things they may have not been interested in. I imagine that's part of how the lab has been successful, but I wonder if you have more success stories of things you've seen in students that are changing from how you first met them in the year, and then seeing how they've grown and thrived because of their interaction here. Do you have a sense of how successful the lab has been?

Lauren Seal: Yeah. Well, so at the end of the year last year, we had them do a reflection. And I stole my favorites and copied them and things like a second grader who says, "I learned how to make stuff that I thought was impossible."

James Loy: Okay.

Lauren Seal: What is her take back? A kindergartener, "I learned how to build my dream." I think they just love it, and they love coming to the Wonder Lab every, they come every six days, and the discipline issues are really low. They love to be here. The teachers are giving us really good feedback on how they behave in the stations and things like in STEM and STEAM activities that they do in the classroom. And so we're seeing a lot of success, a lot of enthusiasm. I have a lot of parent volunteers that want to come in because they just want to come in and play with their kids and see what it's all about. So, a lot of success there.

James Loy: It's only been year two now, but how do you feel like? Will you be able to track to see what kind of progress and attitudes and critical thinking they're able to show in future grades from here?

Lauren Seal: I think so. I think it's this... So this year, I've had the first and second graders I had last year.

James Loy: Okay.

Lauren Seal: So I can already see, they come into the lab confident, they know what to do. They remember the directions. They each have their kind of own expertise in different areas of the room, and they're really good about teaching each other different things. I am excited to push into, now that they've got a base level of a lot of the units that we've done, how can we go to the next step? And I think we have teachers that are 3-6 teachers. They are STEAM teachers. And hearing from them what the kids that we've already had are doing, that will be really helpful feedback for us.

James Loy: Do you think a lab like this would be a feasible model to introduce to other schools? Or what advice would you have for other schools who are hoping to introduce more things like that in their curriculum?

Lauren Seal: Yeah. I think it's absolutely feasible to have this in other elementary schools. I think, obviously, money is always going to be an issue, but if you have support, you can do it like we did it, or you can do it a little bit at a time. I think a lot of teachers in our building are doing a lot of play workshop. That whole play movement is really big right now, because kids learn so much quicker through play than through repetition and teacher direction. So I think at schools that are on that bandwagon, introducing a tinkering station in their classroom. Or maybe not necessarily having a teacher, but having a space where the classroom teacher can come, or having mobile bins of things that teachers can bring in and give them those experiences.

James Loy: Was it a challenge to get the parents to know that this was happening? You mentioned them getting involved and wanting to be here. Did they already know this was happening? Or did their children go home and tell them what's happening? They thought, "Oh, that sounds really interesting." How do parents feel like, "Oh, well this is a really exciting thing I want to be a part of"?

Lauren Seal: Yeah. I think they were very confused at first. What is the Wonder Lab? So, we do electronic journals through an app called Seesaw, and taking pictures and videos and things and the parents can access that at home. It's a safe, secure way for them to see what's going on. And I'll post things for them to see. Then last year, the first time I had parents in, was for the tool unit because when you have six first-graders with hammers, you want somebody else in the room. So, parents would come in and they asked me lots of questions. And at this point, because we're a year in, some of them, like on conference night or if it's just after school, will drop in and say, "Tell me about it." I had a lot of parents email me and say, "It's Christmas time, what do I get my kid? Which of this building material or which of this robot?" Or "How can I do this at home?"

James Loy: Going to the teacher for advice for gifts, that's new.

Lauren Seal: Right? Right, right. Or "what books can support this kind of learning at home?" So, I think parents are slowly kind of figuring it out.

James Loy: Because I wonder if parents that listen to this podcast could say, "I want my school to do that. I should go to the PTA meeting or the conferences and say, 'Can you do something like that, like Lakota's doing? That would be really interesting.'"

Lauren Seal: I think, absolutely. And we've had some schools that have come and visited the labs to start to learn about how they work and maybe do it at their school. I'm always welcoming people into the lab to check it out. So, yeah, I think parents could absolutely do that.

James Loy: So for parents that don't have the luxury of being in a school district or at a school that has this sort of facility for their children, what are some things that they can do to encourage this type of learning or critical thinking at home or with their children?

Lauren Seal: I think first just teaching them how to ask questions. It is definitely with little kids, a barrier to get them to that questioning vocabulary, as opposed to, "I'm going to tell you a story," which they love to do. So, I think that's step one is, you're at the dinner table and "let's look at our lasagna. What do you think's in there?" And just starting to get, "Well, where did that come from?" So questioning them, getting them to ask questions, "What are you wondering about?" Getting some nonfiction books to help provoke that curiosity. And then I think you can buy the Magna-Tiles or the KEVA planks. You could do Popsicle sticks and cups. The kids love to stack cups in different ways. So, I think you don't need a fancy science kit. You can do it pretty reasonably with things around the house. The second-graders just built bird feeders out of recycled materials. As long as you have a lot of tape-

James Loy: Sure, tape.

Lauren Seal: You're good with a milk carton and some scissors. And they're all watching birds come eat out of their bird feeders right now, which is a great experience for them.

James Loy: All right, wonderful. Well, thank you so much for being on our podcast.

Lauren Seal: Absolutely.

James Loy: But that wasn't all, not quite. Because after our interview had concluded, and once the cameras stopped rolling and all the children had gone home, we continued to chat for a few minutes about the lab, about its possibilities and potential. And Lauren had one final thought that she wished she could have expressed earlier. Luckily, our backup recorder was still recording. So, here's Lauren Seal again, speaking about some of the transformations she's seen in some students.

Lauren Seal: One thing I forgot to mention was just how, whether a kid is gifted or is low academically or is having issues at home or is emotional, they come in here and that's all washed clean. Like that it's just not... I mean, I think sometimes it's the spot in a kid's day that things are okay. And that you think about gym class or recess or something like that being that kind of day. But a kid that's getting in trouble all the time, or a kid with special needs and everything is hard. They come in here and it's not hard. I mean, that little boy who, I mean, he struggles a lot. He's the one that was hugging me at the end of the... With communication and things like that, and he comes in here and does great. I think it's the one time of the day that that happens. I think it's good for the other kids to see he can do this. And I think that's really special.

James Loy: We want to thank Lakota Local Schools for allowing us to visit the Wonder Lab and also to Lauren Seal, who is dedicated to building STEAM-based skills in our very youngest students. And this is the Reframe podcast. If you've enjoyed this episode or found it informative in any way, please share with your students, your friends, family, and coworkers. We have many more free episodes available now on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher, Spotify, and more.