In the newly opened Innovation Lab at Benchmark School, students garner knowledge and build essential life skills through meaningful, hands-on experience.
“It started with two questions,” says Emma Mattesky, director of innovation at Benchmark School in Media: How might we create opportunities for students to develop the skills and mindsets needed to understand how the world works? How might we prepare students to contribute to society in a meaningful, empathic way? From this initial inquiry and additional ideas from the Benchmark community, the Innovation Lab began to take shape.
“Since Benchmark School was founded, we have been committed to helping bright students who have yet to reach their academic potential become confident and strategic thinkers, learners, and problem solvers who meet with success in school and life,” says Head of School Robb Gaskins. “Our Innovation Lab provides new ways of achieving that same goal through the presentation of a dynamic, hands-on, and interdisciplinary environment filled with a rich assortment of tools and dedicated to exploration, design, and creativity.”
Although the physical structure is new, Benchmark School has been employing innovative, research-based teaching and learning strategies since the school’s inception in 1970. Mattesky sees the Innovation Lab as “a new layer” to the school’s educational principles.
“This new layer involves the design thinking method of problem solving and reigniting the age-old constructivist philosophy of learning,” she explains, describing constructivism as “the belief that learning is inherently diverse.” Put another way, this philosophy upholds the notion that people learn in different ways, including garnering knowledge through experience.
“In an innovation lab, students engage with creative, open-ended problems or challenges,” she explains. “This structure gives students permission to choose their own unique approach to learning, gravitating toward their interests and strengths while collaborating with their peers. An innovation lab then becomes a learning environment that is grounded in making, action, and creation.”
Having a new space for creating projects has stirred excitement among students and faculty alike. Teri Watkins, a lower school science teacher, appreciates “having a place to explore design thinking.” Philip Ruth, a math specialist, expects the space will allow him to “provide alternate project-based assessments for the middle school and ways to provide the reinforcement of concepts for the lower school.” He’s also excited at the thought of using the lab to work with students on various problem-solving activities.
“The completion of the Innovation Lab was truly a team effort,” says Gaskins. “The project would not be the success that it is without the tireless efforts of a great many dedicated and talented people. Throughout the process, I have been blessed to work with an exceptional group of school leaders, trustees, teachers, staff members, parents, alums, and students, all of whom made significant contributions to this project.”
Perhaps most importantly, students are thrilled to have access to a new space dedicated to creativity in learning. Student feedback, written on the walls of the middle and lower school space, has included: “I liked how we could choose what we wanted to build”; “I like that I was in charge of my learning”; and “I liked that there was no ‘right way’ to do it.”
By combining a new lab dedicated to exploration, design, and creativity with the school’s transformative program for developing confidence, strategic knowledge, and self-regulation, Benchmark continues to lead the way in innovative education. While students get to explore, design, and create with sophisticated software, Gaskins says they also acquire essential tools and strategies such as confidence, empathy, and persistence, as well as critical thinking, collaboration, and resilience.
“These are tools that not only facilitate innovation, but they can be applied in any context,” he adds.
“The instruction that occurs in the Benchmark School Innovation Lab is designed to prepare our students to be creative and innovative thinkers in any domain.”
2107 N. Providence Road
Photography by Nina Lea Photography
Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Life Magazine, October 2018.
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