Breaking New Ground
In an extraordinary step forward for creativity and collaboration, the newly opened Light Lab at Friends’ Central School helps students bring their ideas to life
by Phil Gianficaro

The building previously stood as little more than a storage facility for machinery, such as snow blowers. Now a beautifully designed “center for innovation and creation,” the building has become a repository for an avalanche of student creativity.

The Ulmer Family Light Lab, which opened in October at Friends’ Central School, represents an unprecedented step forward among educational institutions in the Greater Philadelphia Area and beyond. To be precise, the Light Lab enables students in nursery school through fifth grade at Friends’ Central’s lower school campus in Wynnewood to bring their ideas to life by way of new opportunities in “Maker” education.

Designed by Barba+Wheelock and constructed by E. Allen Reeves, the $2 million Light Lab was realized, in part, by a $1 million gift from Friends’ Central alumnus Rich Ulmer, Class of 1960. Ulmer is president and CEO of InVitro International, a Placentia, Calif.-based firm that uses plant proteins in lieu of animals to test cosmetics.

The Light Lab houses four distinct Makerspace Studios: Natural Sciences; Fabrication; Media and Computing; and Design. Makerspaces are flexible, do-it-yourself spaces that give students opportunities to create, invent and learn with tools such as 3-D printers, laser and vinyl cutters, sewing machines, woodworking tools, art supplies, software for animation, filmmaking, recording music and more.  

“The Light Lab allows us to build on the integrated curriculum here at Friends’ Central,” says Kelly Bird Pierre, lower school principal and a member of the Light Lab Advisory Board. “With this facility, we’ll be expanding the tools students use, and it will provide shared spaces for students and teachers.”

One example of the power of the Light Lab: Instead of special subject and classroom teachers operating separately, they can now book a space and work all together. The collaborative process enables students to make more choices about how they want to demonstrate their learning, with expanded expertise and support from a wider range of teachers. The end goal is to prepare students to design their own meaningful projects and to confidently explore through trial and error while focusing on the importance of what is learned through the process.

“Our students are growing up in an incredibly connected world,” Pierre says. “We want to not only help them learn about a topic through the lenses of different disciplines but also link for them the work of artists, musicians, scientists and mathematicians.”

The Light Lab’s Natural Sciences Studio is a significant and necessary addition to Friends’ Central’s Makerspaces, acknowledging the importance of an already thriving farm-to-table program in the lower school. Students spend several hours outside each week tending a large community garden that provides a portion of food used to feed students, faculty and staff for lunch. With the new Solarium and full kitchen in the Natural Sciences Studio, students will participate in year-round gardening and experiment with hydroponics and vertical farming solutions. Teachers and students alike are looking forward to preparing and enjoying school-grown food together.

The Fabrication and Design Studios are both fully equipped with high and low tech materials for making just about anything. Students can research, design and bring to life their inventions using a wide variety of tools ranging from computer-aided design software and professional vinyl cutters to saws, hammers, nails and plywood. Through the process of Design Thinking, students are challenged to connect their Maker skills to real-world problems facing the school, community and world.

The Media and Computing Studio boasts a full green screen, robotics equipment and a soundproof recording room for students to explore the world of filmmaking, animation, programming and music editing.  

This new, exciting facility brings together Friends’ Central’s creative faculty with cutting-edge design, increased space and a plethora of resources. All these tools combine to offer young learners the very best opportunities to innovate and create.

Brie Daley, director of the Light Lab, is excited about the new facility, as it allows for easier collaboration, from whole grades to multiple disciplines.

“Young children have so many powerful ideas that they are bursting to share with others,” she says. “Friends’ Central teachers have always been tuned in to the fact that children learn more when they are active participants, making and doing. These four new flexible spaces will allow us to expand the opportunities for our little ones even further and to continue striving towards our mission and vision.”

Some may wonder: What can 3-year-old preschoolers accomplish in the Light Lab? Plenty, as Daley suggests.

“Cultivating a growth mindset starts when children are small,” she says. “Teachers are open to listening to their ideas and providing what they need to make them real. Even 3-year-olds can identify problems around them and brainstorm successful solutions. While a nursery student’s creation might not seem as sophisticated as a fifth grader’s, it holds no less value to that child. Using your hands and building something beautiful and useful is an experience that leaves lasting positive results at any age.”

The Light Lab will not just make room for more collaboration between teachers but also provide opportunities for deeper connections among grade levels.  

“We are thinking very critically about how to connect our littlest makers to older maker mentors at both campuses,” Daley adds. “Maker education is all about collaboration, so it’s essential that we allow kids of all ages to work together on projects.”

Michael Darfler is the director of the Makerspace program at Friends’ Central’s middle and upper school. He believes giving the lower school access to the Light Lab is a tremendous benefit to students and teachers.

“It really will provide an opportunity for creativity in and out of the classroom and give students access to tools and expertise,” Darfler says. “By focusing these resources on the lower school, you’ll see our youngest students coming up and feeling very comfortable with these tools. They’ll be driving a new conversation around how we learn and engage with information and knowledge.

“We will continue to see this investment for years and years to come.”

Daley compliments the administration for spearheading the Light Lab for Lower School students: “For the administration to have its finger on the pulse of what’s relevant in education, and to recognize this can enhance what teachers are doing in the classroom now, is terrific. The opportunity to do this on the lower school campus is exciting and unique.”

She continues, “It’s amazing to me, being a teacher of young children, that so many years of thought and planning went into not just one Makerspace but an entire facility completely outfitted for young children. Often you see schools recognizing the importance of Maker education for middle and upper school while forgetting that little children are truly the ultimate makers. Younger students don’t feel inhibited; they are far more willing to take risks. They generate more ideas and think divergently. A Makerspace is a place where they come to bring those ideas to life.”

Friends’ Central School

Lower School Campus (Nursery-Grade 5)
228 Old Gulph Road
Wynnewood, PA 19096

City Ave. Campus (Grades 6-12)
1101 City Ave.
Wynnewood, PA 19096

Photograph by Jody Robinson