Innovation Generation
At Germantown Academy, a Tinker Lab and other makerspaces enable younger students to develop the skills needed to thrive in a rapidly changing world.
by Leigh Stuart

Jessica Killo has always been a fan of hands-on learning—a trait that she and her school, Germantown Academy, have in common.
“Germantown Academy has always embraced active and experiential learning,” says Killo, lower school art coordinator and pre-K-through-12 STEAM coordinator for Germantown Academy, which is based in Fort Washington. “The teachers and resources here are constantly striving to give students a diverse learning experience.”
This drive to embrace innovative instructional techniques inspired the creation of The Beard Center for Innovation, an all-school makerspace founded in September 2015. While students took to the space with gusto, it became apparent that younger students needed a special space “tailored to little bodies and early learning,” as Killo says. Thus, the school started planning for the Tinker Lab, a hands-on STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics) haven for students in grades pre-K through fifth grade. 
Through generous philanthropic support, Germantown Academy opened the space in September 2018, and it has been an exciting place for students to build their ideas. 
“The students absolutely love it,” Killo says. “When kids walk in, they are immediately excited to learn. Something I find myself repeating is that if we want children to be lifelong learners, we have to make learning more like life. In the Tinker Lab, we apply theories and concepts in memorable ways. The Tinker Lab houses cutting-edge learning.”
The Tinker Lab is just one of three makerspaces in the lower school, which also includes an outdoor maker shed and a “nature nook.” In each of these makerspaces, the school emphasizes the “four C’s”: creativity, communication, critical thinking, and collaboration. 
“Interdisciplinary learning is really life learning,” Killo says. “It’s how we learn naturally. Subjects are not silos in life. When you think about something, you think about the entire world, including how something applies to everyday life. When students learn through cooking, they are learning fractions and measurements. It’s like learning through play. Students have room to be curious in this space.”
The Tinker Lab, which includes equipment for 3D printing, laser engraving, LEGO robotics, and even cooking, was designed to foster “design thinking,” a methodology that encourages authentic, solutions-based problem solving through empathy. Killo credits Lauren Vanin, the school’s design thinking coordinator, with much of the success of this initiative.
“Students work with a sense of purpose,” Killo says. “When students have a self-driven goal, they gain confidence as problem solvers. One huge goal is to embrace the idea that failing is not just an option but a valuable lesson. Perseverance, adaptability, and confidence build in students naturally when they’re working in the Tinker Lab.” 
Killo suggests it is common to see a pre-K student hammering nails into wood in the Tinker Lab. First graders work on digital designs using 3D printers. Third graders learn how to code. Fifth-grade students apply their collective experience and mentor kindergarten students as “STEAM buddies.”
At present, Frank Ciprero has two children at Germantown Academy—Frankie, 10, and Alexandra, 7—who are going into fifth grade and second grade, respectively. He says he and his family have been impressed by the Tinker Lab. 
“The space is just amazing,” he adds. “The times we walked in there, we were able to see the kids in action, and the space really gives them good opportunities to engage in hands-on learning. It’s unbelievable to me. Children can invent, build—literally see their ideas come to life with the 3D printer, electronics, laser engravers, drills, even power tools on the walls. 
“I think it’s so nice that children can develop their own questions and hypotheses and do experiments, with teachers there for safety and coordination,” he continues. “Students can take risks, see what works and what doesn’t, and what’s nice is if an experiment fails, they can work through it with help and guidance if needed. They learn to overcome, improvise, and persevere. That’s so important for the 21st century economy but also now.”
To his point, Killo suggests the Tinker Lab was built around the truism that the only constant in life is change.
“I’m excited when I think of the future of this space,” she adds. “VR goggles, augmented reality—I’m really excited about what our teachers are going to come up with, and what our students will create. You have to keep growing or become obsolete, so we will be constantly reevaluating the space.” 
Germantown Academy
340 Morris Road
Fort Washington, Pa.
(215) 646-3300
Photograph by Jody Robinson
Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Life magazine, September 2019.