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Building STEM Confidence in the Idea Lab

If your 5th grader mentioned the foosball table they’re building at school: that’s not fiction, that’s a reality they’ve dreamed up in the Idea Lab. A newly imagined space in the Lower School, the Idea Lab is co-run by STEM coordinator Jonathon Braidman and Debra Harper, the science resource teacher.

The lab sits across from the Big Toy in a classroom Lower Schoolers know and love. Until this year, it was Debra Harper’s science lab, where students conducted experiments and stopped by during recess to care for animals––lizards, guinea pigs, a snake, and Merl the bird (a very personable and loud cockatiel!). During the pandemic, the animals moved off campus to permanent homes, as students could no longer take turns caring for the animals on weekends and vacations. With more open space, the two teachers saw an opportunity to re-imagine the lab and dedicate it to curiosity and collaboration. 

“In years past, students had to choose between playing outside or coming into the lab during recess,” says Debra Harper. That meant only some LS students had the experience of exploring or building in the space. Now the Idea Lab is built into the Lower School schedule. All students spend thirty minutes each week exploring STEM concepts, a boon to more reluctant scientists.  

“They seem to jump right in now,” says Jonathan in regards to post-distance learning. “I see less conflict between kids in the classroom. They’re more willing to help each other.” 

When students arrive at the Idea Lab, they can choose a station that piques their curiosity, such as the “bee bots” table, where they’ll program small, robotic bees to pollinate paper flowers or the woodworking lab, where they’ll learn how to handle a power drill. Students may also work with gears, magnets, LEGOs, glue guns, and more. Nearby in the Lower School art studio, teacher Marissa Kunz uses a similar choice-based model, which encourages students to allow curiosity and possibility to guide their ideas. 

“Our students have a lot of structured time in their days,” says Jonathan, “so it’s important that we offer unstructured time for exploration. Play comes so naturally to this age group.” While students are in the Idea Lab, they’re so engaged they might not even realize how much STEM they’re learning. 

“If you watch what they’re doing in the open lab, how they’re playing, they’re using scientific inquiry while socializing with their peers,” says Jonathan. “I overhear them ask each other: ‘How do you get this to do that?’ or ‘What happens if we try…?’ Curiosity is their guide.” 

The older students, 4th and 5th graders, are working on long-term projects, dreaming up plans and finding materials on the maker wall. The 5th grade foosball group is working on sourcing wood for their table. “I’m encouraging them to visualize ahead of time and figure out what they’ll need. That’s executive functioning, planning and execution.” Jonathan has also noticed more than half of the 5th graders have chosen woodworking this fall. “They’re moving away from the laptop. They’ve gotten a lot of screen time this year and they’re self-balancing.” 

Above all, the Idea Lab encourages students to use their imagination, make observations, and share knowledge in a group––and that collaborative environment begins with the teachers themselves. “Jonathan and I meet with each grade-level teacher every-other week to find ways to dovetail the the Idea Lab lessons so they complement or extend what happens in the classroom in science, math, and technology. For example, kinders are studying plants and how seeds travel,” says Debra Harper. “They’re learning about seeds during science class, and then they’ll come into the Idea Lab and run seed experiments with Jonathan’s wind tunnel.” 

“We’ll make paper models of seeds to see how different shapes can catch the wind and travel,” says Jonathan. “They’ll drop their shapes into the wind tunnel and see what shape floats most slowly through the air.” It’s an exciting project that embodies just how much is possible in this new maker space. 

“We’re also working with Willie Lucq, the garden teacher,” says Debra. “This one lesson carries from science to STEM time and outside to the garden.” The collaborative learning model offers students multiple opportunities to understand a concept, and, importantly, hands-on tools like the wind tunnel keep our students excited to learn. While we wait for our new, dedicated K-12 STEM center on the South Campus, the Idea Lab is the perfect space for Lower Schoolers to tinker and explore. 

“If you spark their curiosity,” says Jonathan Braidman, “then you’re doing a really good job as a teacher.”




During the pandemic, students have been especially eager to learn woodworking.
Here, Kindergarteners practice using clamps to keep their wood in place for hammering. 


The maker wall allows students to look through building materials and dream up new projects.
“What could this be?” is a common question heard around the lab.