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SmartLab teaches students to think creatively

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By Catherine Pritchard

In the room just off the library at Fayetteville Academy, a small contraption that looked like a Transformers robot made of Legos scanned a mixed-up Rubik’s Cube, then spun its sections until each of the six sides held just one color.

Nearby, a computer program plotted the grip strength of people who had stopped by to squeeze a hand dynamometer – a device about the size of an ice scraper handle.

On the floor, motorized vehicles that looked to be made out of Legos started, stopped and made their way around a curve.

And around one table, a crowd gathered to see how much stress could be handled by a model bridge made from balsa wood and glue.

All of the projects and others were created and operated by students at the school in its new HLT SmartLab, which was dedicated on October 16. School officials said they’re excited about the SmartLab, which they say will encourage students to explore so-called STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and math – as well as media arts through applied technology and project-based learning.

“This is the next generation of learning,” said Chris Harrison, chairman of the academy’s board of trustees.

Headmaster Ray Quesnel said the lab has “great toys, great tools and great technology” that students can use to create projects of their own devising.

The goal isn’t for them to learn set ways of solving problems but to come up with their own solutions. As such, failure is part of the learning process. Quesnel said students will be given goals and tools and they then must figure out what to do next.

In that fashion, said lab facilitator Cath Rathbone, they will learn to think creatively on their own and outside of the box. Those skills will serve them well in all kinds of future situations, she said.

“Things are moving so fast” in society, she said, “we have no idea what jobs these kids will have. So it’s most important to teach them there is no box.”

Early reviews by students at the school are good. “I like this a lot,” said Cameron Billups, a senior. “It’s really fun.”

Aiden Pitts, a junior who was plotting people’s grip strength, said he loves computer engineering and the lab gives him a new perspective on the field’s possibilities.

“It expands how you approach things,” he said.

Carmen Calabrese, whose daughter Cailee helped build and program the robot that solved the Rubik’s Cube, said he is thrilled with the SmartLab. Calabrese is an engineer and he teaches entrepreneurship classes at UNC-Pembroke.

“The beauty of this is the creativity,” he said. “To create a machine to do a Rubik’s Cube is phenomenal.”

“If they have that gift of being able to take creativity and apply it to real-world problems, that’s fantastic,” he said.

Also, because students must figure out their own solutions in the lab, they must learn to take reasonable risks, including risking failure, which itself can be a valuable learning tool.

“You see that failure is an option but then how do you overcome it? It’s a beginning step for growth.”

Rathbone said the lab is aimed at teaching students to solve problems creatively.

“Kids today are so protected from struggle and failure,” she said.

The HLT SmartLab, from Creative Learning Systems of Longmont, Colo., was installed at the academy with funding from an anonymous donor.

“We’re very grateful,” Quesnel said.