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Tinkering with Creativity

Specialized skills in science, technology, education and mathematics (STEM) are considered crucial to a nation’s economic health. 

At Providence Day, the school embraces an integrated STEM curriculum that provides students with opportunities to create, collaborate and communicate in authentic, open-ended learning situations. 

“We want to present students with opportunities to think critically, to find problems and then solve them in creative and innovative ways,” said Derrick Willard, Assistant Head of School for Academic Affairs.

“We need spaces that cater to such work, places that allow for more active learning,” he said. “Think of graduates who can complete collaborative, interdisciplinary, project-based and research-driven work.”

In recent years, a number of spaces on campus have been added, repurposed or upgraded to accommodate such learning — spaces where the edges between disciplines are blurred to encourage experimentation, curation, storytelling, team work and celebration.

These spaces include the Transitional Kindergarten (TK) Cottage, a classroom intentionally designed for student-driven projects that foster talent and interest development; TK’s outdoor classroom, a cleverly-designed natural environment crafted for experiential learning and design; and the upstairs of the Thompson-Jones Library, which was revitalized as a mixed-use “learning commons” that invites and encourages active use.

More recently, the Makerspace, STEAM Workshop and King Library have been introduced as part of a larger vision to create an academic complex that cultivates behaviors and skills necessary for success in the 21st century and beyond.


Adorned with simple tools such as hammers, pliers and screwdrivers to complex ones such as 3D printers, software and electronics, the Makerspace is a “room dedicated to tinkering, designing, building, prototyping and fabricating,” said Matt Ricket, computer science teacher.

It is a unique space for 6th- to 12th-grade students to create, invent and apply their self-directed learning to real-world problem solving — to design, prototype and then build their own solutions.

“The students’ hands-on nature, coupled with the tools and raw materials that support invention, provide the ultimate workshop for the tinkerer and the perfect educational space for individuals who learn best by doing,” said Ricket.

Students can learn a single skill, such as coding, soldering or woodcarving. They can build using supplies such as cardboard, plastic, metal, gears, wood and batteries. They can create with the assistance of computers, printers and microcontrol kits called Arduinos.

“Interaction among students and faculty fosters a highly-collaborative learning dynamic that is excellent for team efforts and for peer support, advice and assistance,” Ricket said. “It promotes multidisciplinary thinking and learning, enriching the projects built there as well as the value of the space as an educational venue.”

Among the students utilizing the Makerspace is Ricket’s Computer-Assisted Design (CAD) with 3D Printing class, a project-based learning course tasked with discovering solutions to real-world problems.

The fall 2015 class worked to help Reggie Clark ’87, a former professional football player, in the ideation and development of his proposed High Performance Healthcare Center of Charlotte (HPHCC) — a medical center, high-performing training center and family/community center rolled into one. Students rendered a scale model of the HPHCC and style boards showing their design direction, enabling Clark to move his project forward.

The fall of 2016 class worked with Trevor Thomas, a blind professional long-distance hiker, to design a new handle and harness for his guide dog.

“They really took it to the next level and made actual working prototypes that with very little modification will be a final product that I can actually use,” said Thomas. “I couldn’t be more excited with the results.”  

The Makerspace began as an idea for an engineering project space for students, said Ricket, and over the last two years has grown into a workplace for students to supplement traditional learning methodologies and be introduced to alternative methods learning such as “Invent to Learn,” the engineering design process made famous by companies such as international design firm IDEO and NASA.

“We are introducing a new way of thinking and are in the junior year of building a maker culture,” said Ricket.

STEAM Workshop

Various pieces and parts go into the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Math) Workshop to be transformed — built, painted or reassembled — by students into remarkable, handcrafted works of art.

Built over summer 2016, the 430-square-foot addition to the McMahon Fine Arts Center is a “meaningful and much-needed addition to our existing theater,” which “has been and will remain a space to foster creativity and relationships, to build self-esteem and to feed passions,” said Libby Tilson, Performing Arts chair.

The workshop is used primarily for set construction and tool storage under the direction of Jordan Ellis, technical theatre and stagecraft teacher.

“The students and I use the space to fabricate sets for each PDS show. It’s where the majority of our carpentry work happens,” he said.

“It allows our art students a safe place to learn the technical skills required to produce amazing works of performance art,” said Willard. “When you show up to see a play or musical, few people may appreciate the science, engineering, technology and math that has gone into the production to make it a success.”

Before the addition of the workshop, sets were built in the confined backstage area or on the stage itself. 

“We would have to move tools around, find a place to plug them in and work around rehearsals,” recalled Ellis. “Having the shop addition has given the students a place to call their own.”

The crafty students helped with the workshop’s layout and design, built their own worktables and currently assist with everyday maintenance.

In addition to set making, students have utilized the workshop to build corn hole boards for a Middle School tournament at Fall Fest and birdhouses to be donated as an Earth Day initiative.

Ellis noted that educational research proves the importance of incorporating innovative, hands-on experiences for students.

In technical theatre classes, students cumulate skills to demonstrate the creative, critical thinking, collaboration and problem-solving abilities integral in helping theatre come to life, he said.

“In my classes as well as after-school crew calls, students actively participate in the area of scenic construction, scenic design, lighting for the stage, lighting design, sound for the stage, sound design, prop construction, prop design, costume construction and costume design,” said Ellis.

“Throughout the school year, they are exposed to and discover universal connections, especially in the areas of art, mathematics, the humanities and engineering,” he said.

King Library

The Thompson-Jones Library’s King Library room, once an ordinary meeting room primarily utilized by faculty and staff, has been transformed into a significant instructional space boasting advanced technological capabilities.

“This space supports the brainstorming, strategic planning and solution development essential for students and faculty to innovate, as well as creates a unique, one-of-a-kind learning environment,” said Matt Scully, Digital Integration and Innovation director.

Renovations and upgrades made over summer 2016 include the unique combination of a state-of-the-art videoconferencing system, a SMALLab Learning system and a Nureva Span ideation system.

“We don’t know of any other places where the two technologies — SMALLab Learning and Nureva Span — have been paired,” noted Willard.

The changes have created a “space that can be used to enhance student learning by integrating technology to the classroom curriculum,” said Pam Heacock, Lower School innovative technology specialist.

“The space allows students to make observations or practice concepts in interactive ways that helps students grasp or remember the concepts,” she said.

SMALLab Learning is an embodied learning environment that blends the learning sciences and human-computer interaction. Motion-capture technology tracks students’ 3D movements on a platform as they learn in an immersive, interactive space.

“It provides opportunities for collaboration to solve a problem or practice a concept,” said Heacock. “Students who learn better by moving and/or collaborating have the ideal learning environment.”

Almost every grade level has had the opportunity to use the SMALLab Learning in some capacity. Examples include Lower Schoolers working with numbers, Middle School theatre students creating character profiles for a play and Upper School biology students wanting to better study plant, animal and prokaryotic cell structures.

The Nureva Span ideation system transforms the room’s wall into a 20-foot, interactive workspace — a digital canvas that is projected onto the surface yet lives in the cloud. Students can draw, type and add other types of content onto the wall by touching it or via iPad or laptop.

The system has been utilized by Middle School Advanced Art students, who partnered with 3rd-graders to create collaborative drawings inspired by the art of Jacob Lawrence. Upper Schoolers also hosted an election night party to monitor side-by-side in real time the U.S. presidential election results via multiple news outlets as well as websites and social media.

The room’s videoconferencing setup includes two microphone arrays to provide full coverage of the space as well as remote-controlled cameras.

Beginning with a Board of Alumni retreat in August 2016, the King Room was utilized approximately 100 times during the fall semester, with about 90 percent of the events utilizing at least one of the new technologies and more than 40 percent of the events being instructional use for students.

Plans are in the works to add a virtual reality setup, said Scully, that would “allow student groups to explore the world and simulations in an immersive environment.”  

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