The Hewitt Innovation Lab is designed to be a space for students and teachers to explore meaningful ways of making — to make with a purpose. Research shows that many girls and women want to learn how to use technology skills to accomplish meaningful goals, such as pursuing artistic expression, solving a problem, or thinking differently about academic concepts. At Hewitt, we have found that while learning to use laser cutters and soldering irons is interesting in and of itself to many of our students, using those tools to create something with personal meaning makes the struggle of debugging circuitry or designing complex vector graphics worth the effort for all of them. An additional pedagogical benefit is that learners often have insights about concepts that may not occur to them in more traditional learning contexts.
Some of the Innovation Lab’s most robust and meaningful projects have been the result of collaborations between teachers to brainstorm and facilitate curriculum-related activities that cross traditional disciplines. Two recent and memorable collaborations occurred when English teachers Jonathan Sabol and Miriam Walden sought out opportunities for their upper school students to engage with novels through hands-on design and making experiences.
In Literary Monsters, an upper school English elective course, juniors and seniors consider not only what monsters represent in our culture, but also why human beings create them in the first place. As students read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, they brought the novel’s themes into the Innovation Lab to design their own plush monsters out of patchwork pieces of fabric they brought from home. Using a Cricut die-cutting machine and a sewing machine, students created patched-up Frankenstein characters full of charm and pathos. “We wanted the students to have a real lived sense of what Frankenstein’s experience would have been like,” noted Dr. Sabol, one of the course’s teachers. “The Innovation Lab allowed them to engage in the same activities that Frankenstein was participating in by taking discarded pieces and putting them back together in a way that was profound.”
Students also designed boxes to “contain” their monsters by building vector graphic box plans in Adobe Illustrator and cutting or etching thematic terms and quotes from Shelley’s story into their boxes. Dr. Sabol explains, “It was important to embed traditional elements of literary analysis — in this case identifying a key quotation from the text that helps the reader understand the monster or the social factors that made it difficult for him to find companionship — into the design elements of the project.” As they moved around the lab thinking about aesthetic details or learning how to use a new tool, students were also analyzing the language and meaning of the text itself. The end result was a representation of monstrosity — the monster — and a system of containment of that monstrosity — the box. After completing their monster boxes and their reading and analysis of Frankenstein, students reflected on the experience of bringing their English text into the Innovation Lab through artist statements that explained their design choices in a critical framework.
Another meaningful collaboration took place when students from Reading and Writing the Short Story, an upper school literature course and creative writing workshop, brought Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine into the Innovation Lab. As they read Erdrich’s novel, which is composed of interconnecting stories of family and community on an Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota, their teacher, Ms. Walden, imagined inviting them to design a quilt that represented the quilt-like narrative of many stories and people coming together in the book. To bring this project to life, students chose or drew an image that represented a theme in the novel and vectorized their graphic to prepare it for the laser cutter. Their images were then laser etched on four-inch squares of mirrored acrylic, resulting in a frosted, translucent effect on the etched graphic and mirror reflections in the image’s negative space. A student who participated in the project recalled how her initial surprise at bringing an English assignment into the Innovation Lab gave way to excitement about studying Erdich’s text through a new medium. “It was fun to do creative work around a book that was different than the writing projects we were used to, and it was a great bonding experience for the class to learn how to use the Lab’s tools to make the quilt.”
The class also created lighted circuits to illuminate their images from behind, choosing beautiful greens, blues, and whites, with a sprinkling of other colors, to represent the northern lights, a symbolic image from the book. To create these circuits, students learned to use conductive copper tape and soldering skills to connect several LEDs in parallel with a battery and switch. All of the electric mirror tiles were nestled into place in a frame to make the final quilt, and each student contributed to an accompanying booklet offering an analysis of the symbol she chose and explaining her artistic process. “The way we put the quilt together helped me see new connections between the novel’s different themes and symbols,” shared another student. “It was helpful to me to move from discussion-based work to hands-on work, and focusing on the quilt project alongside various creative writing assignments helped me understand the plot of the novel more deeply.”
In order to give students opportunities to make with a purpose, my colleagues in the English department and I identified projects that would invite them to pursue individual artistic expression while learning key concepts in English, technology, and design. By weaving these seemingly disparate subjects together in a way that felt meaningful, the monster box and digital quilt projects encouraged students to notice interdisciplinary connections and relationships they might not have seen before. As one student shared, “I associated the Innovation Lab with science and math, so I didn’t know what to expect from holding English classes there, but it ended up being really interesting to do a project inspired by a novel that resulted in a physical object rather than a paper.” Using physical materials and design principles to articulate their ideas about literature helped Hewitt students recognize how science and math concepts such as calculating box measurements or mapping out the pathways for positive and negative charges in their own LED circuit allowed them to express their understanding of literature in new and creative ways.
Interested in Learning More?
To learn more about some of the research that influenced the teaching and learning described in this article, the author recommends the following resources:
- Caring About Connections: Gender and Computing by Jane Margolis, Allan Fisher, and Faye Miller, Carnegie Mellon University School of Computer Science
- Maker Education Fires Up a Passion for Learning via Edutopia