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iLab sparks curiosity, excitement for learning in middle school students

Public invited to see learning at Mountain Ridge Middle’s School’s 2nd Annual iLab Symposium
HIGHLANDS RANCH – This week during the second-annual iLab Innovation Capstone Symposium seventh-grade students at Mountain Ridge Middle School will once again be empowered to employ the knowledge and skills they’ve learned in the classroom to effect change in their community and around the world.
The Symposium is the culminating project for the seventh-grade students in Mountain Ridge’s iLab, an innovative Design Thinking environment that provides them with a chance to take what they’ve learned in all of their classes to create solutions to problems related to social, technological, scientific, entrepreneurial, and environmental issues.

iLab Innovation Capstone Symposium
Mountain Ridge Middle School
Friday, April 17
6-8:30 p.m.
“iLab really gives kids an opportunity to become more confident problem solvers. [Through Design Thinking] we are teaching them that thinking is a system. If they don’t know what to do, they can rely on a system of thinking to solve a problem,” explained Mountain Ridge Middle School Seventh-Grade Teacher Deb Fox-Gliessman. “We are giving them opportunities to choose those issues and topics that are important to them, that they are really passionate about, and then connecting them with their community and the world around them.”
Instead of giving the students a final exam at the end of the school year, the kids in iLab are encouraged to connect their learning to the real world through the iLab Innovation Capstone Project.
The project is designed to give students the ultimate in what Fox-Gliessman calls “choice and voice” in their learning. iLab students are given the freedom to choose whatever topic they wish and then work to solve a related problem at either the local or global level, rather than a traditional written final exam.
“It gave [the students] total ownership and autonomy over the project. To give them a project that says, ‘the world is yours, fix it. What do you want to do?’ I thought was kind of neat,” said Mountain Ridge parent Aaron Fisch.
Then, at the Symposium, students present their ideas to about 2,000 adults, including parents and community members.
Fox-Gliessman says the event is a combination of a Google Science Fair and a Ted talk "exhibition lounge,” since students can choose a variety of ways including hands on demonstrations or speeches to engage participants about their topic.
“Through the Symposium, students hope to create a ‘ripple effect’ by engaging and enraging their audience about a topic they are passionate or curious about and then providing an opportunity for sustainable action and inquiry,” said Fox-Gliessman. 
Last year, there were a wide-variety of projects including presentations about the benefits and challenges in creating a perpetual motion machine, the dangers of steroids to student-athletes and the establishment of a new teen driver program at neighboring Mountain Vista High School.

WATCH: iLab students participate in the Capstone Symposium.

Students are encouraged to push past concepts to take action. In many cases this meant that the often-timid seventh-grade students had to overcome their fears and contact adults.
“They actually reached out to professionals through email and phone calls,” Fisch said. “They even got a taste of the real world. Sometimes people didn’t even call them back. That happens in life.”
Additionally, students do not dread these projects, the way they do traditional homework. Fox-Gliessman says they are excited about the assignment and willing to invest a lot of additional time and effort on their own, because the project authentically connects their learning with real life applications that they care about.
“These kids did not just do this for a grade, they did it because they care about it. They are passionate about it,” Fox-Gliessman said. “This experience will follow them for the rest of their school career and maybe in their lives.”
And for Ellie Foust's students, the passion for the process has continued beyond the classroom.  Last August, students created and held an event to help epileptic sufferers called "Slap Shot Seizures Away."  The event was so successful that the students are continuing with the same event this year, which shows that the learning extends beyond the walls of the classroom.    

iLab created to reinvigorate students’ passion, curiosity

This passion is exactly what the founders of the iLab were hoping for, when they started developing the course a few years ago.

They were prompted to start the course after noticing an unsettling trend. Their middle school students were often apathetic about learning and in some cases would tell them that they hated coming to school.

"As a teacher, that hurts,” said seventh-grade Mountain Ridge teacher Ellie Foust. “You want them to enjoy being here. You want them to feel passionate about something. You want them to accomplish something. That is what we are hoping for them to do.”

Foust, Fox-Gliessman and their seventh-grade teammate Russell Loucks took action, setting out to create a learning environment that would bring curiosity and excitement back to their student’s learning.

To make this happen, the teachers say they had to change the way they teach, pioneering new and sometimes difficult territory, as they implemented Design Thinking and moved from a teacher-centered to a student-centered learning environment.

“The thought of kids sitting in rows of desks and they’re on page 13 on September 29, that is just antiquated. It is not going to work anymore, for our kids,” Russell Loucks explained.

Instead of lecturing to students, Loucks and his colleagues now work to guide student learning, engaging students so they hit required standards and utilize 21st Century Skills, including the 4Cs – communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking. The team encourages students to step out of their comfort zones and take the lead in their learning on a daily basis.

“This process is messy. That is the part that is uncomfortable,” explained Loucks. “We really have to let the kids go through this process and we as teachers have to go through this process, as we give them choice and let them take charge of their learning. That has been a difficult process, but we’ve learned a lot.”

April 14, 2015 | By rmbarber | Category: District, Middle School Education

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