Prairie's new Wonder Lab offers room for students to learn by doing

Creativity, communication, collaboration: three skills Prairie works to develop in every student.

Using the five senses, it’s fairly simple to hear two or more people strike up a conversation, and just as easy to watch a group of students physically collaborate on a worksheet or project. It’s that third word, creativity, that’s tougher to gauge — and harder still to know how exactly to inspire.

That’s where Prairie’s newest space comes in. The “Wonder Lab” makerspace and robotics workshop provides a spot on campus where students can go to unleash their thoughts and feelings, and use their hands to create.

The Wonder Lab was born out of what used to be the visitor’s locker room in the Fieldhouse, when that space hosted main athletic contests prior to the JAC. With help from a few local businesses owned and operated by alumni, the TPS Facilities team transformed rows of lockers, benches, and shower stalls into a full-fledged “creation station.” 

The room consists of three “areas” that flow together: a more traditional lab-style classroom section, complete with black-top tables and whiteboards adorning the walls; a mini-robotics “arena,” a raised platform bed perfect for testing movable creations; and a workshop full of tools, nuts, bolts, and power equipment. The latter is meant to be dirty and noisy, and is thus sectioned off by glass garage doors that allow for separation of the working & learning spaces.

Right now, Tom Bresnehan spends most of his day teaching in the Wonder Lab. A group of students in Grades 7 and 8 join him every other day to learn about Structural Engineering and Construction, and his Upper School course, Robotics Design & Programming, is currently full, mostly with upperclassmen.

“The cool thing is, there is no ‘typical’ kid who takes these courses,” Bresnehan explains. “While the titles might sound like they’re geared toward kids with an interest in science, there are elements of design and coding in all of them, so it’s really a good opportunity for anyone to be creative and learn differently.”

Junior Kyle Kane is one of those students. The avid theatre student hasn’t taken many engineering classes in the past, but his interest has grown with the time he’s taken to explore the Wonder Lab.

“My knowledge has grown because it’s fun for me to play with!” he laughs.

Kane speaks for many of his fellow students when he says he enjoys the unique space, and the freedom and opportunity it affords him to try new things. During a recent free period, he and a friend figured out a way to engrave designs onto phone cases — simply by exploring and fidgeting with lab tools. 

“I can mess around and figure things out when I’m in there,” Kane says. “It’s me wondering, ‘Can I do this?’ It’s a great space for kids like me who have big imaginations.”

The technology housed within is without question the crowning jewel of the Lab: three 3-D printers, one computer numerical control, or CNC, machine for cutting designs into wood and other materials, and a Glowforge 3-D laser printer. Once trained, students can use all of these tools in numerous ways to create art projects or models for learning science, math, engineering, and robotics concepts.

“Everything has to be advantageous to learning — whatever works best for that teacher and our students,” explains Corey Brandt, Assistant Director of Facilities and part of the team that worked to revamp the space. “It’s fun because it’s different. And we still have a lot we want to do!”

In a perfect world, windows allow visitors a peek into the space from the hallway outside, and picnic tables sit outside the Lab’s entrance, encouraging kids to spend time there — even those who might not consider themselves “creators.”

“We want it to feel like a place kids feel welcome, where they want to come to create,” Brandt says. “There are so many ways to be creative — it’s not just robotics or lasers, although that stuff is amazing. It’s music and drawing and building. It’s anything you want it to be — that’s what’s so cool about it. A true ‘Makerspace’ allows kids the room to do whatever they feel like doing. That’s ultimately what we want that space to be.”

Did You Know: The WonderLab was paid for and will be maintained through the Prairie Fund! Money raised through this initiative bolsters Prairie’s budget, and provides crucial support for academics, arts, athletics, and co-curricular programming. Click here to learn more and make YOUR gift today: prairieschool.com/give/

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