Imagine a classroom where there are no desks, and where students are encouraged to write directly on the table in front of them.
Imagine a classroom where students are given the latest technology to build trebuchets and catapults, implements of medieval warfare, to better connect and understand life in the Middle Ages.
Imagine a classroom where students are taught to use a green screen to place them in the middle of the Solar System so they can touch the stars.
Now, imagine a classroom where students are utilizing that same technology to engage in real issues of world health, and exploring ideas to make an impact on the lives of people around the world.
Can you picture this inventive place of integrated learning? Founders Louis and Tara Rossi dared to, and with the support of their Superintendent, John Nittolo, the Innovation Lab became a reality. Located at Green Hills School in the Green Township of New Jersey, the lab opened in October 2014. With grants from Thorlabs, the US Department of Naval Research, the school's Parent-Teacher Association and the community, the Innovation Lab enables teachers throughout the school to integrate concepts from science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) into daily lessons and classes.
Louis Rossi the lab’s ThinkSTEM coach describes the educational model as integrative STEM education that looks for the natural intersection of STEM subjects within the broader curricula of the school. The lab provides a space to be creative around these intersections, broadening the students experience with specific disciplines, and allowing for them to interact, solve problems and engage more actively.
The lab is open to all students at Green Hills School, grades K-8. This program provides an interesting opportunity for projects to be open to all grade levels, encouraging interaction and mentorship. The Rossis and other teachers use the Innovation Lab to enliven a subject or more deliberately integrate STEM in a project. Projects like the building of catapults during a medieval history lesson help to reinforce information and make education fun and exciting.
The lab has two 3-D printers, a green screen and even a de-makerspace, where students can take things apart to see how they work. While many of the projects are grounded in the core education, the types of projects being addressed by the Innovation Lab are diverse. For example, The Rossis and the students are currently working with a veterinarian to develop animal prosthetics for pets with leg injuries.
Tara Rossi, the school’s literacy coach, said the lab is a place where “anything is possible.”
"I think that what the lab is doing is taking critical thinking skills and allowing students to learn those skills and utilize them and apply them and synthesize them in a way that's completely innovative," she said. "I think a lot of people feel that that's impossible with standards, but it's actually the total opposite. You just have to find the right arena and those skills become not only real world and relevant, but almost concrete and free of boundaries. It's a different way of teaching. Not often do teachers and students have the opportunity to take a journey not knowing where they'll end up."
The Rossis and the students are using this exciting educational tool as a way to explore how innovation can help people beyond their backyard.
With a desire to have a profound impact on global challenges, Tara and Louis Rossi began researching locally-based NGOs. Their research led the couple to NetsforLife®, Episcopal Relief & Development’s program partnership working to prevent malaria in sub-Saharan Africa.
Malaria is a deadly but preventable tropical illness transmitted by the bites of infected mosquitoes. Each year, the disease kills over 500,000 people – most of them children under age five. NetsforLife® empowers communities to eliminate the disease by providing life-saving prevention training and long-lasting insecticide-treated nets. It implements integrated malaria-prevention programs in 12 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. The program accesses remote communities—those typically unreached by national health programs—utilizing a vibrant network of local churches, faith-based groups and NGOs. NetsforLife® has mobilized thousands of community volunteers to distribute nets and teach their neighbors how to prevent and treat malaria. More than 41 million people have benefited from NetsforLife® to date.
Moved by the numbers of those affected by malaria each year, the Rossis reached out to Episcopal Relief & Development. They met with Sara Delaney, one of Episcopal Relief & Development’s Program Officers who focuses on food and sustainable agriculture. Sara explained that the integrated nature of Episcopal Relief & Development’s work means that many the organization’s program areas overlap. She discussed how the nets are used and how staff and partners educates volunteer malaria control agents, to distribute, hang, monitor and evaluate the work in participant communities.
This conversation led to the creation of the school-wide Project Malaria. The goal for Green Hills students is to design and build a new kind of clip or net harness, making long-lasting insecticide-treated nets (LLIN) more convenient to use. Currently the LLIN is the most effective tool in fighting malaria, as it serves as a barrier between people and the Anopheles mosquito that carries the malaria parasite. However, proper use and placement of the net is key to its effectiveness. The clip would be used to lift the net away from the sleeping place, during the day, while allowing for easy access at night when malaria-carrying mosquitos are active. This simple innovation could increase net use and potentially save lives. One of the most interesting innovations the students have come up with is the use of glow-in-the-dark material, allowing the clip to be seen at night. In many of the participant communities, electricity is limited or non-existent. This is the kind of practical, yet profound creative thinking being produced by students participating in the Innovation Lab.
Additionally, students are looking at other ways to approach solutions for combating malaria.
“We're looking at the whole problem and we're seeing what else we can do. The kids are working on tackling different components of it," Tara Rossi said.
Since mosquitos breed and congregate in water, students are also researching fish that feed on mosquitos that might be introduced in malaria-impacted communities, providing another layer of defense against the disease.
By breaking down the causes of malaria, and looking at ways to address these causes and conditions, students are working on creating a multifaceted approach to fighting malaria.
Another way students are utilizing the lab is to create educational materials, like video presentations, that will be used to teach malaria to fellow students and adults. The eighth-graders are researching malaria and teaching the second graders about the disease. The Rossis explained that by having the students research malaria and break it down into manageable and understandable chunks for the second grade audience, as well as thinking about how to communicate this same information to the school board, they were exercising a number of educational muscles outside of the core STEM area. Language and communication skills, social studies and basic judgment are all being used to express complex issues to diverse audiences.
The students are excited by these challenges.
"We have kids that are currently so inspired by the project that they're staying after school, giving up lunch, giving up recess, doing anything they can," he said. "They're even emailing us at 8, 9:00 at night. It goes to show how much they really care about real world issues."
For now, malaria is still a serious issue and one of the major causes of death for children in the world. However, through program partnerships like NetsforLife® and the innovative and refreshing creativity of students and teachers like those at Green Hills School, we can hope for a future without malaria. The reality is that today’s Green Hills eighth graders are tomorrow’s leaders. However, these incredible students and teachers are already living into their promise partnering with Episcopal Relief & Development.
Chad Brinkman is Senior Associate, Engagement and Media at Episcopal Relief & Development.
Images: Top, Students writing on their table. Middle 1, Student taking notes on malaria. Middle 2, Examples of students' research being done on malaria. Last, Students at Green Hills School studying hard.
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