Home Schools Projects, Peers, Problem Solving, and Play: The MSMS Innovation Lab

Projects, Peers, Problem Solving, and Play: The MSMS Innovation Lab

This isn’t the middle school classroom you remember from your adolescent years. In one corner, a 3-D printer is rhythmically cranking out new artifacts as if it had a mind of its own. In fact, the printer has been programmed by the students to carry out their instructions. 

The “fusion machine” sits under the windows, ready for a woodworking task, and there are laser cutters, vinyl cutters, and electronics. You’ll also see tubs of low-tech materials — cotton balls, old CDs, buttons, pulleys, ties, wooden clothespins, and other odds and ends ready to be repurposed. 

About two years ago, Eli Rosenberg walked into this room and found only four cafeteria style tables. But the Main Street Middle School teacher had asked for this assignment, and he was eager to carry out his mission of creating a makerspace at MSMS.

A makerspace — a concept that’s been around for about 20 years — is a place where people come together and share knowledge, ideas, and tools. The makerspace movement didn’t begin with children, but with adult entrepreneurs who were engineers along with individuals with big ideas who weren’t sure how to carry them out. 

Kids, however, are natural tinkerers. Even the youngest can take anything from an empty egg carton to a piece of wrapping paper and think, “What can I make with this?”

Rosenberg knew his middle school problem solvers would also be ready for all kinds of new equipment.

Generator is a Vermont nonprofit makerspace that is also dedicated to outfitting makerspaces in schools around the state. In 2023, the U.S. Department of Education gave Generator a grant, which was then shared by five schools in Vermont, one of which was MSMS.

Rosenberg has purchased almost all of the technology his class uses with the help of grants and has received more than $40,000 since he began the project. In addition to Generator, the lab has received donations from the Vermont Academy of Science and Engineering, the Vermont NEA, the Agency of Education STEAM Challenge initiative, Harbor Freight, and Montpelier’s own “Cardboard Teck Instantute,” a makerspace that operates out of the Center for Arts and Learning on Barre Street.

Rosenberg had to do more than gather supplies. He had to create the standards and goals his students would be responsible for. This teacher also looks beyond visible accomplishments. 

“We build people, not just things.They’re here to try to make things and to learn something about themselves as well,” Rosenberg says.

The newly named Innovation Lab is open to all MSMS students who may be participating in regular classes or coming in to work on a project of their own. Rosenberg explains that the makerspace offers kids an opportunity to apply and strengthen STEAM skills. (The original term “STEM” referred to science, technology, engineering and math. A growing awareness that art education can be a critical part of innovation led to a new acronym: STEAM.)

In addition, project teamwork fosters problem solving, innovation, and collaboration. Students are encouraged to “play,” to experiment with different ways and means without the fear of failing, even seeing it as a necessary part of the process. “Try, fail, learn, repeat,” says Rosenberg, pointing at a catapult constructed by one group which took seven tries to complete it. Rosenberg also reminds his students to consider all levels of difficulty and he offers metaphors to describe those levels: “Some projects will be cupcakes, some will be birthday cakes, and some might even be wedding cakes.”

Students at the Innovation Lab are now creating a major “wedding cake.” The rising fifth graders at Union Elementary School have been invited to a Maker Faire on May 24. This is one of several events designed to help UES students get to know the middle school before their first day in the fall of 2024. It’s also a chance to demonstrate what can happen at the Innovation Lab. 

For example, Will Duggan, Sophia Ridge, and Elias Heath will be showing off the “Dino Casino,” a kind of slot machine powered by robotics that uses wooden coins (also created by the team). Then there’s the “Cheese Game,” the result of a collaboration between two students.

The theme of the Faire is “Lost in Time.” A seventh grade class is creating a video about it for their invited guests. In it, 13-year-old Case Phinney tells the current fourth graders what they can look forward to. “There’ll be an enormous portal. Lights will go ‘zzzz’ and you’ll see several doors. Each one will take you to an archetypal era. The spaces inside will have tactile experiences and puzzles that you’ll have to wrack your brain to complete.”

He does make you want to be there.