A learning space
with no constraints
Before and after: The impact of Charlotte’s new Verizon Innovative Learning lab.
Verizon Innovative Learning is not just financial support, it’s sweat equity.
“YEEESSS,” a student exclaims when Carla Aaron-Lopez tells her class they’re going to the AR/VR room.
It’s not every day a middle school art class has access to virtual reality headsets and a green screen, but at Whitewater Middle School in Charlotte, NC, it is. The school’s augmented and virtual reality room is part of its brand new Verizon Innovative Learning lab that includes 3D printers, a laser cutter and vinyl cutter along with modular working tables, a large TV and vertical bookshelves.
But it wasn’t always like this at the school. Four years ago, when Principal Beth Thompson started at Whitewater, it was a failing school, ranked in the bottom three of 169 schools in the district.
In Thompson’s time, it has made a complete turnaround, and in the 2016-2017 school year was one of only two Title 1 schools in the district to exceed growth.
She credits this in large part to the bold vision of Verizon Innovative Learning and their giving the school “not just financial support, but sweat equity.” Verizon staff has worked hand-in-hand with Thompson to turn the school into a hub of innovation.
By providing free technology, free internet access and hands-on learning experiences to help under-resourced students get the education they deserve, Verizon Innovative Learning is committed to preparing students for the digital economy.
Verizon implemented one-to-one technology at Whitewater three years ago by giving each student a free device with 24/7 access and training teachers on how to integrate the technology into their classrooms.
From there, the partnership grew, and last year Verizon Innovative Learning committed to transforming the school’s unused media lab into approximately 1300 square feet of cutting-edge technology and modular workspace. This includes bringing in best-in-class nonprofits like Arizona State University to shape the lab’s curriculum and Project Lead the Way to train lab-specific teachers on how to create an engaging, hands-on classroom. ♦
An incredible transformation and its profound impact
It’s a big change from what the lab was like before. Built in 2009, Whitewater was one of the newer schools in the district, but its media lab looked like a school library from the ‘80s: square tables with four chairs, walls lined with books, industrial carpeting. Clean, but uninspiring, and without a librarian to ensure the school could make the most of it, the space went unused. It was “like the basement no one goes into,” Whitewater student Rianna Santiago says, or “a deadbeat ghost town,” fellow student Cody Gist adds.
Not so anymore. Now the lab is central to the school and its identity — literally and metaphorically — inspiring the students and teachers in a way the old media lab never did.
It has the potential to become a model for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district and leaders from the school system are signing up to tour the space to see what they can emulate. It could even become a model for schools across the country. ♦
Creating a “space of possibility” for students.
“I think the mentality of folks who stay in education for a long time is that we just make do with what we have,” Principal Beth Thompson says. But working with Verizon Innovative Learning “reignited for me personally that staying in the space of possibility is the space in which things truly become possible that haven't been possible before.”
The new lab has given students and teachers “a space designated toward the work of designing and innovating,” she says.
“It’s sent a strong message to students, teachers and our community that – for real – this is what we’re going to be about. And it’s not just talk. We’re opening up possibilities in a visible and tangible way.”
What’s more, the lab is empowering students in a way they haven’t been empowered before. “They’re creating their own educational experiences,” she says.
And there’s something else the lab has done that can’t necessarily be measured: it’s given the school a big dose of pride. When Mayor Vi Lyles attended the lab’s ribbon cutting, the kids were in awe. She explains, “This lab has really put us on the map.” ♦
The lab allows for “design problem-solving on steroids.”
Aneisha Garrett reports that her grades have improved as a result of the lab. Perhaps because it’s taught her that there’s more than one way to solve a problem.
“You get to choose the way you think is best,” the future OB/GYN explains. “And there’s no judgement if you get something wrong. A teacher will say, ‘What made you think that?’ We have to explain our reasoning. That way, we learn why we got it wrong.”
The hands-on approach – comprised of interactive STEM experiments like kites made from trash bags, miniature aerodynamic cars and motorized mouse traps – lets students observe, gain insight and then develop different ways to solve a problem. The lab allows for “design problem-solving on steroids,” teacher Ken Dawson says.
Aneisha felt “cooped up” before the lab was built, but now that the 8th grader and her classmates have room to spread out, learning is a lot more fun. ♦
It means more space for hands-on learning.
“We've been doing all of our experiments and driving all the teachers crazy right here in this hallway,” Project Lead the Way teacher Ken Dawson says, talking about the student competitions he used to stage in the hall outside his room before the Verizon Innovative Learning lab. His ambitious experiments were often too big and complex for his classroom. The lab has provided a bigger runway.
The kids appreciate how much more spacious the lab is than a classroom, but Dawson notices details about the lab his students miss. For instance, the electrical outlets hang down from the ceiling at each table.
It’s a more efficient design, since it means kids don’t have to get up from a table where they’re creating something to plug into one of the few available wall outlets in a traditional classroom. More time gets devoted to learning and making than transporting and charging.
Coming from a business background, Dawson understands what skills kids need in the real world. There are three essential soft skills employers look for. “An ability to think, the ability to work in a group and the ability to solve problems,” he says. “The lab allows kids to do all three.” ♦
Helping me become a better engineer.
Competitive by nature, Mr. Dawson’s classes got Garrett Davis interested in something besides sports and bike racing. The 7th grader still hopes to be a pro athlete one day, but after he graduates from Appalachian State University with a degree in industrial or mechanical engineering.
As a member of the school’s tech team, which supports the lab, he’s gotten to use the space a lot and he’s especially proud of the 3D Frisbee golf course he designed there. It’s part of what makes the new lab “awesome and amazing” and he appreciates having “more elbow room” to tinker and build. He thinks the lab will help him become a better engineer, which will take him that much closer to making his dream of designing, building and marketing his own bike one day a reality. ♦
Enhancing the power of collaboration.
Jorden Brown, 12, wants to go into engineering when he grows up too. Now that Whitewater Middle School is an E-STEM school, it’s assisting him in his career ambitions.
He ultimately wants to “work for the earth, building houses that could survive floods.”
The 7th grader appreciates how the lab makes it easier to work as part of a team. “Collaborating is more fun,” he says, “and you’ll get a better design when you share ideas.” ♦
Bringing creativity to life.
“Not every student is going to be an artist,” says art teacher Carla Aaron-Lopez. “But they can all be critical thinkers.”
That’s why her classes combine art and technology to unleash her students’ creativity and to better engage a diverse group of students who learn at different paces. She knows 3D gaming gets them excited, and the new lab allows her to teach that in a way she’s never been able to, opening her students up to possibilities.
“I tell the kids: You have an idea, but can you draw it so everyone understands your idea?” A student who can’t draw well may be able to articulate a design on a computer – which is now possible in the AR/VR room.
“I don’t give my kids step one, step two, step three,” she says. “I want them to try different ways of problem solving and see what works.” And what doesn’t work becomes a teaching opportunity. ♦
Learning to try, try again.
Kadari Williams considers herself a natural problem solver, and says Whitewater’s philosophy of letting students try – and fail – suits her perfectly. “We’re not allowed to just give up,” she says. It’s part of what she calls “Gator pride.”
A straight-A student who has her sights set on going to Davidson College, the 8th grader says the new lab gives her a sense of “euphoria.”
Kadari, who has been a vegetarian for three years, considers herself an environmentalist and believes surrounding people with anything green and natural makes a difference in their attitude. So it’s no surprise that the favorite project she’s made in the lab is one involving succulent containers.
She knows climate change is real and that the planet needs her generation to help solve the problem. Says Kadari: “We are the change." ♦
“It makes me feel intelligent.”
The lab exists at the intersection of creativity and science, and that’s a place 7th grader Jeffry Hairston, Jr. thrives. Solving environmental problems, one of Hairston’s main interests, is going to require his use of both disciplines.
The new lab “makes me feel intelligent,” he says. “I was amazed that you can take something that was so dull and turn it into something so inspirational." It’s impossible for him to choose a favorite aspect of it.
He loves the space-saving design of the new bookcases, playing around in virtual reality and working with the 3D printer and laser cutter. He made a vinyl sticker with his name on it that he displays proudly on the back of his cell phone.
Jeffry dreams of attending Clemson or Duke and of becoming a mechanical engineer when he graduates. As a future engineer, he appreciates the school’s philosophy that trying and failing is OK. “It’s amazing if you get something right on the first try,” he says. “But if you get it on your second try, it means you learned something.” ♦
“There are no limitations, no constraints.”
Keith Coles, a Whitewater math teacher turned Project Lead The Way teacher this year, says his formerly traditional classroom was adequate before the lab, but it didn’t have any windows or natural light. Coles wanted to teach in a space that felt inspiring – and now that his classroom connects to the new lab through sliding glass doors, he does. “When we walk in the lab, the whole class has the sense that we’re about to do something great,” he says.
He may use and love the lab more than anyone else at Whitewater. Coles believes education has to be about more than test scores and that the lab is a great equalizer.
Any student – no matter how they’re doing in class, no matter their personal situation – can come into his class and take on the challenge there. The lab allows kids to make discoveries on their own. And that reinforces the idea, so prevalent at Whitewater, that there’s more than one right answer.
Even teachers who don’t use the lab as an extension of their classroom have seen the benefits of it, Coles says. “Other teachers will tell me that a student is inattentive or otherwise causing a problem in class, and I’ll say, ‘Come observe him in my class.’ They’ll start to see that student in a different light when they see him engaged and even leading other students through a hands-on project.”
In the lab, he says, “there are no limitations, no constraints.” ♦