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Immaculate Conception unveils tech-rich classroom designed to encourage creativity

Immaculate Conception unveils new makerspace for young children

Preschoolers filed into a classroom at Immaculate Conception School in Towson last week eager to be among the school's first students to sample what the room offered.

Some ran to play educational games on the room's four new computers, while others built pretend castles with magnetic building blocks or molded and cut Play-Doh into shapes. Still others sat at a table with teachers to learn how to operate small robots which respond to colors drawn on paper.

As teacher Katie Hurley unpacked a black case containing a circuit board and colorful AA-battery powered electrical connectors, students gathered around to see what she had.

"I want to see too," preschool student Ian Connor said. "I want to try."

The occasion was the Jan. 31 unveiling of the school's new makerspace classroom. Such classrooms are designed to promote learning through play and experimentation, are cross-disciplinary and offers tools and materials to encourage students to create rather than consume something pre-made, according to the International Society for Technology in Education, an Arlington-based nonprofit education organization.

Makerspaces have become well-known in the education community in the past two years, according to Diana Fingal, the group's director of editorial content. People more commonly think of such spaces being in middle and high schools, Fingal said, adding that she applauds schools that are adding the spaces early in a child's education. Makerspaces encourage the creativity and innovation that often comes naturally to children, she said.

"It builds persistence, it builds creativity, it's natural fun way to learn," Fingal said.

Immaculate Conception's new classroom is specifically for prekindergarten, kindergarten and first grade students at the school. Officials at the school said the space will help young students develop motor skills and learn problem-solving techniques.

The young students feel comfortable using technology, principal Madeline Meaney said. Chris Riley, a technology specialist at the school, who helped pick some of the technology included in the makerspace, said components of the electrical circuit set are connected using the same kind of snaps found on clothing, making it easier for the young students to use.

By connecting the snaps, students can connect the battery to a light and observe how power flows from the source to an object.

"I explain electricity to them like a river," Riley said.

Immaculate Conception officially opened the room last week as part of Catholic Education Week, an event that celebrates Catholic education in schools throughout the country. The room is equipped with four Chromebox computers, a set of small robots that teach students basic computer programming, a lighted table with transparent, colored building blocks, Playdough, Legos, a circuitry set and other items.

Pre-kindergarten, kindergarten and first-grade teachers at Immaculate Conception will be able to sign up to use the room for lessons, school officials said.

The official title for the room is the STREAM Makerspace; STREAM is an acronym that stands for science, technology, religion, engineering, arts and math.

The technology available in the room ranges from the complex to the simple. While there are complex products such as the circuit board available, the school has also painted the surface of tables in the room, turning them into white boards on which students can draw.

"It's fun to go home and tell mom and dad they drew on a table at school," Riley said.

The idea for the room was conceived months ago, officials said, and was recently made a reality thanks to a private donation to the school. Technology for the room was selected by teachers, administration and technology staff at the school.

Meaney said she has heard fellow educators within the Archdiocese of Baltimore talk about makerspaces, which are also being added to public schools in the region. Typically, though, her colleagues were talking about providing the rooms for older students, she said.

Preschool director Erin Sudano started researching how other schools have used makerspaces for young children, and found that the concept is tied to enhancing fine motor skills as well as literacy.

For example, after reading a story with students, teachers could employ the room for a lesson in which students recreated the story's plot using other mediums, such as building blocks or a table-top white board.

Lego building blocks are also available in the room, but in a way that forces children to think differently, according to Immaculate Conception technology specialist Chris Riley.

In the room, one wall is partially covered with a blue Lego surface to which students can attach pieces, building perpendicular to the ground instead of up from it, which makes students consider how far out a structure can be built from the wall before it falls, or what kind of foundation might better support a structure built from the wall.

Half-dollar sized spherical robots called Ozobots introduce students to the basics of computer coding. The robot follows colored lines drawn on sheets of paper, responding to red, blue, green and black. Certain patterns of color correlate to specific commands, such as turn right or turn left. So, by coloring on the paper, the student can tell the robot which way to go.

On Jan. 31, students practiced just drawing simple lines for the robots to follow. Sudano helped a group figure out the technology, and shortly students were testing the robots independently.

Preschooler Oliver Hammock tested one using a green marker, drawing zig-zag lines on a sheet of white paper. The robot would get stuck where a line intersected, Hammock would pick the robot up and draw a new line for it to follow.

If it didn't work, he tried again.

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