In a basement of Wichita Collegiate School, in a space once used as a martial arts dojo, Alex Fanning and his classmates are starting to learn what innovation really means.
“This is just a test run,” said Fanning, a senior, who spent a recent afternoon designing a simple shape he planned to extract from a sheet of metal using the school’s new computer-controlled plasma cutter.
“If I mess up, I can try it again a little differently.”
Collegiate, a private school in east Wichita, recently transformed the basement of its high school into the Wichita Collegiate Alumni Association Innovation Lab, a $200,000-and-counting space intended to encourage creativity, critical thinking and perhaps most of all, an appreciation for the educational value of messing up.
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“You know that saying: (Thomas) Edison found 1,000 ways that the light bulb didn’t work, and it made him smarter every time,” said Tom Davis, headmaster of Wichita Collegiate. “This is the same type of thing.”
Modeled after the Lammers Innovation Lab, which opened on Collegiate’s middle school campus last year, the high school innovation lab offers ninth- through 12th-graders a space equipped with woodworking, metal working and computer-aided-design hardware and software. The lab features several 3-D printers, a computer-automated router and plasma cutter, which let students learn and experiment with modern manufacturing processes that turn designs into products.
It came together thanks to a lead gift from the Wichita Collegiate Alumni Association.
“This is a game-changer for our students,” said John Bullinger, who teaches Advanced Placement physics and a new innovation lab and robotics elective.
“Every other class, they sit down and they are told what to learn, how to think, how to solve the problem. That’s just what school is,” he said. “Hopefully, eventually, we get to the point where they learn to think, experience, design and build whatever they want.”
More than 130 students attend classes in the expansive new lab space, which opened in August. The lab serves two innovation lab classes, as well as physics, art and computer programming. Through a partnership with the National Institution for Aviation Research at Wichita State University, 10 students – including Bullinger, the physics teacher – are learning CATIA, a computer design program used in aviation research.
Some students come into the lab with “lots of experience tinkering” and the ability to operate basic hand and power tools, Bullinger said. Others didn’t know the difference between a flat-head and Phillips-head screwdriver.
One recent afternoon, senior Katie O’Hara finalized the design for a cartoon character she planned to cut out of a block of wood using the lab’s CNC router. Already this semester, O’Hara, who plans to major in English at college, has learned how to operate a table saw and is part of a team designing a robot with computer software.
“I just thought it would be a fun class,” she said. “Since this is my last year, I thought it would be a great time to just learn these skills, because they might come in handy someday.”
Students also are learning teamwork and persistence, said Davis, the headmaster. It reflects a local and nationwide trend toward more hands-on, project-based lessons – many with a bent toward science, technology, engineering and math – that emphasize problem-solving skills.
Last year, Collegiate middle school students worked in teams to design reading chairs for elementary teachers.
“We had several teams that, in their exuberance, designed something but couldn’t build it. Or when they built it and sat in it, it broke,” Davis said.
“They would go to the teacher and say, ‘What do I do next?’ And the answer was, ‘Well, I don’t know. Yours doesn’t seem to work. You’re going to have to do something.’
“So they learn that collectively, they’re smarter than they are individually. Different teams will solve a problem in different ways,” he said.
“So it’s an environment where it’s not, ‘What’s on the test?’ but our goal is to get them engaged and thinking kind of outside of our normal textbook/lecture context.”