Philadelphia Region School District Launches Innovation Lab on Wheels

Dubbed the “magic school bus,” students from Downingtown will get fast exposure to STEAM courses at low cost.

by Kathy Boccella, The Philadelphia Inquirer / October 24, 2018
Shutterstock

(TNS) —— It won't take kids on a rocket-fueled flight through the solar system or a fantastic voyage inside the human body, but to educators in the Downingtown Area School District, their brand-new, tricked-out science class on wheels is nevertheless something of a magic school bus.

"I'm a real-life Ms. Frizzle," said teacher Brittany Schwab, referring to the Lily Tomlin-voiced teacher and driver in the 1990s Magic School Bus cartoon. That will be the likely frame of reference for many parents when they see the white-and-blue bus retrofitted with sleek counters and computer screens, and loaded up with Legos, iPads, and all kinds of high-tech doo-dads that will teach kids coding, robotics, and other science skills.

Slated for an official ribbon-cutting on Thursday, the 40-foot Mobile Innovation Lab will visit all 10 elementary schools in the Chester County district during the school year – a novel way to introduce Downingtown kids to state-of-the-art experiments in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) without building new classrooms.

On a recent afternoon outside East Ward Elementary, Schwab showed off what the lab on wheels can do to an eager group of fourth graders who filed in and sat down in the wide, carpeted center aisle. That day's excursion of the mind did involve a certain brand of magic – Model Magic clay – and MaKey MaKeys, which are electronic wiring tools, to teach the students how to make and program their own Pac-Man controller.

Schwab – who'd been a third-grade teacher at East Ward before taking over the lab this fall – called the project "a big push" to jump-start intensive science learning in the highly rated, 12,000-student district that also boasts the innovative Downingtown STEM Academy, one of the top schools in the state.

 "A lot of the buildings don't have the space," said Schwab, quite possibly the only school teacher in Pennsylvania who had to prepare for the new school year by getting her commercial driver's license. "And if we were to buy all of the instructional resources, that would cost so much money."

That said, launching what district officials believe is the Keystone State's first learning lab on wheels was neither cheap nor easy. The $350,000 cost of converting what had been a 72-seat school bus – donated by the Krapf Bus Co. – into a vehicle for innovation was covered by the Downingtown Educational Foundation and by individual donors who were solicited by the nonprofit group, according to chief academic officer Matt Friedman.

Last year, Friedman and other district officials traveled to Baltimore to check out Maryland's decade-old Bio Lab project, which travels to schools around that state, and then worked with a Downingtown company that customizes RVs – the EL Carpenter Repair Co. – to give the inside of their donated vehicle a complete makeover.

"The reason we wanted a bus is that our 10 elementary schools are all different sizes, and we wanted to focus on equity," Friedman explained. "We wanted everyone to have access to the same curriculum. Not all of our schools have the space for a lab."

The Mobile Innovation Lab will be driven from school to school – for two stints at each school a year, which will run from one week to 10 days. Unlike its Maryland forerunner, which helps teach biology, the Downingtown project focuses more on tech-oriented topics like programming computers and robotics that schools increasingly are teaching to younger kids.

For Schwab, the challenge over the summer – aside from learning to navigate Chester County traffic in the wheeled behemoth – was developing curriculums for kids from kindergarten to fifth grade to make the best use of an array of learning tools, like pocket-size coding robots called Ozobots or the 65-inch touchscreen on the bus exterior that can be used to teach outdoors on a nice day.

She said first graders, for example, will be working with Legos and small motors to build fans, and then write the computer programs to run them. "It's amazing," said Schwab, describing how the students write codes that can run the fans at variable speeds.

The fourth graders from East Ward who last week filed onto the Mobile Learning Lab – which was parked next to the school playground – first received a brief lecture from Schwab reminding them to apply what she called the habits of the mind, such as persistence, communication, and reliance on basic facts, to their experiment.

After she demonstrated each step of the project, the kids broke into groups of three to connect four different-color wires with alligator clips from the MaKey MaKey circuits to Model Magic disks that acted as control buttons to manipulate their Pac-Mans right or left, up and down, in the existential quest to avoid getting eaten. It was a fun introduction into electricity and engineering know-how that school districts increasingly see as the work skills needed by today's students.

For Friedman, the new bus places his district on that road map, he said, "ahead of the curve."

©2018 The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.