by Nicolette Chin
"Creativity is contagious. Pass it on!" Albert Einstein's words practically hop off the page and leap into action in the humming, energy-filled beehive that is the Lawton C. Johnson Summit Middle School Library Learning Commons. Over the past few years, LCJSMS's dynamic duo, librarians Beth Thomas and Megan Hartley, have conceived, written, and been awarded several SEF grants that have transformed the library from a quiet, studious place into an interactive, bustling hub where one literally feels like the sky could be the limit when it comes to discovery.
Thomas and Hartley believe that "there is not enough productive failure in schools today." Using this as a beacon of sorts, they set out to create an oasis where students could congregate, experiment with technology, and most importantly, not be afraid to "fail". The women wholeheartedly endorse the motto: Persist. Fail. Overcome.
Beginning in Fall 2013, Thomas and Hartley set out to upturn traditional notions of the school library, when they received a $71,000 SEF grant that brought novel, Steelcase flexible furniture to the Learning Commons. With students able to easily reconfigure their learning space by moving wheeled desks and chairs, the notion of "thinking outside the box" gained new meaning. That infrastructure in place, Thomas and Hartley next used a $5,770 Fall 2014 SEF grant to begin populating their discovery zone, known as the iMake Makerspace, essentially a community center with tools. The funds were used to purchase a 3D printer, circuit-related technology (Little Bits, Makey Makey and Squishy Circuits), and microcomputers (Raspberry Pi and Arduino). In 2015, the dynamic duo penned two more grants that resulted in the creation of the wildly successful CS First Coding Club and the purchase of 12 programmable Sphero robot units, which will debut in the Learning Commons shortly.
A typical day in the Learning Commons begins at 7:30 a.m., when the room quickly fills with students rearing to go on Thomas and Hartley's meticulously curated collection of Makerspace technology. It is not uncommon for 70-80 students to show up before school to create Eiffel Towers on the 3D printer or to wire circuit boards with gummy bears as they learn the basics of electronics. These hands-on activities continue throughout the day with class lessons and spill into afterschool hours with activities like the CS First Coding Club.
The Coding Club debuted in Fall 2015 with an 8-week introduction to Google's CS First program, which promotes early exposure to computer science education for students. Twenty-five LCJSMS students showed up regularly for Coding Club sessions and learned how to use Scratch, a computer language, to write programs for basic video games and other fun activities. Word quickly got around about Coding Club and the second 8-week session recently started with 60 students! Ms. Thomas excitedly pointed out that the normal attrition rate for clubs is about fifty percent, but that has not been the case at all with Coding Club.
"Coding is an activity for students to have fun with, to fail and not have a grade attached. From an A+ student to a non-A+ student, all can find success in it." Ms. Hartley said. Ms. Thomas added, "This is just a safe space. We take that really seriously."
The energy, enthusiasm and foresight Thomas and Hartley bring to their roles make them ideal recipients for SEF grants. They maintain they could not have created their safe haven without the generosity of SEF. This dynamic duo is a prime example of what author Steven Johnson meant when he mused, "If you look at history, innovation doesn't come just from giving people incentives; it comes from creating environments where their ideas can connect."