North Colonie Central School District’s Innovation Spaces allow students to find passion, purpose, and possibility

Head into one of the Innovation Spaces at Shaker Middle School and you are likely to encounter a student who is eager to tell you their latest project.

Whether it’s creating a public service announcement, modeling an irrigation system, coding robots, or learning breathing techniques to help with stress, sixth graders are finding their passions through purposeful learning. Meanwhile, elementary school students are actively engaging in activities that may look like play but are carefully designed instruction that incorporates problem solving and collaboration.

“In North Colonie, we pride ourselves on being innovative and offering our community a world-class education,” said Superintendent D. Joseph Corr. “Building and creating these Innovation Spaces has been a long process that has included significant time, money and support from our community and staff. Learning should be joyful. Our innovation lab teachers have infused these spaces with joy for our students and provide an equitable learning experience that connects people and is meaningful.”

The Plan

The idea for the Innovation Spaces came about in 2019 when district administrators began to consider how to create pathways that bridged the shift from a junior high school to a middle school. Another consideration was to introduce new skills to students before high school. As the demand for reskilled workers continues to evolve due to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which is blurring the boundaries between the physical, digital, and biological worlds, the district recognizes that students will need to have certain skills such as active listening, complex problem solving, alternatives for solving problems, and emotional intelligence to be competitive and marketable.

With all of this in mind, Deputy Superintendent Kathleen Skeals, a team of instructional coaches and instructional technology specialist Gary Cimorelli, visited schools across the northeast over the course of two years as part to investigate other schools and begin to imagine what North Colonie’s Innovation Spaces could look like. The Innovation Spaces were made possible after the community passed a bond project in 2017. The district’s team discovered that while many of the schools had spaces, the spaces often lacked a specific purpose. It was also clear that staffing these creative spaces properly was crucial to student success.

Thus, the North Colonie Innovation Spaces were born and designed to be the living embodiment of North Colonie’s three pillars – academic excellence (thinking and problem solving), equity (open to all students) and social-emotional health. As the plan for the Innovation Spaces evolved, a North Colonie team of educators focused on standards developed by the International Society for Technology in Education (ITSE), an organization that believes technology is the catalyst for creating an ecosystem where students drive their own learning, solve problems, and become a force for good in physical and digital environments.

Last summer the team developed “Axioms,” or guiding principles or starting points that consistently drove the Innovation Spaces. The result is Innovation Spaces in each of North Colonie’s elementary schools as well six unique labs in Shaker Middle School including Humanities Center, Robotics and Coding, Simulations, Clean Technology, The Makerspace, Health and Wellness Center.

According to Skeals, the funding from stimulus funds helped to equip these labs with everything from equipment to supplies such as pipe cleaners. “We have also used the funding to employ the teachers full-time in the middle school labs. Since the stimulus funds are available to us through 2023, we will continue to use those funds to support this staffing. Stimulus funds have also paid for summer curriculum work.”

Opening and Evolving

A Shaker Middle School student shows a heat transfer made in the Clean Tech Innovation Space.

For transition from a junior high school to middle school, the district opted to concentrate on sixth-grade students.

“This was a great way to introduce students from all of our elementary schools to the new middle school,” explained Skeals. “It created an opportunity for students to meet and make new friends, but also to introduce students to opportunities to find their passion, their people and their space.”

The students have a six-week rotation in each lab. Seventh and eighth graders enjoy the labs during gap sessions and work on interdisciplinary projects.

“The students have to learn how to work together. They have to learn to be advocates for themselves, to speak their mind, but also to be good listeners,” said Makerspace Teacher Catara Vinson-Westbrook. “They have to learn cooperation, how to negotiate and how to compromise. They also have to learn how to problem solve.”

“We know that kids get to explore so many wonderful electives at the high school. We wanted these labs to expand the students’ perspectives about the possibilities that school can offer and engage them in their younger years,” Skeals explained. “These spaces really are changing the opportunities for kids.”

Sixth grader Grace Clough agrees. “It’s a lot of fun because it’s a break from doing all the math and stuff, but it also helps you understand. Because you’re kind of plugging in what you learned from math and science and ELA and stuff like that,” said Clough.

Shaker Middle School Principal Davis Chamberlain sees the excitement daily. “When I go into the rooms, the students don’t have time for me. They’re busy. They don’t even notice that I show up which is great because they are so involved in the space,” Chamberlain says.

K-5 Innovation: Young Minds at Work

In the elementary schools, the Innovation Spaces are for all grades and all abilities. The students are given grade-appropriate activities and challenges. For example, “Be a Maker,” is one activity for kindergarten students that correlates with the book INSERT NAME OF BOOK about a playground. Students first build a playground with materials and then draw a picture of their creation. The next day the activity is reversed, and students draw a playground and then build it.

Second-graders use technology to create a stop-motion video of a snowman melting.

“The best parts of my job are seeing the joy and the pride students demonstrate in the lab,” says Paige Rossi, elementary innovation lab coordinator. Seeing what they come up with and listening to them share their thinking and perspectives is fulfilling. At the elementary level, we are working to take innovation beyond just a class being taught to a school-wide culture built through collaboration.

In fifth-grade, students advance to “whole brain” activities that incorporate art in addition to science. Known as STEAM, opening the doors to the arts aids in the process of turning critical thinking into critical making, according to Southgate Elementary Art Teacher MaryBeth Aldous, who also serves as a member of the innovation team.

She shares a real-world connection to STEAM and 21st century innovation economy. “If you think about innovation, you can’t make an eye-popping sculpture or a jaw-dropping piece of architecture without engineering and mathematics. You also can’t create those things without a creative lens. It’s the same with cars. Cars are not only judged by the technology and the engineering features they possess, but also by the design and the aesthetic qualities,” says Aldous.

The spaces are also designed to be inclusive and equitable. Special education teachers collaborate and help to modify the lessons and/or environment for their students. For example, students in Blue Creek Elementary were able to design a hopscotch-like game in the lab. They are in the labs with their students and the innovation teacher to ensure appropriate supports are in place.

What’s Next

The district is planning to bring all K-8 educators together to reflect on the first year of the Innovation Spaces in the district, and to plan for next year. Feedback from the staff and students will help district leaders develop a plan to add permanent teachers for each of the Innovation Spaces for the 2022-23 school year.

“Part of this work is how this experience informs high school pathways and electives for students,” says District Superintendent D. Joseph Corr. “This will be the next phase, and we are excited to watch the spaces grow and continue to transform our students’ experiences.”

“Moving forward, we know that we have a lot of people in our community who are willing to come and share their knowledge and their mentorship,” Skeals says. “This is going to constantly evolve. We know that it can only grow from here.”