Dorval Students Love Le Lab

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by Dan Mullins

“Let’s say we’re building catapults and we have plungers and elastics and sticks…”
This may not be something most of us hear every day, but in Marc Traversy’s Le Lab class at Dorval Elementary School, it isn’t completely out of the ordinary.

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The class combines arts and creativity with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math,) and every student from grade 1 to grade 6 attends it.
The enormous classroom has windows on three sides for natural light to stream in. There is an abundance of creative décor. At the entrance is a quote, sometimes attributed to Einstein, which reads “Creativity is intelligence having fun,” along with a sticker that reads “Honk if you’re hairy!”

Inside the green-screen room are the words “Laugh more, worry less.” Two Grade 6 students who are excellent artists have permission from the school to decorate a wall under Mr. T.’s supervision, a project that is well underway. Half a mannequin dressed in boardshorts stands to one side.
The contents of the classroom complement the bright and spacious interior. There are boxes full of building toys like Lego and Mega Bloks, wooden blocks, tracks for toy cars, Gravitrax, and construction materials like cardboard, popsicle sticks, different building kits, tools and, of course, duct tape. There are also higher tech items like iPads, hydraulic tubes, and tubs full of small, round, programmable robots called “Spheros.”
A Grade 1 class enters the room, and Mr. T simply asks them to build a bridge. Immediately the students are at tubs of building materials, some building with wood, others with Lego. Some have formed spontaneous groups of assorted sizes and others work alone.
While the engaged students happily construct a diversity of bridge-shapes, Mr. T brings out the Spheros. The students finish up their bridges, put away their supplies, and assemble at the soft rainbow-coloured modular benches in front of a whiteboard. Mr. T demonstrates the simplest aspects of the little robots and begins handing them out, along with tablets that can be used to control, program, or even change the colour of the Grade 1 students’ new electronic friends.
Within five minutes the students are once again out of their seats, this time working in pairs, naming their robots, and learning how they work by trying them out. The instructions Mr. T has given them are minimal, but he’s moving through the class, answering questions, and troubleshooting, although none of the students seem to be having many problems getting the hang of the little droids. Nor are there any behavioural fires to extinguish: Every student is completely engrossed in the work.
Of the instructions Mr. T gave the Grade 1 class concerning Sphero robots, a significant percentage are about safety. “We don’t run from Sphero, it’s not the big bad wolf,” he stresses. Safety is a major focus of his teaching, considering the hands-on nature of the learning the students do in Le Lab. “Anything I do in class,” he says, “I talk to the kids about safety before we get started.”

The idea for the program began to take shape when the former principal approached Mr. T about setting up a specialist class. He knew it would be STEM focussed. A former high school teacher, he drew inspiration from such sources as high school woodworking and home economics classes, as well as the lab schools he visited in San Diego.
Teaching a new and innovative course requires resourcefulness. Mr. T tells a story about wanting to get one of his classes to build one-string guitars. A man who had just closed his cigar shop provided a lot of cigar boxes for the guitars’ resonators and while a music store contributed strings. One company donated construction blocks and another provided kits for building wooden cars.
Despite the atypical challenges that both students and teacher face in Le Lab, it is clear by their faces, focus, energy, and enthusiasm that the class is hugely engaging. The students move from activity to activity and interact with the materials and technology comfortably and naturally.
It’s as if the whole classroom was full of budding engineers and computer scientists.