Ideas Become Real: The Sara Queen Design Lab

The Sara Queen Design Lab opened in September, and students and teachers have put it to good use in its first year. The new space, which was made possible by the completion of the fourth floor at 46 Cooper Square, has vastly expanded options for science and technology classes, extra-curricular programming and independent student projects. The lab is a flexible space—not quite a classroom and not quite a lab. It is a perfect balance of both, which has produced an environment for exploring open-ended questions and problems that are aided by building prototypes and models, critical skills for students who will join an economy driven by artificial intelligence.
The lab is one part of an investment to address how the school will change as it examines how to best prepare students for the economy of the future. As George Davison said in, “Schools in the Second Machine Age,” his article in this magazine one year ago, current students at Grace Church School, “should be prepared for the world of work they will be entering. A.I. will have a huge impact; they need to be ready.”
A group of faculty and administrators meet every other week to explore how the school’s curriculum can be moved toward a more inquiry-based approach. Dr. Akbar Ali, Chief Technology Officer, is leading this “Design Learning” effort.
Austin Wong, the design lab coordinator, recently defended his master’s thesis on using design thinking in schools. He believes the design lab has helped the school bring more innovation to the curriculum. “Grace is implementing new teaching techniques and curriculum that are on the leading edge of what schools are doing around design thinking.”
Moving learning toward a design-centered and more innovative approach involves applications across disciplines and the use of a model where students learn specific skills and then are challenged to apply those skills to solve open-ended problems. Students in the Robotics course, a technology elective for juniors and seniors, built robots from a kit during the first semester; in the second semester they designed and built their own projects using what they previously learned. Students built robot arms, robots that use sensors to navigate a course, and used the 3D printers and laser cutters to make custom parts.
In the Computer Aided Design (CAD) class students began the year by assembling a new 3D printer with the aim of learning how 3D printers function and to become familiar with its components. They then learned a program called OnShape, which is used in Cooper Union engineering courses, and applied their knowledge to design 3D shapes including model rocket components and puzzle pieces. Students went beyond designing, also learning prototyping with an emphasis on design for manufacturing.
Physics classes used the design lab for specific projects like the Pinewood Derby, an annual collaboration with fourth graders. Several sophomores used the lab for their March Madness projects: one designed and built a water condenser, which required building a heat sync with fans to purify the air; she used solar panels as a renewable source to power the device. That student was supported by the design lab coordinator, Austin Wong.
The design lab also provides important space for extra-curricular programming across divisions. Students on the Lower School & Middle School LEGO Robotics team used the lab to build their projects in preparation for their annual robotics competition. In the High School, the Science Olympiad team made extensive use of the lab. The Science Olympiad is an interdisciplinary competition with many opportunities for students to develop projects and products. Students build prototypes for the competition, which challenges competitors in a range of science disciplines including thermodynamics, optics, astronomy and engineering.
As design learning continues to evolve at Grace, students will have more opportunities for independent study that allow agency over the projects they choose and design; a further developed Science Olympiad team; new courses like technology entrepreneurship; and a design and engineering module introducing the lab to all sophomores who take the required Digital Tools & Citizenship course.
Dr. Ali puts it this way: “As we consider what the curriculum of tomorrow will look like, we are preparing today to incorporate the skills that will be vital to the future: design, collaboration, prototyping. The core of the work, really, is helping students make their ideas become a reality.”