Eighth-grader Spencer Malden’s only experience building things is with Legos.
But three days into a lesson at Luther Burbank, he donned mechanic gloves and disconnected a sparkplug from an engine while explaining how its piston worked.
“I’ve been trying to take it apart, and I’m getting better at it,” he said. “I don’t know [if I want to be a mechanic], but it’s better than math.”
Spencer is in the Exploring Technology Lab elective at school, providing hands-on learning opportunities in 16 roughly two-week courses, ranging from robotics, forensic science, applied physics, audio broadcasting and microbiology.
The school doesn’t have a wood shop class.
“This is the closest thing we have to something like that,” said Trish Wetzel, Luther Burbank’s Title I coordinator, who was heavily involved with starting the technology lab.
The technological sophistication is unmatched for many campuses, school officials said.
“I’ve been teaching for 28 years, and I’ve never had access to this level of technology,” said Joe Reed, a math and science teacher who oversees the class. “I feel like we’re tapping into eduction that they never get to see — learning to love something, and taking it as far as you want to go with it.”
A provision from the federal stimulus and recovery bill provided the one-time money for the lab. Luther Burbank is a Title I school, where a sizable population of students are on free or reduced lunches, a poverty indicator. The stimulus money was earmarked for Title I schools.
The Luther Burbank lab is in contrast to Jordan Middle School, where seventh-period electives were cut in April to reinvest time away from music, art and creative-writing classes and into standardized subjects like math, science and English.
“Without the Title I, we’d be in the same boat as Jordan,” Wetzel said. “This is one piece of the whole picture we’re able to do, [and] it’d be a dream if it weren’t for Title I.”
Eighth-graders Dillon Wiegand and Jasper Armstrong put the finishing touches on a parachute for their rocket and said they were able to follow along with the module’s multimedia instruction.
“Having the computer here makes it easier, and we have all the resources we need,” Dillon said, noting the dictionaries, technical writing and occupational outlook books that come with every module. “With books, you have to look through a glossary, but this shows videos and talks to you. It’s more ways of learning than just visuals.”
Each module comes with, at minimum, a computer, keyboard and headset. Most have a feature that is garishly unique — a robotic arm, pipes, a laser-like contraption and solar panels.
Students work in teams and follow along a program that breaks down each task in each module.
“Essentially, they are independent learners,” Wetzel said.
Students can repeat instructions as many times as they want. If they have a question, they can switch on a light to flag Reed’s attention.
At the end of each module, students are quizzed. All that data can be downloaded onto Reed’s computer so he knows where every student is in each module, and where they are struggling or achieving.
And for students who’ve been using computers as 6-year-olds, the technology lab poses new challenges, Reed said.
“They’re doing research questions and math-based problems, sometimes calculating velocity and acceleration,” he said. “It’s a natural propensity to use this stuff, but it’s far more complex than what they’re used to.”
Career opportunities or passions could emerge for some students too, Principal Anita Schackmann said.
“Someone might find they love electronics or designing bridges and the concepts that go along with that,” she said. “We all have different areas of strengths and intelligence, and the only way you know what that is, is to have some experience.”