DRACUT — On Thursday afternoon, the second-floor library of the Richardson Middle School sounded like the office of a Silicon Valley start-up.
Teams huddled around tables, whispering, and shouting out ideas and taking turns piecing together aerodynamic blades. Sixth-graders ran power drills under the supervision of their teacher, whose instructions included phrases like “failure means progress,” “specifications the contractor requested,” and “problem solve if you are unsure what to do.”
The students, in what is known as the Maker Space, aren’t designing apps and disruptive technologies — yet. But they are building roller coasters and wind turbines. And soon, with the help of an MIT scientist, they will also be genetically modifying cells.
“It’s a place where kids tinker, they build, they design, they create, and they discover,” said Principal Maria McGuinness.
The school repurposed part of its library in September to make room for the creative lab. Students in grades six through eight spend one class period there a week, tackling a project for a week or maybe two before moving on to the next challenge.
“You create the atmosphere and then you let them go,” said Sharon Krawczyk, the science teacher and human dynamo who oversees the class. The hands-on activities appeal to all students, including those with learning disabilities, and have brought out real passion for STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Art and Mathematics) education at the school.
“I had a group of girls last week who were not happy with our Phillips-head screwdrivers and they asked if they could bring in their own tools,” Krawczyk said.
The program has also drawn praise all the way from the White House, which recognized the newest addition to the Maker Space in a press release last month.
Dracut Public Schools has partnered with Natalie Kuldell, a biological engineering professor at MIT, and Amino Labs, in Canada, to introduce a cutting-edge new curriculum at the middle school.
The program, known as Biobuilder, will allow students to explore ways to genetically engineer cells through a computer program. And then, once certain equipment the district has ordered arrives, they will actually be able to engineer certain traits into cells in a Petri dish.
“I can take a cell and manipulate the DNA to make it smell like a banana,” McGuinness said. “So it’s pretty out-there stuff for a kid, but it teaches them about cell structure and cell functions.”
In the Maker Space, students receive very few formal instructions. On Thursday, Krawczyk demonstrated the blade-shaft mechanism the sixth-graders would be working on in a few minutes and then set the pack off.
She and several assistants are available to help students and oversee the heavier equipment, but many of the teams ran straight to completed wind turbines sitting on a windowsill, brought them back to their tables, and began reverse engineering them.
“It’s not a teacher writing stuff on a board,” Dracut Schools Superintendent Steven Stone said. “We’re moving away from that and having our students engage in hands-on ways.”
Part of the motivation is short term: There are frequently questions on standardized tests, like the MCAS, that might give students a picture of a basic machine and ask them how they would improve the design.
It’s a lot easier to teach the fundamentals of a pulley or lever when you have one in front of you.
But the Maker Space is also just a step toward a long-term goal: Stone said he and the principals are working to establish a connected, creative curriculum from kindergarten through 12th grade that steadily introduces the skills needed to work in emerging technologies like computer science and bioengineering.
“We’re hoping they’ll really latch onto this tuff and realize they like working on it,” McGuinness said.
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