Hillside school lab gets boost from Trenton

Courtesy of Hillside Board of Education
State Department of Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet watches as two Hillside Enrichment Program students explain Sphero, a spherical robot controlled by their tablet computer Dec. 4.

HILLSIDE, NJ — Hurden Looker students excitedly guided New Jersey Commissioner of Education Lamont Repollet through their “innovation lab,” showing him their 3D printer, Sphero robot and other lab technology Dec. 4.
Repollet, who appeared engaged during his visit to the school, asked the children a question.
“Who are you?” he asked.

“Thought leaders!” they shouted.
“I can’t hear you. Who are you?” Repollet asked again.
“Thought leaders!” they cheered.

The exchange was meant to emphasize that a thought leader is a student who is a problem solver, innovator and creator, according to the commissioner.
Repollet’s visit was part of a statewide computer science education week initiative, for which members of the state Department of Education travel to different schools throughout the state to observe “best practices.”

“If I’m here, this means that this is a best practice. The Department of Education feels this is a best practice,” Repollet told the students.
He described a best practice as an activity that has students “engaged and producing finished products.”

The I-Lab, as it’s referred to, is a no-textbook zone where students learn through experimentation and discovery.
As a part of the walkthrough, students were proud to show Repollet the activities set up at each station. It was coding week at Hurden Looker Elementary, so each station revolved around the week’s theme.

The four stations included a robot called Sphero; a coding station; 3D printing; and an electrical circuit kit.
Sphero is an orb-shaped robot capable of rolling around that can be controlled by a smartphone or tablet. The students were using drawings to program the robot to play the game Simon says.

At the 3D printing station, a student was creating a game piece for a fellow teacher. The lab has a problem bank, where teachers can request items that are missing from the classroom. Other items in the bank included an iPad holder and a doorstop.

“Here, students solve real life problems by selecting a problem from the bank,” Hillside Enrichment Program teacher Marta Tran said.
Students at the coding station used coding to program a computer character to dance; and the prewired electrical connections of a Snap Circuit kit were being connected to create working circuits.

All 500 Hurden Looker students visit the lab — HEP meets with Tran twice a week and all other classes see her every other week.
The stations change about every two weeks, according to Tran, who has set up a board for students to write down what they want to create throughout the school year.

Some of the ideas on the “I Want to Make” board include a unicorn pencil case, slime and a dinosaur robot.
“Kids come in and tell me what they want to make, and hopefully throughout the year, I can eventually get to whatever they want,” Tran said in an interview with LocalSource. “Of course, it’s a lot of planning, but it’s so much fun because the kids love coming here. They enjoy it so much.”
Principal Tracey Wolff gave Tran credit for the lab’s success.

“Mrs. Tran has been the Hillside enrichment teacher for many years, and she’s been doing a lot of great work with technology type based activities like robotics and building an amusement park of Legos,” she said in an interview with LocalSource. “The students love her and she’s just been great with researching everything.”

At some stations, Tran has QR codes — a label machines can read — set up; here students can use the school’s iPad to scan the code and to view a video with detailed instructions on how to complete a task.

“The kids are more independent and (the codes) help keep them on track,” Tran added.
It also helps her keep track of what the students are accomplishing, she said.
Superintendent Antoine Gayles, Hillside Board of Education President Hawaiian Thompson-Epps, board members Joi Stanley and Rayba Watson and various administrators also visited the I-Lab.

“We’re so proud of what’s happening and not even just in this classroom, but throughout the district,” Gayles told the LocalSource after the visit.
While the Hurden Looker lab is the first in the district, two others are in the works at Abraham P. Morris Early Childhood Center and Washington Elementary School.

“As we develop this kind of pre-k through 12 STEAM track, these labs will be the connecting pieces as kids transition through Hillside Public Schools,” Gayles added, referring to the term used to describe science, technology, engineering, art and math study.