/ Articles / Firebird SmartLab kicks off its first year at Minocqua J1 School District

Firebird SmartLab kicks off its first year at Minocqua J1 School District

October 01, 2019 by Kayla Houp

Students at the Minocqua J1 School District now have access to over 400 different activities across 60 different content areas as the school opens its Firebird SmartLab for the school year.

The Minocqua J1 School Board unanimously approved a contract with Colorado-based Creative Learning Systems to establish a SmartLab for students to learn, build, and apply skills.

Over the summer, a new floor, drop ceiling, and locally made custom furniture were invested into the unique, one-of-a-kind lab.

SmartLabs require specific specialized furniture, the board opted to work with Minocqua Wood Products, LLC to build tables and desks for the lab.

“Not only did we save a ton of money, but we were able to keep a whole lot of that money right here local,” Firebird SmartLab director Jason Yates said.

Yates used his previous experience working with SmartLabs to collaborate with Minocqua Wood Products to design the furniture.

Part of what makes the SmartLab unique is its set up. Rather than have the entire class working on one project, the lab is set up into four islands that have three computers apiece. With each peninsula working on a different project, Yates said there can be as many as 12 projects going on when the lab is full.

However, Yates said he tended to use activities the whole class could work on for younger students.

“We are introducing them, because the lab is actually designed for fourth to eighth grade, but because I have been in this lab before, I already know how to incorporate the younger grades into it,” Yates said. 

The SmartLab offers programs which allow students the opportunity to have a hands-on application of skills learned through the programs. One such program is based around civil engineering, where students can essentially become civil engineers and design bridges tested through the software. Another is based around architecture, where students can design and plan out homes using programs used by real architects.

Yates said one of the big things the district wanted to do with the lab, was not only connect with the rest of the school through projects, but also connect with the community.

“We had the open house and hundreds of people came through here,” Yates said. “They’re really excited about it. I’m really excited about it.”

Yates said when he had spoken to parents who came through the open house, he learned many of them owned, managed, or worked with companies that were excited about working with the school.

Yates intends to bring in professionals from different skilled trades throughout the year, as well as bringing in some elements of basic tech ed.

One of the things Yates said he heard a lot was people were sad tech ed had left middle, and there was a great need in the Northwoods for skilled tradespeople.

“What I want to do is I would love to inspire some interest in some of these kids to get out there and go into some of these different fields,” Yates said.

Aside from the programs in the SmartLab, the lab also has a variety of basic tools for students to get a familiarity with.

“I want students to be able to take all of this rote memorized information that they have inside their heads, and I want them to be able to come in here and do something absolutely novel with all of that information,” Yates said.

Not just a lab

According to Yates, the SmartLab will never be obsolete, as its equipment and curriculum are continuously updated through a yearly monetary stipend provided by Creative Learning Systems.

“It’s a cool place. It truly is. It’s like Disneyland for your brain in here,” Yates said.

The curriculum provided gives students background information about the subjects they’re learning about, allowing them to develop a deeper understanding while also having the hands-on component.

“That’s what’s so incredible about this program, is that it’s not just doing, but it’s learning about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, and connecting it to, not only their core subjects, but everything that’s going on outside of school,” Yates said.

Students access the programs through the SmartLab launchpad that breaks down the programs into different genres, which are then broken down into different types of projects. Projects are then broken down into levels that each have a different challenge.

“It tells you what you’re going to be doing, stuff you’ll need, what you should know, so it gives you all the background information on what you’re gonna be doing. It walks you through it,” Yates said.

From designing comic books and stop-motion animation to designing bridges and homes, the SmartLab has a diverse variety of programs tailored to providing students an opportunity to not only learn, but to apply what they’ve learned in a tangible way to the real world.

“The kids are excited. They’re really excited about learning, and this is a perfect mix between technology and hands-on,” Yates said. 

While the SmartLab is preparing kids for jobs that exist, as well as jobs that may not exist yet, one of the larger goals circles back to community involvement and fostering a relationship with the community.

“I really want to improve and grow that relationship between the community and MHLT,” Yates said. “That’s one of the big things.”

Yates also expressed gratitude toward Minocqua J1 district administrator Dr. Jim Ellis and the school board.

“It’s amazing, just having an administrator that supported and shared the vision of this place, and several of the school board members went down with us,” Yates said. “The school board has been supportive and they shared in this vision, and it’s here. It’s pretty amazing.”

Kayla Houp may be reached via email at [email protected]

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