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Rectory’s New Innovation Lab a Hub for Technological Creativity
Megan Bard, Associate Director of Communications

With relevant programming in place, a location identified, and opportunity awaiting, the Rectory School Innovation Lab—a hub for creative thinking with a technological strand meant to elicit curiosity, invite challenge, and, ultimately, enjoy success—was born in the summer of 2021.

“I want it to grow into a visible demonstration of the new and innovative programming and opportunities that the students are exploring here at Rectory School,” Head of School Fred Williams said of the Innovation Lab.

Located in the middle of Rectory’s main academic building, the Innovation Lab is connected to the Hettinger Library, which has traditionally been a hub for the school community.

“At the middle school level, we want this space to be a springboard for our students’ future exploration. It can provide a foundation for students to dip their toes into these different classes that could light a passion that we didn’t know was there,” said Lisa Hart, director of academics. “It also creates a space for students to develop a new respect for someone who does have this passion, even if they discover it’s not for them.”

The lab, which includes classroom and production space and various devices necessary for digital media shooting and editing, computer coding, and 3D printing, will provide middle and upper elementary school students the opportunity to explore. The dedicated space for these courses invites students to learn how they can be connected and encourages curiosity about applying what they learn in the Innovation Lab to their classroom projects. It also provides a supportive environment to tinker, fail, and learn.

“Having a space specifically built for technology represents a commitment from Rectory to set itself apart from other schools in how its graduates approach the technological questions and issues that permeate every aspect of our society,” said Dylan Klett, computer science teacher.

Three faculty members will use the space to lead middle school students through interactive and hands-on lessons involving coding, media production, and 3D printing during the fall term. In addition, Grade 4 students will use the space for an introduction to digital innovation, which will support their classroom lessons. For example, using 3D printing, they will replicate a specific bone during their human skeleton unit and learn basic code to program a car to navigate a set course.

“We have this vision of getting them comfortable with the computer, teaching them how to use basic programs they’ll need throughout middle and high school. Then we want to expose them to the world of coding, of 3D printing, and show them what can happen in a digital media class. When they’re exposed to coding at a younger age, it can light a fire,” said Donna Dubinsky, Rectory’s director of technology and 3D printing elective teacher.

While fourth graders will use it to learn new programs to support classroom curriculum, students in grades five through nine will participate in electives and core curriculum classes that focus on certain aspects of technology.

Two Makerbot 3-D printers in the foreground with a class of students working on computers i n the background.

Introduction to 3D Printing Elective

In March 2019, the School purchased three Makerbot 3D printers an elective the following spring. Then the pandemic hit. With the return to in-person learning in the fall of 2020, Mrs. Dubinsky was able to show off the printers, which were housed in the former tutor stations adjacent to the technology department offices, but she wanted them more accessible to students.

“It was really important to get this technology into a space that helps to create excitement around technology and 3D printing. Students who aren’t in the class know what we’re doing, and they’re getting excited, too,” she said.

On the first day, students dove into the process with varying degrees of success. Since day two, they have taken a few steps back using programs such as tinkercad to design the objects they intend to print in order to learn the importance of angles and support, plane and volume, and overall design structure.

“If it fails miserably, that is great! It means that they get to go back and evaluate where the design was flawed and consider how to correct it,” Dubinsky said. “By allowing them to do that instead of listening to me explain the process using a marker and whiteboard, they are learning so much more.”

Digital Arts

Long a favorite among Rectory ninth graders, the digital arts class has functioned quite nicely, but having a hub to call home can only benefit the students and their teacher, Ryan Finnegan.

“The space allows the students to brainstorm ideas and use the multipurpose green screen wall for projects,” Finnegan said. The additional Mac desktops mean the students will have their own device and necessary software for individual and group digital art and film editing production.  

“It also gives me as their teacher the opportunity to expand projects and create a larger space for them to be completed. I am excited to see the future of this new lab,” Mr. Finnegan said.

What could that future entail? The creation of a complete studio for students to film and conduct interviews for different classes. Creating a proper editing suite for film production will enhance audiovisual presentations for core-curricular assignments and end-of-year projects.

Computer Science

Like any blank canvas, so much of the excitement around the Innovation Lab comes from the possibilities it represents, according to Mr. Klett.

“This space is eagerly waiting to be filled with equipment that will enable Rectory students to attack thorny programming problems, participate in CTF hacking events, and build apps that will solve problems and find audiences on the infinite world of the web,” he said.

The ability to extend the space even further by folding back doors to an adjacent classroom creates greater possibilities for technology teachers to work with their peers on projects and presentations involving newer and bolder ideas for teaching and to build upon the existing curriculum or the next great thing.

Computer Science students already learn JavaScript, create websites using HTML and CSS, create virtual environments, and so much more. Prior to the start of school, Mr. Klett installed a fully capable server and network infrastructure in the lab. Advanced CS students will make use of this architecture to study cybersecurity techniques from an offense and defense perspective and better understand network communications.

When asked what he’d like to see in the lab’s future, Mr. Klett dreamed big: holding Rectory's version of a tech industry staple, a hackathon.

“This would involve bringing together technical students and communities from other schools for a party full of ideas, collaboration, and cool things being built. When I was a new tech student in Manhattan, these were some of my favorite ways to learn new skills, make connections, and find new friends, and I can't wait to share it with Rectory's students as soon as we're able,” he said.

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