Inside Peek: Newton North High School’s Innovation Lab

 After two snowy days at the NAIS Conference in Boston, the GLP team spent the last afternoon touring Newton North High School’s classrooms and Innovation Lab. The Graham Gund designed school is located 20 minutes—and a world away—from the NAIS “conference-speak” of design innovation. Here is the “real deal”: energetic kids, bubbling flasks, tangible projects, and inspiring educators.

Dr. Jennifer Price, the school’s principal, greeted us and immediately introduced us to a large, artificial tree in the school’s lobby. The tree’s branches sprouted UBS and electrical cords, allowing community members to charge up their computers, phones, and various devices. “The tree is one of the more simple projects from our design lab,” Dr. Price explained, “but it is also one of the most widely used.” We spent the next two hours touring through the spacious and bright halls of Newton North, peering into a variety of classrooms and were eventually introduced to Steve Chinosi, founder of the Innovation Lab, and a group of his students, who spiritedly explained their projects in aquaponics, bio-fuels, and plastic ocean gyres.

A brief history: The Innovation Lab at Newton North was created 8 years ago (more than a little ahead of the curve) while they were still in their old, very crowded building, two years before moving into the gleaming, new, sunny structure that now houses 2,000 students. What has developed is not just a lab space but an experimental attitude that permeates the whole school including curriculum development and new programs (e.g. a senior year capstone experience, vocational programs, internships in the community). No one at Newton North is talking about dismantling the school’s advanced curriculum or AP program, simply about making room for a different kind of teaching and learning to take root in the same building. Not surprisingly, there is a lot of cross-pollination, fertilization and growth happening within the walls of a once traditional high school.

The following photos provide a “picture-is-better-than-a-thousand-words” tour of some of the energy and innovation we witnessed—even during a last period on Friday afternoon.

Project-based learning and creative problem solving takes place in lots of classrooms besides the innovation lab. It seems to be contagious. We saw half a dozen classrooms where students showed us their projects. Newton North has computer design rooms, mechanical engineering, wood working, and architectural and CAD design space. One advantage of a big school: more offerings.

In the design and visual classroom, we were awed by the scope and ambition of one of the class undertakings. The blue pole with light is a prototype for a pedestrian alert system that will be installed in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, a city with the highest level of pedestrian fatalities in the world. The project was student-initiated, evolved over two years of design work and testing, and will eventually be installed throughout Ethiopia’s capital city.

In the architecture and CAD design classroom, students built a three-dimensional model of their school and were using CAD software to design outdoor classroom and gathering spaces with support from the Parents Association. What struck me most in both classrooms was that students were solving real problems (traffic fatalities in Ethiopia, needed school space). As one teacher noted, “When there is genuine purpose in the learning, student engagement is pretty amazing.”

The actual Innovation Lab at Newton North is not that big—and certainly not that fancy. Think garage space rather than pristine research lab. There is an area where students learn the basics of green engineering and build equipment for bio-diesel production; another area for material design, where students create objects out of new forms of biodegradable plastics; and another space for educating people about the growing problem of gigantic plastic gyres in the world’s oceans. Steven Chinosi, who founded the Innovation Lab, says they try to be sure all interested students have an opportunity to work in the lab during their four years. My take away: this kind of space is far cheaper for schools to build—and far more stimulating—than traditional science labs and buildings.

This last picture shows a multi-year, aquaponic research project underway. Students delve into mechanical engineering (constructing their own fluid dynamic systems); chemistry (for water sample analysis); and biology (for the ultimate goal of being able to produce both fish and food from algae). We saw lots of recycled plastic containers filled with bubbly green liquid (total cost of the experiment was $15 for the air pumps from Petco) and highly engaged students explaining their work with a scientific vocabulary that intimidated this former English teacher. Interesting fact: 60% of the students in the innovation lab are girls and 30-35% have IEPS. Diversity rules!