The Engineering Lab, a "maker space" where students leverage science and technology to engineer solutions that lead to better lives for our citizens & society
The Life Sciences Lab, where students tackle exciting projects at the forefront of science, including biological engineering, new media medicine, body computing, genetics, wireless health, brain and cognitive sciences, and computational biology
The Computing / New Technologies Lab, where students get immersed in the exciting world of computing – and explore how new technologies will shape our world (e.g. cloud computing, internet of things, data science, virtual reality, machine learning, cybersecurity)
Our Action Learning Labs enable students to participate in three interdisciplinary labs, where they apply classroom learnings and engage in real-life projects: deep dives into current topics that provoke imagination, ignite passion, and improve their lives and the lives of others – in their communities and across the world.
In the Life Sciences Lab, students may study the idea of Biocouture - the act of growing clothing in a lab. The process of growing clothing is similar to that of making Kombucha (Asian fermented tea). To grow their clothing, students set up a heated insulated bathtub, called a bioreactor. (This means that they begin to learn about engineering and biology right from the start of the project.) They fill the vat with tea, sugar, other ingredients, and what fermenters call the "mother" and biologists call the SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast).
These bacteria and yeast work together to grow a semi-solid mat that floats on top of the liquid growth medium. The floating mat is removed from the bioreactor after a couple of weeks and formed around a mold to make a shoe, a jacket, a skirt, or pants. Different mats can be pressed together to make what is called "vegetable leather" without cutting or stitching. Once the material is dry, the clothing is ready to wear. However, vegetable leather may still absorb water after drying and may even dissolve in a heavy rain (the technology is still quite new), so experiments in hydrophobic additives (to make the leather shed water) are built into the project. In fact, the whole process of growing one's own clothing opens up hundreds of avenues for exploration and invention.
There are many spin-off experiments that students can pursue. Algae can take the place of bacteria to grow different kinds of fabrics or other materials. Students whose artistic sense runs toward fashion can stretch their skills with new clothing designs. Students interested in Synthetic Biology (the creation of new biological organisms) may be intrigued by what else they can grow in a vat (medicine, metals, toxic-waste-consuming microbes). Students interested in tissue culture for medical uses (growing arteries, bladders, and skin grafts) can use their new knowledge of bioreactors to experiment with medical applications.
Follow-on questions are inevitable. What else can the fabric (bacterial cellulose) be used for? Can students use the tissue culture techniques they learn from Biocouture to grow cartilage to replace damaged ears? Can they use them on a larger scale in biomimetic architecture to grow furniture? Can they substitute electrogenic bacteria (bacteria that produce electricity) to make a system that runs the school's computers? Pond bacteria often contain geomagnetic sensors to distinguish up from down. Since these bacteria act like the binary switches in a computer, can they be grown in a vat to create an organic computer? Can the hydrophobic coating invented for vat-grown clothing also be used in Art projects (sprayed on the sidewalk over a stencil) to create "rain-activated art" (you don't see it on the sidewalk until it rains or someone pours water on it)? One project in Biocouture can trigger a thousand other projects and inventions.
In the Computing / New Technologies Lab, for example, students build a One-Eyed Robot starting with a sensor to detect light and a controller to move an axle. They hook the sensor and controller together and write the code that recognizes a light signal and triggers the wheel to move:
If light-detected Then turn axle If no light-detected Then stop axle
In one class period, students build a simple robot that moves when the light turns on. And what they've learned in that endeavor can be used to build much bigger projects and to write much more difficult code. Put a camera on the robot and it films as it moves. Put a sonic sensor on it and it comes when called. Add a speaker and a recorded sound effect, and it barks when called. After only a few sessions, an Artificial Pet begins to emerge. And everything from quadcopters flying in formation to mechas begin to be possible.
In the Engineering Lab, for example, students start with warm water and add cream of tartar (potassium bitartrate). Then they spoon in baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) that has been baked to create sodium carbonate. This mixture dries over a few days to form a crystal called a Rochelle salt. This crystal is piezoelectric. (When you squeeze it or strike it, it releases an electrical charge.) So, students can generate a small amount of electricity just by stepping on it. In the second part of the project, they engineer a panel that covers the crystal and wire the crystal to feed its electrical output to a light. Step on the panel and the light goes on.
Change the light to a sound producer and a note sounds. Make eight panels in eight descending tones and that's an octave. Step on the panels to make music on a danceable piano. Or send the output to a switch and turn on the lights in a room by stepping on the panel. Send the output to a battery and store enough to power a cell phone or computer. Change the generator from a piezoelectric crystal to moss (ordinary moss generates electrical ions as it grows) and make a moss photovoltaic. Plant moss on the roof of the school and generate power. Students can apply these concepts to create a power generating shoe to charge their music player. Start with a simple idea and branch out to other creative paths.
We start with the basics in the first year Action Learning Labs. In later years, project ideas come from students who use their new hands-on knowledge to create innovative products on their own - at, eventually, advanced levels of sophistication. Part of STEAM STUDIO'S mission is to foster creativity and intellectual fearlessness, and Action Learning Labs are designed to do that.
In Action Learning Labs, students are encouraged to manipulate the physical world, starting simply and building their confidence at each level, showing students that the basic processes are simple and easy to learn.
In the Life Sciences project, incubating clothing teaches students how to grow cells - the basic building block of all biological lab work. In the Computing project, writing the code to make a small autonomous pet teaches students the idea of an algorithm (a process followed by a computer) - the basis for all computational work. And in the Engineering project, students developing their own touch-sensitive electrical systems learn the basics of chemical formulation (to make the crystal), mechanical application (to capture the steps), and electrical circuits (to store or use the generated electricity).
How Do Action Learning Labs Work?
We start with a question, an idea, or a technology. And to make the experience as rich as possible, we aim for big questions, stimulating ideas, and unexplored technologies that can lead students in many productive directions – within and across labs. Our approach is modeled after MIT Sloan School’s Action Learning methodology.
Then we give students the road maps and scaffolds to move from building a one-eyed robot to building an electronic pet, from growing vegetable leather to growing a human ear, from making sparks with foot pressure to growing an electricity farm on the roof.