- Associated Press - Thursday, September 24, 2015

RAWLINS, Wyo. (AP) - A little more than a week into the current school year, and already Rawlins Elementary School’s new SmartLab has people gushing.

“It’s amazing,” SmartLab Facilitator Misti Newby said. “On the first day, I gave an orientation. On the second day, students were coming in, logging on and getting into it.”

The SmartLab focuses on STEM, or science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and puts students in charge of their education. Newby said one class per grade level attends the lab 45 minutes a day in a six-day rotation before another class starts.

With all the classes the school has, Newby said each second and third-grade class will have three rotations through the lab, 18 days total, and fourth and fifth-grade classes with get four rotations, 24 days, due to having fewer of those grades.

Second-graders recently finished a project on levers and understanding simple machines using K’Nex tools “to build different examples of them,” Newby said.

So far, the students have bought into being responsible for their own learning, she said.

“The students are really excited about it,” Newby said. “Especially with the second-graders work; they think they’re playing with toys and when we get to take pictures of their projects and they show off what they made, it makes them very proud when they show they can solve a problem.”

The SmartLab consists of multiple “launches and liftoff challenges” and has students follow the “Score,” a sort of map checklist that guides them through the activity.

And they’ll stay busy, with Newby saying there were “hundreds of challenges.”

“Usually in the lab, each computer station will be working on a different project with the upper grade levels,” Newby said. “With second and third graders, we wanted to give them one of the challenges that would keep them all doing the same basic thing so they had people to ask if they had questions, but still have a variety in what they could work on.”

She said asking questions was one of the major parts of the lab, following a rule of “three before me.”

“Students have to ask three other people or check other resources before they can ask me a question,” Newby said. “And even then it’s more of me questioning them - ‘What have you tried? Where have you looked?’”

Newby also said the student’s own responsibility for learning was visually placed throughout the room, carrying the theme of “the monkey is on your back.” Stuffed monkeys hang around the room, along with a large poster bearing those words.

“We talk about what that means and the fact they are in charge of how far they get in what they accomplish and learn,” Newby said.

Having kids effectively teaching themselves and each other has a “huge benefit,” Newby said.

She said students asking each other for help also benefited the student who gets asked because they “also get a deeper learning by being able to teach and explain it.”

“Too many times, our kids — and this was the case in my classroom last year — raise their hand and say, ‘I don’t get it,’ before reading the rules or even having attempted it,” she said. “This puts it on them. They need to show me they’re making the effort to problem solve and see what they can come up with.”

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Information from: Rawlins (Wyo.) Daily Times, https://www.rawlinstimes.com

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