SMALLab turns classroom on its head at Elizabeth Forward Middle School

Elizabeth Forward Middle School opens a SMALLab to create multimodal learning environment that reinvents the traditional classroom.

Tucked into the rolling hills of the southeast corner of Allegheny County, Elizabeth Forward Middle School is nothing if not unassuming. Horses graze on the pasture that runs alongside the school’s property. Inside the school, down the front hall, an open classroom door reveals a lesson in applying peer-reviewing skills to your own work.

But across the hall from the traditional middle school scene, another classroom has been stripped of its institutional splendor and turned into a vibrant green and purple otherworld. The dropped-ceiling tiles have been removed in favor of an exposed industrial-hip look. On the floor, rather than desk clusters or rows of tables, lie 15×15 feet of interlocking white, squishy Wondermat puzzle pieces.

Welcome to SMALLab.

Officially founded in 2010, SMALLab Learning’s title project (which stands for Situated Multimedia Arts Learning Laboratory) had been in the works for several years prior. Dr. David Birchfield led a collaborative team of nine co-inventors and twelve contributors at Arizona State University. The group included designers, educators, and researchers from disciplines as diverse as performing arts and computer science, among many others.

The goal, says Birchfield, was this: what was a “holistic way to blend the disciplines”? How could this then be applied to a physically active experience? The technical name for this is “embodied learning,” which is the combination of kinesthetic, collaborative, and multimodal components. The theory is is that people learn through their bodies. They learn well when they work together.

Perfect, in other words, for antsy, socially blossoming middle schoolers.

Inside Elizabeth Forward’s reconstituted classroom, Birchfield himself (along with the help of EF School District’s Mary Beth Wiseman and Jeffrey Stolkovich) installed twelve cameras and a projector up into the open ceiling.

“We put the technology in the background,” says Birchfield, the idea being that while technology is making SMALLab possible, SMALLab isn’t actually about technology—it really just creates another avenue for learning.

SMALLab’s motion-capture system works similarly to Wii and other interactive gaming devices. From the projector comes any number of backdrops such as graphs for math or science classes. Students then, individually or in small groups, interact with the projection by holding onto wands and moving around the mat. They become the points that make a parabola. They shift, the graft shifts.

Aside from the obvious change in the basic classroom structure, there are also nods to other shifts in what is now being considered fundamental to education. For instance, in SMALLab, teachers are not physically the head of the class; they are not the center of the action.

“Instead of Sage on the Stage, it’s more Guide on the Side,” says Elizabeth Forward Superintendent Bart Rocco. The trend here is to empower students and allow them to become active participants in the learning process. With the technology itself, students and teachers are often learning side-by-side—or, as is sometimes the case, the students are the ones doing the teaching. But content-wise, interactive and collaborative learning encourage students to take charge of the material and their use of it.

Rocco and Assistant Superintendent Todd Keruskin first saw SMALLab on a visit to Chicago. They thought the unusual pedagogical model would pair well with the direction the school district is going on a few levels. Elizabeth Forward High School is home to the Entertainment Technology Academy, a four-year certificate program dedicated to myriad aspects video games—everything from design to storytelling to programming to the history and current state of the industry itself. By introducing interactive technology and a changing classroom environment to the middle school students, they will be more at ease when they reach the increasingly advanced high school.

Installation of SMALLab also allows the district to continue its partnership with the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon. CMU’s BrainSTEM team will spend the year studying how children learn in different environments (for instance, seeing how children interact with the very many physical objects at the Children’s Museum) and will aim for six tester SMALLab scenarios which will be sifted down to three refined scenarios that full classes will be able to use. (SMALLab Learning offers 23 scenarios and games.)

Lastly, SMALLab’s interactive element compliments EFMS’s team-oriented atmosphere. Each grade (6-8) is divided into two teams, which aid in developing and maintaining a collaborative (sometimes fun-competitive) environment for students and teachers alike. By its very nature, SMALLab encourages teamwork.

“People create things and they want to keep it close to their hearts,” says Rocco. “You can’t do that in education.”

EFMS is the third school in the country—the first public—to install SMALLab, an opportunity made possible with a $20,000 Allegheny Intermediate Unit grant. SMALLab fits into AIU’s STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Math) initiative, which itself fits into the nationwide STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) movement.

Of the partnership between SMALLab Learning and EFMS, Birchfield says, “It’s a good fit,” but, given the other elements, that seems to be true of so much more.

Published September 28, 2012