Montour Elementary opens world's first Lego Brick Makerspace
The Montour Elementary School library is home to more than just books. In fact, the books are outnumbered by hundreds of tiny, brightly colored Lego building blocks.
The bright, open space — dubbed the world's first Brick Makerspace by Lego Education — is designed to give students room to move around, work together and build. The school celebrated the grand opening of the space on Thursday.
Math and science teacher Linda Ewonce has already used the classroom with her fourth-graders to practice fractions and multiplication. For the past two weeks, her students have been building Lego structures and lighting them up with homemade circuits from LED lights, button batteries and copper tape.
"They're very engaged, they're working collaboratively," Ewonce said, explaining that students are more likely to retain knowledge if they're engaged and having fun while learning.
"We usually work in our science books, but that's not really as fun," said fourth-grader Kira Faerovitch. Her classmate Bella Bodnar was quick to reply, "But when we're here, we're creative and do whatever we want."
The Brick Makerspace isn't the only unusual classroom at Montour Elementary, where no two classrooms look the same and teachers are encouraged to give students seating options other than a stiff chair and desk.
The building is also home to an "up-cycling room," where students can donate recycled materials and use them to tinker and build. Down another brightly lit hallway lined with students' artwork and class projects is the Minecraft Education Lab, an entire classroom dedicated to the Microsoft computer game intended to teach problem-solving skills. The classroom is decorated to resemble the game — pixelated dirt and grass scenes — and furnished with a classroom set of computers.
Superintendent Christopher Stone said every inch of the new elementary school, which opened in the fall of 2017, was designed to inspire creativity and innovation among students and teachers.
"Everything we've done in that building really is a calculated risk," Stone said. Though the departures from the traditional classroom — teacher and chalkboard at the front, students sitting in rows of desks — are grounded in research, Stone said there's a culture among teachers and administrators to experiment. He encouraged other educators to do the same.
"Where do we start? That's the question we hear time after time," Stone said.
The Brick Makerspace at Montour Elementary started as the passion-project of the school's co-principals, Jason Burik and Jason Shoaf. They reached out to Lego about two years ago and started brainstorming ways they could use Legos in the classroom in a productive way.
Though Burik is a Lego artist who has created works for professional sports leagues, universities and businesses, he emphasized that any school could get a project like this off the ground by getting creative with the resources they have around.
Many of the blocks were donated by families in the district, and high school students helped to build some of the work stations, he said. High school students interested in education have also started visiting the space with teachers to brainstorm lessons.
Lego Education did not provide any funding for the space, according to Kari Sherrod, spokeswoman for Lego Education.
The company will continue to advise Montour on design and curriculum, according to Silver McDonald, Head of Lego Education North America.
That partnership is something Justin Aglio, director of academic achievement and district innovation at Montour, is looking forward to.
"It's something that I think a lot of organizations undervalue," Aglio said. He sees the partnership with Lego as a two-way street: An opportunity for Montour to find creative ways to teach students while also giving feedback to companies that can help get these resources into other schools.
It's learning environments like the Brick Makerspace that County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who attended Thursday's grand opening, hopes will inspire the region's youngest builders and thinkers to stay in southwest Pennsylvania long after their elementary school days are behind them.
"The Montour School District's support for a maker culture by using innovative ideas and resources is empowering to its students for them to succeed, helping to keep the best and brightest here in this region and making the county a better place to live," Fitzgerald said in his remarks before declaring Feb. 22 Lego Education Day in Allegheny County.
I was delighted to designate today as #LEGODay in @Allegheny_Co . We know that makerspaces engage learners in creative problem solving through hands on design and construction, providing necessary skillsets for students in the 21st century. Happy @MontourSD @LEGO_Education day. pic.twitter.com/K5pgZlve0E— Allegheny Co. Exec. (@ACE_Fitzgerald) February 22, 2018
Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org, 724-850-2867 or on Twitter @Jamie_Martines.