TOWSON, Md. — In addition to having helped students learn by getting them to school, a school bus here now offers them several hands-on learning opportunities on board.
On Dec. 1, Baltimore County Public Schools unveiled what it calls its Mobile Innovation Lab, a mobile classroom and “makerspace” built on a school bus. The lab gives students the opportunity to learn about coding, programming, robotics, and circuitry in a hands-on environment.
The lab features six computer stations and indoor and outdoor presentation screens and audio. Equipment on board includes 3D printers; a vinyl cutter; a computer numerical control (CNC) router for cutting hard materials such as wood, steel, and plastics; mini-drones; Legos; a flat-screen television; and robotics and electrical components. The back of the lab also has space for two 6-foot “L”-shaped activity tables. Work carts can be used inside the lab, outside under its retractable awning, or taken into school buildings.
The lab will rotate among elementary schools throughout the district, staying at each one for a weeklong residency. The lab also will be available on request for school and community events.
Maker learning, which stems from the maker movement, is a new initiative designed to inspire students to explore, develop, create, and build using real industry tools, said Ryan Imbriale, executive director of the department of innovative learning at Baltimore County Public Schools.
“The equipment on the bus is applicable to today’s world and what adults are using to design and create,” Imbriale said.
Many of the tools in the lab also may be too expensive for some schools to have onsite, or they may be so new that some schools wouldn’t know about them yet, he added.
The lab was developed by the Office of Innovative Learning Projects, based in part on their consultation with teachers and other school staff members. Beginning with an out of service school bus as the shell, nearly every aspect of the lab was collaboratively designed and built by staff in the innovative learning, transportation, and information technology departments. Some of the equipment was donated by the educational nonprofit Digital Promise and Hewlett-Packard.
During the lab’s weeklong residency at each school, students will be able to spend significant time doing activities that are directly tied to the academic subjects they are learning about, Imbriale said.
For example, one of the activities students have participated in so far ties to English class: They used Legos to capture the mood of a story. Students have also learned about design and engineering processes by programing robotics equipment using electronic and circuitry components.
The transportation department began working with the district’s department of information technology and electricians on converting the bus in June after school ended, and delivered it at the end of October, said Kenny West, assistant director of transportation.
A bus with a wheelchair lift that was going out of service was selected as the project vehicle, offering the ability to take everything meant to be done on the mobile lab into a school or outside.
Transportation department technicians installed a 16-foot awning on the right side of the bus so it could be turned into a teaching area, added a 60-inch flat screen television on one side of the bus in a secure waterproof box, and put in brackets to hold two 850-pound generators.
The lab is also mobile in the sense that some of the equipment aboard is mobile, Imbriale said. Located in cabinets underneath countertops in the lab are tool chests on wheels that lock when the bus is in motion, and can come off the bus using the wheelchair lift.
“You can have students in the lab, outside the lab, and have things going on inside a school building at the same time,” Imbriale said.
Helping to create the lab gave the technicians the opportunity to support student learning in a different capacity, West said.
“When Ryan talks about having students engage in different ways, using tools to create things, that’s exactly what we did with this bus,” West explained. “The technicians got to showcase their skill set, and there was a lot of creativity and spontaneous decision-making.”
Imbriale added that he gained an appreciation for the technicians’ skill and talent.
“What they were able to do in terms of applying their own thinking and design concepts to make it real for kids is magic,” he said. “I’m sure it’s the kind of talent found in shops all across this country. It was a project that broke us out of our molds on both sides — academic and transportation. That alone is an incredible experience.”
The work didn’t end there, though: Imbriale and other staff members obtained CDLs as part of the project so they can drive the bus as needed and to support the new school resources teacher, who helps students in the lab and was required to get a CDL for the position.
That was a learning process in itself, Imbriale added, one that gave him a new appreciation for school bus drivers.
“That was not an easy task," he said. "It’s more technical than I realized. It was a great experience.”