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The Fellowship of the Media Lab: The Dawn of Imagination

imagination celebrationFriday night hosted the Imagination Celebration, an evening to celebrate all the hard work the incredible 2nd and 3rd graders of the Baden Academy Media Lab accomplished throughout the year.

The Media Lab opened its doors this year with a vision from Mr. Stephen Cantanzarite to renovate an old science lab and create a research fellows program. I was invited to implement this vision, alongside a dynamic gifted and talented teacher Mrs. Karie Walaan, and the phenomenally creative staff at the new charter school.

The year began as the original research fellows fell through a Wonderland rabbit hole of ideas to identify their childhood dreams and heroes. Childhood Dreams included:

“I want to make five dimensional movies”
“I want to find an awesome video game that I love!”
“I want to help endangered sea life and learn more about preventing oil spills”
“I want to play with technology and robots”
“I want to go lava tubing, space jumping, and Challenger deep sea diving”

3rd Grader, Eli L., followed their journeys and created a short documentary of the lab’s first year.


As students began to identify their dreams, they were challenged to research more. Each student sequestered themselves into a hobbit hole of research to delve deeper into what they were passionate about and find out what was happening in the real world with the subject they lov­­ed.  Blog posts at the Baden Academy Media Lab website will be posted over the next few weeks exploring each in more detail. Suffice it today to make a brief mention only of

  • Izzy K’s research of dolphins led her to look at the Gulf oil spill and translate her passion into a children’s book that not only educates kids about dolphins and the Gulf oil spill, but also raises funds for Dolphin Smart.
  • Kate H’s research of snakes and sculptures that she auctioned off to raise $120 for the Pittsburgh Zoo’s reptile collection and their efforts to save endangered snakes.
  • Veronica J’s research into hamsters which is opening up a research fellowship for next year.

When students had researched their way to a direction, they set their goals and began to build a prototype.  The prototype “mediums” in the Media Lab includes robots, video game and animation programming, storyboard, book and website templates, and equipment to record stop motion, still photos and moving pictures. As the lab continues to grow, I hope to include programmable electronic prototyping equipment.

One of the first Research Fellows to use the robots for their project was Ava whose “Robot Invasion” project was highlighted in the media in April. Owen R-K’s comprehensive project spanned math education, video game design, psychology, and statistics. The media lab also hosted students who joined us mid-year and worked in small groups on various units. To distinguish them from the research fellows they were called “Innovators.”  Miriam W. and Eric C. spoke of their experience as innovators and the CS2N Scratch competition that students in the lab entered.

As students completed prototypes, it was time to consider how to make their ideas come to life for others. The Media Lab’s Disney Imagineering Lab Table gives them a creative space learn to manipulate photos, format text on a page, design a web site, and edit a movie. Skylar premiered her video short  at the Imagination Celebration and explained the steps she is taking to help make this film into a fundraiser for dance scholarships.  Lexi and Courtney shared the adventures of editing the the filmed archive version of the school play Alice in Wonderland.

Another corner of the lab the kids call “Pooh Corner” It is a space for reflection and recovery, a hundred acre wood to play and process hard lessons learned.  Mrs. Karie Walaan and I took the stage to discuss what we call the Media Lab’s Hundred Acre Wood Failure Lab.  We explained that we wanted students to experience failure, to experience the need for collaborators and the difficulties of limitations.  Karie and I shared our own desire to model for the students what it is to make take a risk and revise our thinking to see through problems to opportunities.  In our first year attempts to bring in new students throughout the year, we found the new students weren’t able to cover the ground of the original research fellows had already covered. We needed to clearly identify the difference between those who were research fellows and those who we came to call “innovators.”

We made brief mention of our lab space “Star Theater” before the media lab research fellows and innovators took a bow and led our guests in the Lab itself. Book signings, snake sculpture raffle tickets, research displays, robots, video games, and cookies raised the celebration to joyous overtones.  It was a nice culmination of many months of hard work.

I have found a community of teachers who enthusiastically embrace the disruptions of 3rd grade programmers with attacking robots, storytelling authors and video game designers seeking to test the latest customization of their game. I have found a school administration willing to take a risk with a new approach to learning. I have found good friends in fellow teachers and parents. Most importantly, I have found this exceptional group of students who surprise me twice a week with laughter and curiosity and a willingness to leap into the unknown.  My computer wake up song sings “You are a pirate” (a vestige of Ian’s practical jokes).  Indeed, I have found treasure. Arrrr!

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