Multi-faceted Refractions

Thoughts and Reflections from Vinnie Vrotny

Multi-faceted Refractions

A Year of Learning in Our Innovation Lab

April 15, 2014 · No Comments · Uncategorized

For our school’s quarterly magazine, I was asked to write a reflection updating the school community on what we have learned and done as a result of our having Innovation Lab. Here is my first draft:

Learning in the Innovation Lab

by Sheryl Peterson, Arturo Garcia, and Vinnie Vrotny

One year ago, we were actively working on the transformation of the Innovation Lab – choosing color schemes, ordering furniture, cabinets and lighting, ordering equipment, and developing the curricula that our middle school students would experience when they arrived this fall. Looking back at the year, we are excited about what the students have been able to build and create while at the same time noting what we want to tweak and improve in the following years. Here is a sample of what we have learned from the students throughout the year.

More Them, Less Us

Especially in the Computer Science and Design and Engineering trimesters, we have created a framework which allows for student’s to explore the skill to suit their passions rather than having the entire class do the same activity. There are two benefits that this approach have emerged that even visiting educators have observed and commented on. The first is that the students are more engaged in their projects since they control the path of their own learning. The second benefit is the cross-learning which occurs naturally through the interactions and exchanges between learners within the classroom. This co-learning sparks new ideas and pathways to explore from simply inquiring and sharing what they are learning.

This shift in classroom culture and mindset has not occurred naturally. In the fall, we had to push students out of their comfort zone. Many students initially struggled with the notion that they had to find their ideas rather than being handed one, that there was not a common end product, or that we would not answer their question, “is this good enough?” Students were uncomfortable with the notion that this class was about learning rather than teaching. Now in the spring, they have adjusted to this culture shift and we have watched numerous students soar now that they have been given the freedom to define their own path.

Flexible + Adaptive = Explosion of Possibilities

The new lighting, new color palate, and new furniture have changed the mood and functionality of the space. Students now routinely come into the classroom and either set up the tables, group them together to create team workspaces, or move them aside depending on whether they are wanting to film on the green screen, use Makey Makeys, work on design proejcts, or continue on a programming project. Simply reclaiming an area defined for teacher use and not having the First Lego Robotics table dominate the central learning area has allowed the space to be better utilized. We have also created our own project boards where ideas can be sketched, created, and saved for later use. These ideas also spark new creative notions in other students for their own projects.

With all of the furniture on wheels, except the computer workstations and laser cutter, we are able to expand making and building beyond the Innovation Lab and we now move equipment and tools into the Middle School Commons or an individual classroom for specific projects. The flexibility afforded by this type of design allow for creativity and innovation to occur anywhere and everywhere creating a culture and mindset around invention and tinkering rather instead of students feeling that this type of work has to be done in one specialized and defined space.

Students Breaking Barriers

The tools and culture that has been established in the Innovation Lab has allowed students to break through barriers and begin to build and create new and wonderful projects. We have had sixth graders prototyping new furniture mash-ups, combining the functionality of two different pieces of furniture like a table and a bed using the laser cutter and 3d printer. Students have created controllers using Legos and coins, recycled and repurposed joysticks, mini hockey sticks, and gummi worms for programs they have programmed themselves. We have seen students etch and print gifts for siblings, parents, and grandparents. Students have created projects designed to raise awareness of topics surrounding digital citizenship. Parts have been designed and cut for a tower garden for service learning. Math manipulatives have been designed in Minecraft and printed for use in the classroom. Custom designed play-doh cutters have been printed for Koalas and Otters based upon their current units of study. Choral binders now display vinyl-cut Quest Q’s. We have eighth graders building robots that will teach Otters, Koalas, Manatees, and Dolphins the basics of programming.

We are just beginning to scratch the surface and understand what may be possible. We are excited to see what the future holds.


MakerEd Teachers – Share With Us @ ISTE 2014

March 21, 2014 · No Comments · Uncategorized

2014-03-21_12-06-05At the upcoming 2014 ISTE Conference in Atlanta, the Independent School Special Interest Group (SIG-IS) is organizing one of the many playgrounds that will be at the conference.

Our playground, Maker Playground and Agile Learning Spaces will be held on the last day of the conference, Tuesday, July 1st from 9:00 a.m. until 1:00 p.m.  This playground will be set up to:

To provide a hands-on, interactive maker’s environment for attendees to explore
To create a prototype agile learning space that demonstrates “new” classroom ideas
To demonstrate some of the new digital fabrication tools in used in schools to fuel innovation
To provide a framework on how to create or expand your own maker spaces
To provide curricular connections in all curricular areas: Arts, STEM, Humanities, and Languages

We are looking for teachers who are attending ISTE and who will be willing to share their expertise and volunteer time to present in our playground. We will have stations to share a la a poster session, tables for low-tech creating and making, and two small theater areas for group demonstrations.

If you are interested in participating or know someone who will be at the conference and would be perfect for us, please fill out the following form -

We look forward to seeing you in Atlanta.



An Truly Amazing Day

March 20, 2014 · 2 Comments · Uncategorized

It is the first day of spring. The last Thursday before our week-long spring break. This winter has been exceptionally harsh. Bitter cold that doesn’t seem to like it is ever going to give up. Snow that seems like it will never melt, although I am starting to see my front lawn.

Yet the day is full of energy, excitement, and discovery. A day when one is thoroughly exhausted as they leave the building, more than the winter has sapped from its relentless assault. Why?

Today was as busy and chaotic due to the shift in mindset which has occurred due to the addition of our Innovation Lab. The transformation of this space and the accompanying shift in the attitudes and possibilities brought by this shift of mindset has created a buzz and energy which is infectious. It coaching and guiding students to push further then they thought was possible. Giving so much to help others make, build, and create.

Want a glimpse? Here was today’s schedule:

8:30 – 9:00
Work with a 4th grade student whose teacher is piloting 20% time in the classroom. This student is wanting to build a robot with parts that need to be soldered. I work with this student to assess their soldering skills. This student definitely is not a beginner and has a solid foundation

9:15 – 9:40
Work with a team of 5th graders working on a project for math class. This project is on fractions. These students are using Minecraft, specifically the PrintCraft server to create objects to serve as the manipulatives for their project. They are excited because I was able to replace the extruder cable yesterday which will allow them to print. They complete the project and start the print, but today the active cooling fan catches on the build plate and breaks off. So close, yet so far away although I believe that their project will need supports that they have not planned for.

10:00 – 10:40
Working with one of our 5th grade classes as they come into the lab to continue creating their dragon universes in Minecraft. This is part of a larger year-long study. They are actively building, since they will only have 6 or 7 weeks to complete their worlds. They are working, building moats, creating mountains out of molehills, and doing demolition to create the terrain so that their worlds can match their vivid written explanations of the universe.

10:40 – 11:30
I spend my “down” time reviewing the 8th grade projects. This trimester of our new STEAM class, normally focused on computer science, is being replaced by Creation and Innovation. Each student, or a team of students, is planning their final projects. I am reviewing the task lists that they are creating and creating the shopping list of materials that the feel that they will be needing to complete their projects. Again, they only have 18-20 class meetings over 6 weeks when we return from spring break to complete them. The projects range from building the Primo robot (, DIY Google glass, virtual DJ’ing, developing a prototype of a mobile app, creating duct tape dresses with LED and Lilypad accessories, and laser cutting a “wood” record. I feel like I am the curator of a mini-enterprise zone, with mini-start ups. So much fun.

11:30 – 12:30
Two 8th grade students come and want to go into the Innovation Lab to cut materials for their 8th grade art project, Monument. For this project, their culminating art project, they are to create their own monument. In this project, they need to build a testament to their passion. I love this project. Other students will be 3d printing (once working) and last year, several students built theirs in Minecraft. I love that the art teacher allows each student to choose the medium of their choice. Right at the end, the laser cutter behaves unexpectedly. Major bummer

12:30 – 2:20
Lunch, catching up on the academic technology side of my job, and spending my time with both Makerbot and Epilog technical support to figure out how we can get our machines working again. Success with Makerbot, the part is being shipped. I will need to do some testing tomorrow on the Epilog, but it may be ok. Crisis averted.

2:45 – 3:25
8th Grade STEAM class. Today’s section is the 8th grade girls. They get to work on their projects. Their deadline, the dance, is coming faster than they realize

3:25 – 3:35
I have to race to get set up for the Minecraft After-School club. At the same time, I meet with an 8th grader who is overwhelmed by his project. Agree to meet with them before school, tomorrow, Friday morning

3:35 – 4:30
Minecraft After-School club. 19 students, from 2nd grade through 8th grade, continuing to either build on their creative server or build their community and culture in our survival server. The servers are running a bit glitchy today, especially the creative world. Maybe the server, like I, need spring break more than can be communicated.

At the same time, I am advising two 6th grade students, who are going through the process of uploading an an iOS app they have created, to host Clean Minecraft Videos in the Apple Store. Earlier in the week, I downloaded the new version of XCode for them to work on this. They hit a snag.

4:30 – 4:50
Meet with one of the 6th graders working on the iOS app project. Trying to determine why they are having a problem, which seems to be a billing issue. Find the support phone number so that they can follow up on their own, since the parent is the one backing this project.

Head home. Thankfully, it feels like spring, which arrived at 11:57 local time today. The sun is still shining, the weather forecast is calling for 60 degree temperatures south of the city tomorrow. The last day before spring break. Tired, somewhat exhausted, but feeling good about the day and the projects undertaken. Disappointed, but happy that my NCAA bracket will not net me $1 billion so I don’t have to make a decision to step away from this adventure.

It was an excellent day. Full of awesomeness. I cannot wait to see what tomorrow brings.



Illinois Educators – Action Needed

March 18, 2014 · No Comments · Uncategorized

Last evening, I received an email from the Computer Science Teacher’s Association listserv with a call for action. The contents of the email are listed below.

I urge all Illinois educators to take a moment, review, and consider support this initiative. The reason that I feel so strongly about this is that for many years, I taught computer science courses in a high school. Due to the way the school decided to assign these credits towards graduation requirements, any computer science elective, including AP Computer Science was a free elective, not counting towards any departmental credit for either Illinois requirements or towards college admissions. Since this was a free elective and did not count towards a mathematics or art credit, many students were unwilling to tackle the challenge of this course.

Computer science, including AP Computer Science teaches students logical and sequential thinking, essential skills for students to have in their tool kits. I am not saying that this should replace the skills learned in math classess, the fine or performing arts, or in the humanities. I feel that it is essential to learn how to analyze and how to create a compelling narrative using text, images, motion pictures and sounds. What I feel is that students should have the opportunity to explore skills learned in computer science on the same level as these other skills.

Please support these efforts as I have done.

 On March 20th, representatives from Computing in the Core (CinC) will be meeting with legislators to discuss Illinois House Bill 3695. This bill allows an AP Computer Science course to count as one of three math courses required for high school graduation. Please note that this change does not mandate that school districts offer AP computer science or otherwise change their practice; it simply provides high schools and students the opportunity to count CS as a core class.

You can show support of this Bill by signing an electronic witness slip. Signatures on the Illinois House of Representatives witness slip will be provided to the Elementary and Secondary Education Committee as part of the case to make CS count along with key testimony from members of CinC.

Help make this a reality and show your support by filling out the witness slip. It takes less than 3 minutes to complete.

Please note, that since most of you will not be able to attend, just select Written Statement Filed under IV Testimony. This signifies your support of the change.

If you are unfamiliar with HB3695, you can find out more at:

For questions about the Computer Science Teachers Association, HB 3695, or to become a member of CSTA’s Computer Science Advocacy Leadership Team (CSALT) please contact me at


Lissa Clayborn
Director of Development
Computer Science Teachers Association


What a Long, Strange Trip It Is

February 28, 2014 · No Comments · Uncategorized

Today is day 363 of the metamorphosis of my professional career. It has been  a crazy, wonderful, chaotic, exhilarating journey indeed, culminating in opportunities to share at a variety of different locations across the country.

We have had students present and created a pop-up Makerspace at two sites of the Students Involved in Technology (SIT) Conference, the chance to work with teachers in a 6 hour hands-on workshop on Makerspaces and the Maker Movement at the Illinois Computer Educators (ICE) Conference, travel to Orlando to do a 3 hour workshop on Makerspaces and the Maker Movement at the National Association of Independent School (NAIS) Annual Conference, and a one hour presentation on Teaching Empathy: Cultivating Communities of Kindness in a Digital Age.

Over the next few days, I hope to release my reflections on each of these experiences as well as some of the resources I have shared.