Discovery Place Education Studio Provides New Approach to Education

By Kallan Louis

School may have been out for the summer, but class was in session for dozens of educators in June and July, when they participated in the Summer Leadership Institute at Discovery Place Education Studio uptown. There were five four-hour open registration courses, providing hands-on experience on topics including “3D Printing and Design” and “Robotics and Coding.”

“The whole focus of Summer Leadership Institute is how do we take any random teacher from any random school, and give them the opportunity to get the full depth of experience that we would normally provide to a full school or district over the course of a year, in four days,” said Doug Thompson, senior manager at the Education Studio.

If that seems like a lot crammed into each workshop, well, it is. As the educational landscape continues to evolve, educators are being forced to quickly adapt.

“My school is eliminating our technology lab, said Meagan Humphrey, a librarian at Berwick Elementary School. “My principal has tasked me with incorporating technology (into the cirriculum). I did a test run last year with my fifth graders doing a STEM project, based on a research project we had done. They were so engaged that I realized I had to do more.”

Jean Mulligan, a media specialist for St. Gabriel Catholic School, has been an educator for nearly 40 years. When she moved here in the early 2000s, she was so inspired by the hands-on learning experiences at local facilities such as ImaginOn that she began incorporating “maker spaces” in her school. Maker spaces are designated places where people come to create, invent, build and share ideas. Think of it as a wood shop class, with an emphasis on modern STEM. Mulligan attended this workshop just to get new ideas.

“This isn’t traditional thinking for educators, and they have a very difficult time moving into that,” said Mulligan. One of the assignments that day was to create a structure for an imaginary city named “Scrappton.” She picked up a six-inch acrylic ruler she was using to build a residence for the project: “You make them use a tool like this. There’s your math for the day, there’s your math for a lifetime. Make them do something to scale. They love doing it, and now you taught them.”

Kellen Nixon is the senior director of STEM education at Discovery Placeand site director of the Education Studio. He joined the team in 2016, two years after the studio first opened. His experience in education reform with Carnegie Corp. of New York’s “Teacher’s of a New Era” initiative, and his education leadership roles at museums has helped him lead the development of a business model that has proved successful for Discovery Place.

“The Discovery Place Education Studio was a combination of all my experiences into one amazing opportunity, to empower teachers to teach in the 21st century,” said Nixon, “My background, understanding the importance of preparing teachers with what they need to be successful in the classroom, that expertise extended into the work that we do.”

The Education Studio has partnered with more than 150 schools, districts and organizations throughout the Carolinas to help provide customized professional development in STEM for teachers. These partnerships allow the studio to earn business from funds dedicated toward professional development, instead of asking teachers to pay out of their own personal finances. The Summer Leadership Institute is an exception, as the workshops are open registration.

Nixon says the time is now for communities and businesses to be thoughtful on how we engage the next generation of STEM leaders and educators. “That comes with making sure what we provide is not only culturally relevant, but (also) allows students to see how they can use these skills and learning opportunities to leverage their thoughts today,” he said. “The more kids that we expose to these platforms, the higher our chances are to fueling an economy and society that is rich in critical thinking, with an ability to solve problems.”