When students enter the new learning space at Haine Middle School, the first thing they’ll likely notice is the tree house in the center of the room, complete with a bright yellow slide. They won’t see Mickey, Minnie or Donald, but Eric Fogle hopes these students will feel like they’ve been “transported to another land, much like Disney World.” 

“When students walk inside, they don’t feel like they’re in a school building,” says Fogle, a librarian at the school, adding that much of it focuses on the principles of STEAM. “They are more open to try new things and tackle more challenging problems. The space was created to spark imaginative learning. We’ve heard many comments from students saying ‘I love our school!’ and ‘Mr. Fogle, this space is just like a dream!’”

Building skills for success

Seneca Valley School District recently teamed up with Pittsburgh-based Inventionland to introduce creative resources to help students find inspiration in their academics. The Creativity, Innovation and Research Center was installed this past summer and it gives students an opportunity to own their learning, says Sean McCarty, assistant superintendent for grades K-6 and CIRC coordinator.

“We want students and teachers to be in an environment that engages them to think outside the box and ask the question ‘What if?’” McCarty says.

According to Ken Burk, CEO at Inventionland, students are encouraged to understand three areas: inventing, making and storytelling.

“In each area, the students use steps to advance their project,” Burk says. “Through the process, the magic occurs when the students engage in coming up with ideas fueled by passion and inspiration. This drives a desire to learn and is what we call ‘pull through’ learning vs. the ‘push’ approach of teaching subjects.”

Students are excited to work on projects because it stems from their creative and innovative ideas. “What’s special is we created a truly immersive environment to promote a constructivist approach,” McCarty says.

Think coding, robotics, engineering, communications and graphic design — while also being inspired in a space that boosts creativity.

“As for the technology piece, it has been a perfect fit with the library,” says Ronelle Rowe, a technology facilitator at Haine. “Technology is such an integral part of the students’ lives. We build the skills that are vital for our students to be successful.”

They also experience self-discovery, learn problem-solving skills and take home real-world knowledge. And the kids are encouraged to use the “Four Cs” in their CIRC projects: communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity.

“In each project, all four of the Cs are naturally used, which helps prepare the students for working with others in jobs of the future,” Fogle says.

Growing and gathering together

The CIRC space was unveiled in September. McCarty was in attendance at the ribbon-cutting ceremony, along with Superintendent of Schools Tracy Vitale, students, staff, parents, community leaders and Inventionland executives, to celebrate all that the space has to offer for the nearly 1,400 students in the schools. Future spaces are planned at each of the district’s other three K-6 building sites over the next several years.

“Students were using the space on day one of the school year,” Fogle says. “We only expect this to grow as teachers realize the many different projects we can do here.”

According to McCarty, the CIRC space has become an exciting and busy gathering place. “We have anywhere from a small group of five or six students to over 100 students in the space at any given time,” he says. “I have parents come up to me and tell me their kids are talking about this at the dinner table every night. They share their ideas and inventions and are excited about seeing their ideas grow into a working product.”

One of his favorite parts of the space is it engages all the teachers in the building. “The teachers do a great job becoming a resource and a facilitator for the students,” McCarty says.

As for the tree house with the bright yellow slide, Fogle says it has “definitely been the most popular attraction. Most classes have an opportunity to go down the slide every time they’re in the CIRC space.”