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3D Printers, Minecraft and Coding for Kindergartners at Old Town School

By Paul Biasco | September 30, 2014 5:39am
 Old Town's Catherine Cook School opened the school year with a brand new IDEA Lab and A/V Studio that feature cutting edge technology including eight 3D printers.
Catherine Cook School
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OLD TOWN — While Chicago's tech community is being nurtured at 1871 — the idea incubator for digital entrepreneurs at the Merchandise Mart — some techie things also are happening about a mile north.

On the third floor of Old Town's Catherine Cook School, students are tinkering with 3D printers, designing wearable technology and building furniture with a hulking laser cutter.

The school took a leap this year in looking to the future by transforming its old library into an IDEA Lab (innovation, design, engineering and arts).

Paul Biasco toured the new lab, and was blown away by its technology:

The lab's equipment — considered state-of-the-art in a university setting — includes eight MakerBot 3D printers, an industrial-grade laser cutter/engraver, sewing machines, robotics equipment and a 13-foot-by-5-foot interactive digital display wall.

 The IDEA Lab was constructed in the school's former library space.
The IDEA Lab was constructed in the school's former library space.
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DNAinfo/Paul Biasco

"This lab is really about returning to craft," said JD Pirtle, a former researcher at the University of Illinois at Chicago's Electronic Visualization Lab who now runs the Cook School lab. "It's about knowing how things work. Knowing what’s inside of something. How to fix things. How to make things.”

Pirtle took over as the Director of Innovation last school year and has big plans for his students.

For Halloween, students will be constructing costumes from scratch that incorporate wearable technology such as light sensors and LEDs. 

"It's really easy with new technology to get so enamored with this that you forget about sewing machines," Pirtle said. "They are as powerful as a 3D printer."

Seventh- and eighth-graders will be tasked with creating chairs that would fit into a flat package design.

Each student will create a model chair on a computer program and construct a 1/4-scale model from cardboard. The classes will choose the top two chair designs and eventually build full-scale wooden chairs with the laser cutter.

Fifth-graders who have traditionally completed an architecture project will be doing so this year in the virtual world of Minecraft, a virtual sandbox-type game where users create everything from a small hut to entire worlds using building blocks.

Pirtle's students will be tasked with recreating individual Chicago parks in the virtual world. Using Google Earth, they'll survey a park, map out its proportions and build. Teachers will be able to explore the student's creations virtually as if they are in the park with them and other students will be able to fly through their classmates' creations.

"The world does not need, in my opinion, another Powerpoint," Pirtle said.

Pirtle, who designed the lab, said he drew inspiration from his time working at UIC as well as his work as an artist. His idea is to, rather than teach the software, put the focus on curiosity, investigation, design, making and fixing.

"We don’t really teach technology as much as technology is the membrane we use to get to a bigger idea," he said.

Even the kindergartners are learning the building blocks of programming and coding.

The youngsters get their first taste of coding and programing with the help of "Bee-Bots," miniature bumble bee robots that can be programmed to roll along a set path. Students program the bots while looking at a map of the school's layout and lead the bees down the hallways to a destination.

"It's looking at how we can get the engaged, collaborating, working together on the floor and using their hands," said Brian Puerling, the school's director of education technology.

The new IDEA Lab was included as part of a 25,000-square-foot expansion of Catherine Cook School, which was completed in time for the start of the 2014 school year.

The school raised more than $10 million from families and donors to complete the addition tucked into the neighborhood just west of Wells Street. The school knocked down a three-flat condominium building and a neighboring two-flat in 2013 to make way for the three-story addition.

The expansion included 10 new classrooms, including three science labs, additional rooftop playground space and a new library space. The new wing also includes an audio/visual studio equipped with audio recording and mixing equipment, video equipment and a recording studio.

Puerling runs the A/V studio and is currently offering an intro to DJ-ing elective for students on Pioneer controllers. The younger students have been creating stop-motion videos with LEGOs.

Since the school opened the IDEA Lab, a number of schools, including DePaul University and Columbia College, have requested tours, according to Catherine Cook School.

The school is organizing a conference called IDEA:TE (innovation, design, engineering, arts: transforming education) that will be held in June for grade school teachers to become more familiar with technologies and to encourage them to embrace the "creator movement."

"We want the kids to be producers of the devices not just consumers," Pirtle said. "We want them to be the ones who make the content, the experience and the device — not just passively consuming from the device — and to understand what’s happening inside of it.”

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