Keith Leonard P ’36 and Brandon Sullivan
Most schools struggle with effective education because they view it as a mathematical equation: If there are x topics to cover in y days, then x/y equals the required daily lesson. As a result, institutions race to cover the content and rarely reflect on student engagement. Wellington is different. At the forefront of our educational model is engagement, which we define as a student’s experience when they are challenged and loving it. Students in this atmosphere exhibit greater mastery and retention; therefore, Wellington invests in programs that create pathways to raise engagement.
One of these programs is Wonderlab – a research and creative works incubator that supports student projects. Here, students are encouraged to follow their passions and develop projects and products that provide solutions to problems, answers to questions, and purpose to inspiration. Wonderlab helps students define areas of study, then introduces tools and resources to navigate and execute complex and collaborative projects.
What do we mean by an “incubator?” For chickens, an incubator simulates the conditions needed to successfully hatch fertilized eggs. By maintaining factors like temperature and humidity, the embryo is fully nurtured during its development. The support of the incubator allows hens to produce ten times more hatchlings each year. For businesses, nearly all companies begin as fragile enterprises with limited resources. Companies and motivated entrepreneurs frequently struggle to secure funding, expertise, supplies, and spaces. Start-up incubators provide these supports to young businesses through shared facilities, materials, and staff. The incubator concept is novel in education. Student projects – like eggs and businesses – need support to grow from concept to completion. Opportunities and resources are provided to students from early childhood through upper school. Wonderlab cultivates 21st-century skills, introduces students to experts, and provides spaces, tools, and materials for projects and learning.
Wellington’s Wonderlab was built with two overarching goals to support student engagement. First, our curriculum focuses on skills while leveraging the ubiquity of content. As a result, we create more opportunities for personalization. We have seen that students demonstrate greater curiosity and creativity when immersed in their passions. Second, we strive for our students to be producers and not simply consumers of information. Our students should study the works of Van Gogh then paint their own masterpiece, observe metabolic reactions to design their own experiments, and learn political theory before filming their own documentary. Wherever our students’ interests lie, Wonderlab provides resources to bring ideas to fruition.
These resources start within our architecture. Throughout the school, one will find spaces that are designed to support students in their creative pursuits. Upstairs, the Think Space serves as a conference room and means for brainstorming, collaboration, and planning. Downstairs, students interact with the Maker Space and STEM Space. The Maker Space combines modern and flexible furniture with state-of-the-art tools for design, engineering, and entrepreneurship. Students use the vinyl cutter to create sensory paths, wall art, and branded apparel. The 3D printers are employed for models, parts, and inventions. In the STEM Space, students engage in college-level scientific research. The laboratory is equipped with instrumentation and reagents to perform cloning, genetic engineering, and molecular biology. Through the same door, one will find digital microscopes and aquaria to study ocean acidification. Coming soon to Wonderlab are “Spots” that move throughout the lower and middle schools. These mobile workstations provide younger students with opportunities to flex their research and creative skills, while also learning valuable techniques to support their future growth.
Students across all grade levels participate in Wonderlab. In the lower school, Sebastian Penn ’32 expressed a passion for trains. He collaborated with technology integration specialist Debra Parkes P ’26 to learn Tinkercad. The iPad program allowed Sebastian to manipulate shapes in CAD and design his own train which was 3D-printed in the Maker Space. Vincent Kerler ’23 began his journey with Wonderlab as an ambitious 8th grader. He learned the Central Dogma of Biology, then learned how to manufacture hard drives out of DNA. His studies concluded with DNA synthesis and presenting his work to the Wellington community. The upper school runs several programs under the Wonderlab umbrella: Independent Studies, Independent Humanities Research (IHR), Independent Science Research (ISR), and Senior Product. Jake Browning ’22, inspired by COVID-19, wished to better understand pandemics and our ability to validate prevention protocols. The senior wrote a computational program that allows disease modeling. In this program, he hopes to test hypotheses related to mask wearing, social distancing, and vaccines. Graduating senior Clara Evans ’22 is researching the economic impacts of German unification and Western influence on former East German citizens. Her work involves the development of hypotheses and traveling to Germany to interview experts.
Wonderlab joins the course brochure as a required LEAP Day course for juniors. Students began the year with a unit titled The YouTube Scholar. Here, each junior was given two weeks to master a new skill or craft using YouTube as their sole resource. Annabelle Krygier ‘23 crocheted a stuffed animal, Abdullah Amir ’23 learned CPR, Jessica Li ’23 created origami art, Vinay Garg ’23 learned to play the ukulele, and Kyler Sanders ’23 whittled owls from wood. The unit was fun and at times seemed silly, but the lesson was designed to excite the class and build confidence. After the unit, the instructors posed the question: “Your projects were stunning, but what could you accomplish in a year with robust resources?” Those same students are answering this question by writing proposals for their senior capstone projects.
This winter, Wellington launched WonderlabWRX (pronounced “works”). WRX is a program developed for a community of problem solvers. Here, members of the Wellington community submit tickets for problems that require solutions. Students meet with their clients, understand their needs, then submit proposals for the work. Using their own expertise and Wonderlab resources, students design, create, and implement their solutions. This year students are designing logos, filming documentaries, modifying exercise equipment to charge batteries, and building a sports science institute to improve athletic performance. One group of students is collaborating with Nami Stager ’30 ’32 to create a mobile science cart.
At Wellington, we have yet to see our students plateau. Wonderlab invests in our students by teaching future-focused skills, creating opportunities to practice their talents, and promoting individualized education through projects. We are excited to see our students’ achievements as they continue to pursue their passions and curiosities within Wonderlab.
Faculty member Chris Fischer on the Wonderlab:
As a Wellington parent who also teaches at Wellington, I get a unique view into the "hidden" side of my children’s experiences: how the teachers go about planning and executing classes, what gets discussed in staff meetings, etc.
My degrees are in mechanical engineering, and I worked in the field for 20 years before coming into teaching. During those times, I was involved with the Ohio University Mechanical Engineering advisory board. A significant part of our role was mentoring seniors on their capstone engineering projects.
In an educational environment, individualized creative research and projects are difficult to manage. They also are critical for helping students develop skills that are not learned by solving equations or learning dates for a history exam.
These opportunities for individualized learning are one of the strengths of a school like Wellington. Nothing exemplifies the opportunity better than Wonderlab. My colleagues Keith Leonard P ’36 and Brandon Sullivan are leading students through a two-year process culminating in their senior capstone project.
I've had the opportunity to sit in and observe the Wonderlab class. With over 20 years of mentoring and advising capstone projects for college engineering students, I'm blown away by the process through which students are being led. Coming up with an appropriate idea for a project is difficult. It needs to be adequately rigorous, yet achievable. Most importantly, it needs to hold the interest of the student. Mr. Leonard and Dr. Sullivan have been going through a well-thought-out, trimester-long process to guide students through that project ideation process.
It is the type of process that students will likely not fully appreciate until they take on major projects in college, graduate school, or the "real world." It is also exactly the type of class that makes me excited to be a Wellington parent and be anxious for my kids to get to junior year and take this Wonderlab class.
Chris Fischer P ’24 ’26