Campus Amenities

"American Rescue Plan" for Schools Ignites Opportunity for STEM Learning

By Mira Korber

The U.S. Department of Education released new guidance on Friday, April 23, for how states and school districts should plan to spend billions in COVID relief dollars that will soon be available. A total of $168 billion is reserved for public K-12 schools and institutions of higher education in order to safely reopen learning environments and mitigate learning loss brought on by widespread stay-at-home mandates. The deadline to spend this stimulus money earmarked for education is 2024.

In addition to the COVID relief package, the Biden administration has proposed in excess of $100 billion for K-12 school facility renovations as part of a nationwide infrastructure proposal, as well as $12 billion for projects at community colleges. Use of funds includes both physical and digital infrastructure improvements. Under the American Rescue Plan, “Purchasing educational technology (including hardware, software, and connectivity) for students who are served by the local educational agency that aids in regular and substantive educational interaction between students and their classroom instructors” is an allowable expense.

As students come back to new and improved classrooms, STEM learning will become paramount in learning experience design. School shutdowns have hit science classes hard and may lead to widening achievement gaps in STEM fields. As institutions of learning reopen, science, computer and innovation labs should be the pillars of infrastructure improvements. SMARTdesks is the industry leader in designing completely customized and flexible technology furnishings to achieve this goal.

SMARTdesk STEM lab robotics room

After the Chatham, N.J., school district adopted the iSTEM Program, the need for facility improvements and a comprehensive innovation lab became evident. In the school year prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, SMARTdesks designed and built a bespoke lab design for the Chatham public middle school. Supervisor of Instructional and Design Technology (K-12) Danielle Romero Dagounis explained, "We historically had a computer lab, and that was just used for teachers to come visit with their classes. There weren't any scheduled classes that went on in there...Our STEM Program—Science, Technology, Engineering and Math program—[offers] a wide array of programs: an integrated sixth grade STEM robotics course, seventh grade creativity and innovation course, CAD—Computer-Aided Drafting & Design—and coding, or digital game design class. Three of these necessitated computers with robust processing capability. To accomplish this, we had to take over the computer lab. The downfall of that is: it's a computer lab. As such, there are no supports to allow the students to collaborate."

Another issue was the inefficiency of three teachers sharing a computer lab that was not serving any of them well. Dagounis noted, "We had three STEM teachers and only two classrooms. They were constantly running between the different classrooms during passing time. We would be having robotics in [the computer lab], then the teacher would have to run to teach another class in another room, making it very difficult for them to keep everything set up."

After two years of operating with these deficits and inefficiencies, Dagounis presented her analysis to the administration indicating the need to resolve the "serious space issue." After considerable negotiations, the administration passed a referendum, including questions of how to integrate STEM learning improvements. Once the referendum passed, Chatham Middle School started working with SMARTdesks to make a new STEM-focused area with classrooms set up to serve different purposes. The Innovation Lab houses a sixth grade Robotics class, a seventh grade CAD Computer Aided Drafting and Design course, and an eighth grade Digital Game Design and programming course.

With the pedagogy defined, Dagounis’ next task was to break away from the computer lab approach and find collaborative learning furniture to support robust CPUs and provide top-side power for Robotics, CAD and Digital Game Design & Coding. First of all, they needed to handle the full desktop computer set-up, including the memory necessary to run the software. Chatham is a 1:1 Chromebook District, so every student has a Chromebook device that they use for all of their classes. The students normally take it home to do homework, but some STEM classes require specific software.

Dagounis said, “We didn't want the desks in normal, traditional rows. We didn't want the kids lining the classroom walls—not being able to look at the teacher because they are facing the wall. We needed open tabletop space because the kids were working with robots. They need to be able to design them, move them around, and plug them into the computer.” The project also required locating the keyboard and CPU under the tabletop in order to preserve working space: just the problem that SMARTdesks’ monitor-mount hardware solves perfectly. SMARTdesks offered just the right combination of tabletop space and floor space for students to build their robots on the tables and then test them out on the floor space around the tables.

Dagounis said of SMARTdesks, "Apparently, if you want collaborative computer desks, they're like unicorns. Nobody really makes them, except for you guys." SMARTdesks was able to customize the tables just as Chatham Middle School required for their color scheme. Dagounis commented, "Even though that might seem silly and trivial, when you are spending as much money as we did on this space, and we are trying to go for a certain look—it is important to be able to realize everything in the vision. We wanted the kids to be excited about the new innovative space where they would do new, innovative things. Paying attention to the little details was really important to us—or at least to me, because I was the one selecting all of the final finishes."

The important combination of collaboration space appropriate for the activities, supported by ergonomic placement of the technology and power/data connections, was what Danielle was looking for. In her search, she found that many products that were offered as collaboration tables for active learning did not include a configuration for the robotics curriculum, saying, "People are forgetting the whole computer component of collaboration, including the use of laptops, or Chromebooks, or whatever the smart device is. Students also need power to test their robots or charge their computers.”

SMARTdesks provides a wide array of integrated power/data options within a choice of collaborative table geometry. To integrate technology is somewhat custom, but at SMARTdesks, it is standard practice. In the words of Jeffrey Korber, SMARTdesks Founder and CEO, “We have a wide selection of products that have room for customization for technology. That's our niche.  The bigger guys can't do that. They just mass-produce A, B or C, while we can pull different spices off of the spice shelf and season the soup the way you want it, including a full range of colors and textures and finishes. If you need to match existing finishes in the space, we can do that, too."

According to Dagounis, on the first day in the new innovation lab, students were ecstatic with their new space. Chatham Middle School is now inspiring other school districts to improve their STEM learning environments. Dagounis said, "Other people are now coming in from other districts, and they are asking, ‘Where did you go to find these tables?’  Because you want the tops clean, and you only want the monitor on the top. We need the workspace. The kids are cutting. They're gluing. They're building. They're engaged. They're learning with joy. What more could you want?"

Project Specifications

The Chatham Middle School Innovation Lab accommodates 24 students. This arrangement was chosen because it allows floor space for testing robots.  The Collab Pod tables were chosen and customized according to the following criteria:

  • Sized to fit the space
  • Shaped to facilitate collaboration around the curved corners
  • CPUs and keyboards located under the desktop to make room to build robots on the surface
  • Displays are supported on their own stands so they can be positioned for convenience in collaboration
  • Pop-up power and data connections for charging robots, Chromebooks & laptops
  • Finished to coordinate with butcher-block built-in cabinets

The SMARTdesks Collab Pods customized for Chatham Middle School's Innovation Lab feature:

  • Triangular, collaborative learning shape with rounded corners for teaming and building robots
  • Centrally located pop-up hub provides power for charging and data connections for downloading to robots
  • CPUs are mounted under the tabletop
  • Keyboard/mouse platforms allow more room on the tabletop for building robots
  • Freestanding displays can be easily moved for collaboration
  • Table finish choices complement interior design choices

About SMARTdesks: SMARTdesks works hand in hand with clients to furnish safe learning spaces for in-person, hybrid, and remote learning. Learn more at https://smartdesks.com.

Mira Korber has served as the Chief Strategy Officer for SMARTdesks since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Mira is also the founder of an education enrichment and tutoring company, Blue Ribbon Scholars LLC. In 2016, Mira graduated cum laude from Yale University. In 2021, she will attend Peabody College at Vanderbilt University to begin a Master’s program in Education Policy.

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