Creating a SPARK: Tempe school employs VR, robots and other innovative techniques

TEMPE – Students at the SPARK School at Kyrene de las Manitas Elementary are reimagining classroom modules and using such technology as robots, green screens, 3-D printers and virtual reality to learn math, science and other traditional subjects. SPARK is a special program housed on the school’s campus.

“We are very much a blending, learning atmosphere,” said Mary Brown, the school’s Teacher Executive Designer. “In addition to 3-D printers, we have Sphero so students are practicing coding, and one of the coolest pieces of technology we have is virtual reality. So when we want to visit a place that we would never really be able to visit, such as the Amazon rainforest, students put the virtual reality on and they’re actually inside of it, they can make observations as scientists in that space.”

Brown said redesigning classroom lesson plans helps improve teacher retention and builds excitement and engagement among students.

“I saw a lot of things that were disheartening to me in education,” she said. “When I was alerted of this opportunity, it just felt like the answer to every problem I was seeing in education. Let’s redesign, let’s work as teacher teams and let’s make learning look different for students so they are engaged and excited in the classroom.”

SPARK School teaches the core curriculum of math, science, language arts and social studies, but with a more personalized technique. Its teachers believe replacing books and written tests with more interactive material motivates the students to stay engaged in and out of the classroom.

“We’re learning about mock trials,” third-grader Neftali Rivera said. “We had a person a couple of weeks ago who was an attorney, who actually came and talked to us about it and answered some questions.”

Rivera is a juror in the upcoming mock trial, which supports language arts. His group is reading books and taking notes for their case, SeaWorld v. The State.

“It’s unusual,” he said. “It’s a new program that used to be the Imagine, but now it’s called SPARK. I like it, I like it a lot.”

Science students are researching weather and producing their own weather report.

“We’re writing a script about becoming a meteorologist and we’re going to perform it on a green screen,” fourth-grader Audrey Colbert said.

SPARK is “modern,” she said, allowing students more freedom and the ability to use computers daily.

The shift in teaching methods has had challenges, but Brown said her team faces them step-by-step.

“The biggest challenge is coming back to our five design principles,” she said, “especially the one where students are leading the learning and that learning looks a little more personalized. And because that’s so different than the traditional classroom, we’ve done that in iterations and steps; slowly we’re making our way to a more personalized experience.”

Although the approach to teaching in SPARK differs from traditional classrooms, Brown said every lesson meets Arizona academic standards.

“Students will still take the AzMERIT here; everything we do is still based around the standards,” said Brown. “Everything you see in here is in our standards – we just teach it differently.”

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