Innovation Ready: Curiosity, Exploration Key as USM Students Build

Inspired by University School of Milwaukee’s Strategic Plan, and its mission to graduate students who are innovation-ready as they enter college and beyond, USM has established academic curriculum and dedicated space to foster creativity, curiosity, and exploration for all students.

Demonstrating a commitment to innovative learning across all three divisions, USM features makerspace areas in the Lower School, Middle School, and Upper School that allow students to tinker, explore, and build. Each space contains age-appropriate tools, technology, and materials that complement academic curriculum and challenge students to explore their imaginations and passions beyond their coursework.

Students in each division at USM address challenging, complex problems through the use of new technologies, and learn how to design and build through trial, error, and creative resolution.

Exploration Begins in Lower School

While USM’s 1:1 Program equips each student with a personal computing device beginning in 3rd grade, even the younger students have access to technology through the Lower School’s new Wildcat Creation Station.

Housed in a location adjacent to the Lower School Library for the 2015-2016 school year, the Wildcat Creation Station was established to give USM’s youngest students a collaborative space to develop and pursue their educational curiosity. Beginning in senior kindergarten, students have the opportunity to explore technology—which includes two 3D printers, Lego sets, Makey-Makeys, Dash and Dot (a pair of programmable circular robots), and much more—as they engage in projects and lessons co-taught by their homeroom teachers and Lower School Technology Coordinator JoAnne Pollard Williamson ’79. Starting next year, each senior kindergarten through 2nd-grade class will have 30 minutes of scheduled Creation Station time per cycle, while 3rd- and 4th-grade students will receive 45 minutes of Station time.

Similar to students learning foreign languages at a young age, Williamson believes that exposing students to new technologies early will help them develop key skills and aptitudes that they will be able to use more effectively later in their academic careers.

“Offering these programming opportunities at this age-level will only lay the foundation for what students will be capable of in Middle School, Upper School, and beyond,” Williamson said. “The sky will be the limit for them once they graduate.”
Computer coding has also emerged as a key innovating teaching element, as the Lower School builds on the Hour of Code initiative. USM students participate in the Hour of Code each December, but students with an additional interest have been encouraged to engage in games and activities on, as well as on popular coding apps such as Tynker, Scratch, and Hopscotch.

Moving forward, Williamson hopes to add additional robots, circuitry items, and programming technology to the mix, and to formalize the time each grade level spends with the space.

Williamson cited the fluid nature of technology as a reason that Lower School faculty and staff members will need to collaborate each year to determine how best to use the Wildcat Creation Station for students.

“The key will be to establish the scope and sequence of opportunities for students,” Williamson said. “What do we want senior kindergarteners to be able to do? What skills do we want 4th-graders to learn prior to entering Middle School?”

Nerdvana, More Student-Led Work Fosters Curiosity in Middle School

While the primary goal of the Wildcat Creation Station and other technology-based projects and activities in Lower School is to introduce students to innovation programming, the opportunities available to Middle School students take that learning to the next level.

Supervised and assisted by Middle School Technology Coordinator Tom Mussoline, students have access to a variety of high-tech materials and more traditional building tools in Nerdvana, the Middle School’s dedicated makerspace. Here, students build prototypes for projects, learn how to address complex problems through the use of new technologies, and follow their passions, even if the work doesn’t always neatly fit into classroom curriculum.

“Some of the ideas stem from Google’s Genius Hour concept,” Mussoline said, referencing Google’s idea to let employees work on personal projects for up to 20 percent of their allotted work time, which led to the development of innovative programs such as Gmail. “We want students to follow their passions, and the work often leads to really productive, innovative results.”

The space was also incredibly useful for 8th-graders as many of them developed prototypes—and needed additional tools—for their Tower Hour projects. Using Nerdvana’s resources, students converted and printed prototypes for a new kind of earbud, coded new 3D games, developed enhanced drone modifications, and much more.

In addition to academic uses, Nerdva-na provides a workspace
for students to learn and develop practical building skills. One Middle School student who had the ambition to build a cabinet was advised to create a materials list and had the opportunity to visit a local hardware store and lumber yard.

The student arrived back on campus excited to learn how to use a jigsaw, circular saw, miter saw, and many other hand tools as she built her cabinet under supervision
in Nerdvana.

While some students build, others opt to break apart. Another student wanted to know what was inside of a field hockey ball, so she cut it in half. After analyzing its contents, she developed a new ball with decreased density, so that it would be safer for students to play with.

Ultimately, students have the freedom to innovate, explore, examine, and fix complex problems of interest to them throughout their Middle School careers.

Upper School Students Graduate Innovation-Ready

Exploration and curiosity is more student-led in the Upper School, initiated by two students who founded what is now USM’s House of Technology (HOT) in 2012. Sparked by the passion of Upper School students David Routier ’14 and Jacob Wine ’16, HOT was created primarily to supply students with practical, hands-on technology abilities while providing technical support and device repair for School personnel.

“The program design and execution of HOT is and of itself an innovation that places students at the center of experiential learning,” said USM Director of Academic Technology Nikki Lucyk. “The students created a program and system that never existed before.”

Supported by Lucyk and Technology Support Coordinator Deidre McCain, students repair a wide variety of electronic devices, including phones, tablets, laptop computers, and much more. Students are in charge of every level of the repair process, from providing customer service and support to ordering the necessary parts and performing the physical repair of each device. This practical, hands-on experience is invaluable as students essentially intern as technical support professionals.

In addition to their repair and support roles, students also have the freedom to work on curricular and extracurricular projects and tinker with new problems and technologies. Utilizing the technology and space made available through the HOT, Upper School students have developed incredibly complex and diverse projects that have led to awards and honors at Intel ISEF, exemplary Capstone presentations, and advanced abilities and skills in computer science and innovation. Students have also led the way as the HOT has garnered attention and accolades on a national level.

As a result of their efforts, USM HOT students have presented at the Independent Schools Association of the Central States (ISACS) conference, and several other leading national conferences as they share information on their exemplary work.

Innovation is not optional at USM, nor is it happenstance. Our students will grow each year and be innovation-ready for the next level, while gaining entrepreneurial experience in the here and now.

The HOT hopes to expand in size and scope in the coming years so that more students will have access to the space and its robust, cutting-edge tools and technologies.
“I think that if we have a bigger space and more equipment available to us, we can make this a core piece of USM’s academic program,” said Robbie Hermanoff ’16. “USM can become a global competitor in education, innovation, science, and technology.”

As a result of USM’s commitment to innovation education and the robust spaces dedicated to such learning in each division, the School is making strides to graduate students who are innovation-ready, and a step ahead of their peers as they enter college and, eventually, the workforce.

“The mission of our School and recent Strategic Plan ensures that our students are prepared with this goal in mind, at each step of their educational journey.” said USM Head of School Laura Fuller.

Peering into the future, USM plans to expand its creative space with the establishment of a new Innovation Center that will further infuse innovative and entrepreneurship education into School culture. With the ultimate goal of inspiring young entrepreneurs and innovative thinkers, this initiative will include the development of enhanced facilities, faculty leadership and professional development, transformative curriculum, and strategic partnerships that will ensure the next generations of USM students graduate innovation-ready.

“Innovation is not optional at USM, nor is it happenstance,” Fuller said. “Our students will grow each year and be innovation-ready for the next level, while gaining entrepreneurial experience in the here and now.”

Explore some of the many alumni who have excelled, thanks in part to USM’s innovation ready curriculum.

For an informational video on USM’s innovation curriculum and a proposed new, on-campus innovation space, please visit

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