It’s not every day that a top executive from a Fortune 500 company visits a middle school located more than 600 miles from the company’s headquarters. But earlier this month, Diego Scotti, Verizon’s chief marketing officer, and a contingent of Verizon representatives stopped by Whitewater Middle School in Charlotte, North Carolina, to check out the school’s Verizon Innovative Learning Lab.
Whitewater is one of 152 Verizon Innovative Learning Schools nationwide, and currently one of eight with an Innovative Learning Lab. The Verizon Innovative Learning Schools initiative—made possible by a partnership between Digital Promise and Verizon—works to bridge the Digital Learning Gap by equipping every student and teacher at select middle schools across the country with devices and up to a four-year data plan. In addition to technology and access, teachers at Verizon Innovative Learning Schools receive extensive training, support, and the opportunity to engage in a unique, immersive curriculum to leverage technology in their classrooms.
Whitewater students used the Verizon team’s visit as an opportunity to show off what they can do in the lab, and they were able to interact directly with Scotti.
“It was a great opportunity for the students to showcase what they know to those that have given them the opportunity to have these experiences and ask questions directly to decision-makers,” said Keith Coles, the Innovation Lab technology specialist and a career and technical education (CTE) and math teacher at Whitewater, which became a Verizon Innovative Learning School in the 2016-17 school year.
The lab was the second of its kind when it opened in October 2018, and it has been replicated in six other Verizon Innovative Learning Schools across the country over the last year. Eight more are expected to open before the end of the 2019-20 school year, and 40 more are planned in the next two years. Last month, Verizon launched the first lab with 5G technology at Entrepreneurship Prep Cliffs in Cleveland, Ohio.
“The Verizon Innovative Learning Lab has injected a new interest and curiosity into our student body,” said Jonathan Lubas, the Verizon Innovative Learning Schools coach at E Prep Cliffs. “Too often, students are shown cool things but are not allowed to touch or use them. But our lab is no museum—it is a makerspace, a design laboratory, a place to combine creativity and inspiration.”
The state-of-the-art labs combine technology with hands-on learning experiences, such as 3D printing and design, coding with robots, and augmented and virtual reality. Whitewater students used augmented reality (AR) technology to introduce their teachers while giving their Verizon visitors a tour of the school, then shared the virtual reality (VR) technology with Scotti, who “visited” his native Argentina.
Lubas said his students at E Prep Cliffs have especially enjoyed the 3D printers and the fully immersive VR stations. “They like seeing things actually be made right in front of their eyes; just wait until they learn how to actually design something from scratch,” he said. “And they love being able to explore in outer space (via VR) and create stars and planets with their very own hands.”
Students at Whitewater are able to visit the lab not only during their electives, but also during core classes. Teachers across all subject areas incorporate technology projects into their daily lessons, from 3D printing game pieces based on their own character traits to animating designs to building treasure hunts based on math problems. Even a year later, Coles says, it’s still always a treat for the students to go to the lab.
“When students entered the lab for the first time (last year) they were bright-eyed and full of questions, curiosity, and the need to explore,” he said. “Still to this day, when students enter this space they act as if it’s their first time and are constantly asking when they will be visiting again.”
The labs—and the Verizon Innovative Learning Schools initiative overall—are part of Verizon’s commitment to digital inclusion, which has transformed learning for the students at these schools.
“This space gives students a place to express their authentic selves,” Coles said. “In this space there are no right or wrong answers, and you are encouraged to explore your thoughts and designs without the fear of being critiqued or told that you are wrong.”
Coles also noted how the lab is bringing out leadership in students, and that skills learned in the lab have translated into other subjects.
“I have had students that are behind in their core content classes shine and step up as leaders in the innovation lab,” he said. “I have had students that have learned how to use the design process in the lab to create a project and take that same skill and use it in other classes to help with brainstorming and problem solving.”
Lubas pointed out that even before the lab opened at E Prep Cliffs, which became a Verizon Innovative Learning School in the 2018-19 school year, the initiative had already begun changing norms in the classroom.
“Students are allowed to express what they have learned in a variety of ways,” he said. “Students use their voice and creativity to demonstrate learning through text, audio, video, or other digitally creative means.”
But the initiative is not only transforming the way students learn—it’s also transforming the way teachers teach by providing support for the educators.
“I believe that one of the defining characteristics of the Verizon Innovative Learning Schools program is the professional development (PD) that comes with it,” Lubas added. “All of the technology is great; however, if we are not equipping our teachers to be familiar and comfortable with it, the tech will not have any of the desired impacts that we are looking for.”
Learn more about the Verizon Innovative Learning Schools initiative at verizon.digitalpromise.org.