A repurposed black school bus filled with ed tech and STEM equipment pulls into the lot of an elementary school in Baltimore County, Maryland. Throughout the week, students in grades K through 5 board the Mobile Innovation Lab bus to code on laptops and build robots. Students also fly drones outside the transformed vehicle.
After a week of exploration, the bus is driven to the next scheduled elementary school for a visit that’s chosen via a lottery.
Leaders at Baltimore County Public Schools created this lab from a retired bus so it could travel to elementary schools where students don’t have access to innovative learning technologies.
“The lab is almost like The Magic School Bus,” says Superintendent Darryl L. Williams. “When students see this shiny black bus coming to their elementary school, the excitement is there. It’s almost like having a field trip that provides an opportunity for enriched learning—but without all the labor and cost involved in scheduling one.”
Room for innovation
The inside of the bus was gutted; shelves now line the walls so students can stand while they work, which promotes collaborative learning.
“There are lots of outlets right above the shelves to plug in different devices for projects,” says Ryan Imbriale, executive director of the Department of Innovative Learning. The power (which also runs the air conditioning) comes from two large generators installed underneath the vehicle.
Beneath the shelves are approximately eight carts used to store various robotics kits.
For coding projects, students have access to laptops that connect to the district’s Wi-Fi via a self-contained router.
Students can also use a 3D printer to fashion objects that they first make using crayons, markers and construction paper. “Students have the ability to scan these creations, but sometimes they simply recreate the design using a computer program,” says Imbriale.
Out in the sunshine
Since it was originally a special needs bus, the lab features a built-in lift for moving students with disabilities. Educators now use the lift for transporting equipment on and off the vehicle to take learning outside. An extendable overhang provides shade on hot days, and a waterproof compartment on the lab’s outer wall can be opened to reveal a 50-inch screen. Another monitor inside the lab can display content simultaneously, and the audio system supports multiple channels.
Additional access to ed tech
Since the bus can’t visit every school, the Baltimore County district has a resource library in the central office that includes many of the lab’s tools. These items are brought to various schools throughout the year for demonstrations to encourage STEM learning.
“I’m seeing this whole project as an awakening,” says Superintendent Williams. “I want to make sure that this lab is getting our African American and Hispanic students interested in magnet schools and our young ladies involved in STEM. Then, we can start the discussion of possibly migrating this program to our middle and high schools.”