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How to Incubate Creativity in School Through Making and Discovery

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Sixth graders at Lighthouse Community Charter School in East Oakland tinker with Turtle Art as part of a deep dive into the coordinate grid. (Katrina Schwartz)

Sixth-grade students at Lighthouse Community Charter in Oakland, California, eagerly pull laptops off a cart and settle down with a partner to experiment with Turtle Art, a program meant to introduce them to the basics of programming and some math concepts.

Math teacher Laura Kretschmar gave students a rubric with specific goals around collaboration, communication and instructions to use various functions in the program, but not a lot else. She’s intentionally giving them a lot of freedom to play with the program, create cool designs and figure out what the functions do.

“I think “y” means, like, going up,” says Juritzy Maldonado. “So to pull it up, I’m going to try to change the number.” She punches in 200 for “y” and watches the image she’s creating shift upward. Another group discovers that if they hit “repeat” multiple times, they can create a parachute-like design that they’ve figured out how to color in various ways. That wasn’t their original plan, but they’re running with it now.

“Pretty much everything we were doing is trying one-by-one and seeing what we got, and then we put them all together,” said Guadalupe Pena. She and her partner realize they haven’t used a crucial function to set "xy" but they’re not worried. “We still don’t know how to use [it] very well,” Guadalupe admits. “Since we’ve already got everything written down, we can take the risk to make it to see what it does to our parachute.”

This blind exploration using Turtle Art is part of a two-week deep dive Kretschmar is doing on the coordinate grid. She says it can be a tricky concept for a lot of kids, and it's more fun for them to uncover the intricacies using Turtle Art. Having the context of their experience with the program makes the math concepts more relevant when the time comes to teach them. She also likes that while kids are exploring they’re working together, helping each other and building a visual reference point.

Turtle Art demo
Turtle Art demo (Turtle Art)

The Turtle Art project, and the concept of “doing” or “making” before any explicit instruction has been given, is part of the school’s attempt to shake up its teaching. Lighthouse Community Charter has to cover the same standard curriculum as district schools, so teachers have to choose carefully the times when they’ll spend a little more time and creativity on a difficult subject.


Student should stumble around a little bit noticing patterns and eventually walk away with some basics, says Aaron Vanderwerff. He’s the Creativity Lab and Science director at Lighthouse. He’s been coaching teachers on how to incorporate “making” into their curriculum when it’s appropriate. He says about 70 percent of the staff ask for help from the Creativity Lab each year.

“Core teachers are interested in trying to integrate this,” Vanderwerff said. “The concept of the coaching is that if we help someone with one or two projects, they may do more on their own.”

He runs workshops for teachers designed to give them the experience of learning through making and inquiry, so they understand how the framework can help their students. And it's working. The high school physics teacher had students build a mousetrap car to learn about forces. Fourth-graders studying westward expansion built their own version of the Transcontinental Railroad, including engineering a way to get their trains over the mountains.

The school has built a makerspace that high school students use for robotics, a scientific inquiry class and even some art classes. Six years ago, Vanderwerff was the robotics class teacher. His success with a more hands-on, student-driven curriculum inspired the school to expand that work into the Creativity Lab and to incorporate “making” into all K-12 classes.

A noise-o-meter lets kids know what activity is going on in the Creativity Lab.
A noise-o-meter lets kids know what activity is going on in the Creativity Lab. (Katrina Schwartz)

“We’re seeing that making really helps kids with that STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) piece of things if that’s something they’re excited about,” Vanderwerff said. While Lighthouse has only just recently graduated its first class of seniors, Vanderwerff and his colleagues were concerned as they watched other Oakland high school students attend college, encounter difficult STEM courses and give up.

In Lighthouse robotics and making classes, students work on the same project for six months. They naturally encounter obstacles, develop solutions and keep working. The class also gives students some hands-on experience with concepts they’d otherwise only learn about more traditionally. Suddenly, physics has a point, geometry comes alive and computer programming doesn’t seem so boring.

“Our goal is not to create more scientists and engineers,” Vanderwerff said. “It’s to leave doors open for kids.” He’s painfully aware that not many schools in the East Oakland neighborhood that Lighthouse Charter serves have makerspaces. The Creativity Lab and infusion of making into the curriculum schoolwide is a larger attempt to even the playing field and provide kids in this low-income urban neighborhood access to creative spaces.

“My students in their communities are not exposed to designers and engineers as much,” Vanderwerff said. His students have told him that his robotics class changed their plans for the future, not because he told them they should be an engineer or a computer programmer, but because they experienced the power of designing and making something.

Materials to create all sorts of projects are stored creatively in the Creativity Lab at Lighthouse Community Charter.
Materials to create all sorts of projects are stored creatively in the Creativity Lab at Lighthouse Community Charter. (Katrina Schwartz)

“I would much rather push for this kind of curriculum in schools serving low-income communities than in other schools because I think it will help students to gain their own voice, and a lot of the kind of character-building aspects that are intrinsic in this, but also to be exposed to new possibilities for the future,” Vanderwerff said.

He’s disappointed that the maker movement isn’t more diverse, but says when he takes his mostly African-American and Latino kids to Maker Faire each year, they hardly notice. They are on fire with the ideas on display and proud of their accomplishments.


Vanderwerff is working with educators from around the country to promote making and design thinking in the classroom. He runs workshops open to public and private school teachers alike, hoping to spread some of these ideas beyond the likely suspects. The Creativity Lab has lots of project guides on its website, along with examples of student work.

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