Plainfield Community School’s Innovative Lab Encourages Students to Love Learning

Writer: Christy Heitger-Ewing

Photographer / Amy Payne

Two years ago, the Town of Plainfield determined that they no longer wanted to use the natatorium at Clark’s Creek Elementary for overflow swim lessons. As such, the Plainfield school system had to decide whether to tear down the building or find a way to reconfigure it. It seemed a shame to lose a space that offered so much potential. After some discussion and research, the Imagination Lab was born with the concept of hands-on, experiential, inquiry-based learning for K-5 students.

Designed to expose Plainfield students at Van Buren, Central, Clarks Creek and Brentwood Elementary Schools to novel and computational thinking, the goal is to get every K-5 student in the lab at least once a month (hosting 90-120 students at a time). That equals 2,500 monthly visitors (not including after-school activities).

Mary Giesting, former Assistant Superintendent for Student Learning, transitioned to Director of the Imagination Lab in July. She notes that each time a group of students comes to the Lab, they will experience a “90-minute hands-on learning odyssey.”

“We call it an odyssey rather than a field trip because each time they come they will explore something new,” Giesting says.

Not only that but each month the Lab will focus on a different theme. For instance, September’s theme is “Want Not, Waste Not,” which highlights the difference between a need and a want. October’s theme will be “The Space of Earth.”

Prior to designing the Imagination Lab, Giesting and other Plainfield staff toured hands-on Labs in St. Paul, Minnesota, Aurora, Illinois and Longmont, Colorado, which is a school district dedicated to design thinking.

“We were committed to creating a lab that was purposeful and meaningful,” Giesting says. “Truly, there is a reason for every single space we created.”

Divided into sections, the Imagination Lab has a studio area, complete with sound rooms, green rooms, videography & cinematography and the Speaking Stairs, where students can show their peers what they’ve created. The Imagination Lab also has traditional classrooms that can be transformed into various configurations in a matter of minutes because every piece of furniture is on wheels.

In the Fab Lab students work with metal, wood, sewing, embroidery and jewelry-making to develop hands-on skills that have, in many ways, disappeared in the wake of technology.

“We want to bring those skills back because in our world you can use computers and manipulate high-tech all you want, but you still have to use a hammer. You still need to know the difference between a Phillips and a flathead screwdriver,” Giesting says.

A grant from Duke Energy enabled them to build a Learning Garden where students can plant, water and harvest eggplant, strawberries, carrots, tomatoes, peppers and herbs. Students will even learn how to can foods like their grandparents and great-grandparents did. 

There’s a section dedicated to teaching electricity (e.g., magnetism and circuitry) as well as an area for chemistry, biochemistry and — every kid’s favorite — worms. The collaboration station allows students to work in teams on chrome books and iPads creating storyboards, doing film editing and offering peer-driven critique. In addition, there’s a space dedicated to emerging technologies such as coding, animation and small robotics.

“Technology is rich here,” Giesting says. For instance, the sound rooms are outfitted with speaker systems that have dynamite acoustics that are perfect for podcasting.

“You can podcast anywhere, but when students do it here in a dedicated sound room, it becomes real,” Giesting says.

In the green room, students can make videos that parallel whatever project they are working on. For instance, with some simple software, they can add a background to their screen. So, say a second-grader writes a poem about the mountains. She can be videotaped reading the poem, then add a picture of the mountains in the background.

“All of a sudden that simple project takes on a whole new dimension,” Giesting says. “It becomes an ongoing project that enables teachers to see how their students are growing over time. Plus, we can amplify the skills that are important to kids.”

In addition, the Imagination Lab will connect students with community members by inviting in policemen, firemen, doctors, lawyers and nurses but also pipe fitters, radiologists and people who move soil. Exposing young students to different kinds of jobs not only gives them a greater understanding for what it takes to make the world go-round, but it also plants the seeds for possible career options down the line.

“If you don’t start those conversations until seventh or eighth grade, by that time students already have in their minds that they’re not good at math or science or that they like this or don’t like that,” Giesting says. “The truth of the matter is that they haven’t had an enriched experience at a young age to make those informed decisions.”

By starting early, students get multiple opportunities to learn about a variety of careers so that when they reach middle school and have to start picking their high school courses, they can plan accordingly.

Giesting calls the Imagination Lab an “incubator for learning” as teachers and students learn together. 

“It’s incredibly empowering for students to work together with a teacher to figure out how to manipulate the software to make something work,” Giesting says. “We take away that idea that the teachers have all the answers. They start to realize that teachers learn from students just as students learn from teachers.”

The Imagination Lab also strives to provide an experience where students can engage, fail and know that failing is part of learning.

“We want to erase the notion that they have to get it right the first time,” says Giesting, who maintains that student agency (the belief that one can control their world) determines joyful learning because when a student feels they can control their life, they find their passion.

“Students who struggle in school feel they can’t control their lives,” Giesting says. “But if students have agency, if they have confidence in their skills and an appreciation for the world, they will be successful.”

The same is true for adults — many of whom wish they had had access to such a facility during their formative years.

“I can’t tell you how many adults have come in here and said, ‘I wish I’d had something like this when I was growing up!,” Giesting says.

If you are 18 years or older and would like to volunteer at the Imagination Lab, contact Giesting at

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