WonderLab: Inspiring Creativity, Innovation and "Messy" Learning
By Maggie Pilloton, Staff Writer

Innovation is not invention. It’s invention with impact.” ~ Matt Pearson, WonderLab Director

Every summer, creativity and innovation come together at WonderLab, a summer program offered at Marin Country Day School for rising third, fourth, and fifth graders centered around science, engineering, and Design Thinking.

Students from MCDS and public schools in both Marin (Laurel Dell, Venetia Valley, and Short School) and San Francisco (Creative Arts Charter School) are exposed to STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics) in a hands-on, inquiry-based workspace within a culturally-diverse environment. 

Matt Pearson, WonderLab Director and head of the Makers’ Lab at MCDS, developed the idea for the program and described it as, “When you can combine different disciplines, wrap them in a wrapper of diversity, while building understanding and value for diversity of perspective, students become engaged, motivated, and passionate about their learning with a keen desire to come up with something innovative and impactful.”

Matt has the goal of implementing different curriculum each summer. This allows the students to produce a unique project, which culminates in a “student showcase evening” where campers present their creations to the WonderLab community.

Two summers ago, the curriculum focused on energy, woodworking, and circuitry with each student creating a game for a camp-wide carnival for the community. Last summer, the curriculum was redesigned with a continued focus on energy, woodworking, and circuitry but, this time, within the context of making a stop-motion animation demonstrating how energy works in the world.

wonderlab campers

WonderLab has evolved greatly since its inception seven years ago. What started as a three-week program for 20 rising fourth graders from MCDS and Laurel Dell has transformed into a two-week program with 40 rising third, fourth, and fifth graders from five different schools. It now employs more teachers from the other participating schools, in addition to high school interns. 

Despite the shift in structure, the mission has remained the same. WonderLab is compelling because of its emphasis on transdisciplinary learning. It combines several subjects such as art, science, building, and technology with a mix of individual and group work in a diverse setting and produces a powerful summer program. 

Vic Tripathy, a teacher at MCDS and WonderLab, discussed the significance of this type of learning in a setting like this. “WonderLab’s transdisciplinary learning is important because kids have different learning styles and approaches because of who they are individually but also which school they go to.”

This style of learning is enriched with WonderLab’s diversity component. Mare Manangan, co-director of WonderLab, described the learning style of the camp as “a more realistic experience” because the world is becoming more and more diverse. 

WonderLab’s focus on transdisciplinary learning is effective because of all of these factors, but it’s also effective because of the passion behind each project. Students get the opportunity to explore what they’re curious and passionate about, which they don’t always get the opportunity to do in a traditional school environment.

If a student is more engaged with what they’re learning, it can lead to other levels of creativity and discovery, both academically and personally. Students gain more knowledge around specific subjects that they will be learning about in the coming school year, but WonderLab’s influence goes far beyond that.

Gaining self-confidence and becoming better problem-solvers

Through play and through curiosity, students gain self-confidence, they’re more likely to take risks, and they become better problem-solvers. 

“They gain a sense of independence and self-efficacy. It allows kids to have a voice. Kids are not listened to enough these days,” said Mare.

These are takeaways for the campers, but the teachers can learn more about their students, the learning process, and themselves in this type of atmosphere as well.

“It’s nice as a teacher being able to say ‘I’m not an expert. Let’s explore this together,’” Mare added.

For Vic, one major takeaway that he has gotten from WonderLab and something that he constantly has to remind himself of as an educator is, “Mess is part of learning. Learning is messy, and there is so much learning going on in chaos. Education is not necessarily following directions. It’s following the student’s direction.” 

During summer on the MCDS campus, WonderLab is a special place to be. It’s a place where learning is contagious. And where fun and work mesh into one. And where students can learn from people they might not ordinarily interact with.

WonderLab is powerful. And impactful.

Matt wants students to leave WonderLab with this notion: “You can make a difference in making the world a better place. We’re all players in that. It’s not something you wait to do. It’s something you can do now.”