The UNF Step Lab, housed in the UNF College of Education and Human Services, positions UNF to continue to be a major contributor to the STEM Education ecosystem in the Northeast Florida community. It is a place where regional preK-12 students, teachers, university faculty and students, and community/business partners can go to learn and construct their own understandings of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM).
Life-size blocks, LEGO kits, robotic vehicles, iPads, 3-D printers and so much more. These learning tools can now be found in the UNF STEP Lab, a reimagined space located in the College of Education and Human Services (COEHS).
The creation of the lab was an initiative spearheaded by the Northeast Florida Center for STEM Education, or NEFSTEM, which was founded in 1985 as a multi-disciplinary center housed in the UNF College of Education and Human Services (COEHS). Armed with a vision for bringing students together to collaborate around technology-rich lessons, a team of dedicated faculty and staff brought the lab to life.
Pre-service teachers are able to use the lab to try out technology, work on collaborative lesson plans for methods classes, and prepare to implement and incorporate cutting edge technology into their classrooms upon graduation. The space is further envisioned to be a place where teachers in surrounding counties can come for professional development to add new tools to their toolkits and learn new skills.
Generous donations and contributions from Google, Ikea, Amazon, Kaymbu, Inc., LEGO Education and private donors have ensured the success of the lab in its first year of existence. The Northeast Florida Regional STEM2 Hub is a full-time partner of the STEP Lab, and played a significant role in making the vision become a reality.
Kathleen Schofield, the Executive Director of the Northeast Florida Regional STEM2 Hub, believes that forward-thinking is the primary goal of the STEP Lab. “With the demand growing for teachers to provide instruction in computer science and integrate it into their classes, it is becoming increasingly important that practicing teachers have a place to learn new things that were not a part of the typical school day when they attended college,” Schofield explained.
The STEP lab has welcomed groups of students and teachers from regional prek-12 schools, the UNF pre-school, and the University. With funding support from full-time partner STEM2 Hub and technical support from the Microsoft Hacking STEM staff, the College hosted three sessions of free summer camps for elementary, middle and high school students. The high school campers created robotic hands, with a goal of translating the technology to affordable Assistive Technology for the community.
In November 2018, the College announced that Code.Org would be moving from the Florida State College at Jacksonville to the UNF COEHS, falling under the NEFSTEM umbrella. Code.org is a nonprofit organization dedicated to expanding access to computer science in schools and increasing participation by women and underrepresented minorities. “This move fits with our innovation initiatives and efforts to strengthen our interdisciplinary collaboration with UNF’s College of Computing, Engineering and Construction, or CCEC, and NEFSTEM,” said Dr. Diane Yendol-Hoppey, the COEHS dean. “It also positions UNF to continue to be a major contributor to the STEM Education ecosystem in our community.”
With this new structure, the STEP lab will effectively become a “Maker Space’” with a focus on social justice in making and coding, facilitated through partnerships with the community. The goal is for students from the COEHS to be able to collaborate with students from the UNF Colleges of Health, Arts and Sciences, and Computing, Engineering and Construction to generate real solutions to concerns and issues in our community.
NEFSTEM’s long-term plan is to continually establish additional labs to complete a constellation of labs across Northeast Florida, in order to serve multiple constituencies. The lab will also serve as a space to examine emerging and new instructional technologies. This work can serve to demonstrate “proof of concept” of new equipment and practices through faculty research.