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Solve, Tinker, Explore, Play: The UNF STEP Lab is open for learning

Students at the UNF STEP lab

When Jessie Didier visited UNF’s new STEP Lab, she could hardly contain her excitement. “I immediately took pictures to send to my principal and my school’s science coach,” said Didier, Tiger Academy’s student support services director. Life-size blocks, LEGO kits, robotic vehicles, iPads and 3D printers are just a few of the learning tools in the STEP Lab, a reimagined space in the College of Education and Human Services. STEP stands for solve, tinker, explore and play, and the lab is a place where regional preK-12 students and teachers, University faculty and students, and community partners can go to learn and gain hands-on experience in science, technology, engineering and math.


Didier said when she entered the STEP Lab during her first visit in November, a UNF professor was explaining how the 3D printers worked in terms that students could easily understand. “Then the students got to do every single thing the lab offered,” she said, “all while following clear directions and working together to accomplish a goal.” Creation of the lab was spearheaded by the Northeast Florida Center for STEM Education, a multi-disciplinary center housed in COEHS. Pre-service teachers are able to use the lab to try out technology, work on collaborative lesson plans, and prepare to 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 to their toolkits and learn new skills. 


Linking technology in the lab with COEHS course curriculum is a priority for the college. Dr. Suzanne Ehrlich, an assistant professor of educational technology who specializes in access and inclusion using technology, sees the lab as a key resource in her instruction. “The STEP Lab has already provided our teacher candidates with an open, collaborative space to innovate with new technologies and develop a greater sense of the power of educational technology,” said Ehrlich.


In its first few months, the lab has already received generous support from Google, IKEA, Amazon, Kaymbu Inc., LEGO Education and private donors. In addition, community partnerships play an important role. The Northeast Florida Regional STEM2 Hub, for one, is a full-time partner of the STEP Lab and has played a significant role in its development. Kathleen Schofield, executive director of the 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,” said Schofield, explaining that workshops on topics like JavaScript, Python and web design using HTML and CSS will be offered in the lab. 


The STEP Lab has already welcomed students from regional elementary and high schools, the UNF Preschool and groups from around the University. More than 40 students from Baker County High School’s Teacher Cadet Program and Florida Future Educators of America Club, who visited the lab in October, practiced coding with software on iPads to drive robotic vehicles around the lab. In November, students from Woodland Acres Elementary School, one of UNF’s Professional Development Schools, visited the lab and built structures with LEGO kits, allowing them to apply both critical and creative thinking skills. 


The College announced that would be moving to the UNF COEHS, falling under the NEFSTEM umbrella. 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 interdisciplinary collaboration with UNF’s College of Computing, Engineering and Construction and NEFSTEM,” said Dr. Diane Yendol-Hoppey, COEHS dean. “It also positions UNF to continue to be a major contributor to the STEM Education ecosystem in our community.”


On UNF’s campus, the STEP Lab will not only be a resource for COEHS students, but also for students from all UNF colleges to generate real solutions to concerns and issues in the community. Brian Zoellner, NEFSTEM’s executive director, said the STEP Lab further strengthens the College’s efforts to continue to build strong partnerships that benefit the local education community.  


According to Zoellner, “The ultimate goal of the lab is to make STEM learning relevant, accessible and fun for everyone.”