Santa Cruz Tech Beat

Santa Cruz Tech Ecosystem

A visit to The Gateway School Discovery Lab

by Chris Neklason
Co-CEO of Cruzio

On an unseasonably warm and sunny January morning, Peggy and I walked over to Gateway School over on the Santa Cruz West Side and across from Lighthouse Field to meet John Gaston and to tour and learn more about their new Discovery Center.

Peggy and John geeking out for 10 minutes about the best way to clean inkjet printer heads.

Peggy and John geeking out for 10 minutes about the best way to clean inkjet printer heads.

Our three children had all attended Gateway years ago, and we’d heard about the new Discovery Center and were curious to learn more. A couple of Linkedins and emails later and we found ourselves upstairs in the familiar library and art space, now transformed to include a makers lab, shaking John’s hand in introduction.

In two seconds, his enthusiasm and intensity swept us along as he told us about the Discovery Center and the associated technology program at Gateway. Last year, a sum of $45,000 was bestowed on the school to help create and equip the lab.

The lab occupies a narrow upstairs space about 20 feet wide by 60 feet long, and is thoughtfully laid out with work benches and stools and storage along the walls and a nice big table in the middle surrounded by benches and today covered with powerful Macbook Pro laptops. Also along the wall: a vinyl cutter, a laser printer, an Epson 6000  8 color high resolution inkjet printer, a laser cutter and a 3D printer. There is also a standalone rolling 4 drawer tool storage unit packed with tools, a number of tower computers and monitors as well as odd piles of old machines and  bits of devices and components.

The vinyl cutter and incredibly well stocked tool chest.

The vinyl cutter and incredibly well stocked tool chest.

This is no cluttered alchemist’s lab with a stuffed alligator suspended from the ceiling overhead, but rather a very well organized, very basic but very well, equipped computer and Maker lab in a very compact space, integrated with the K-5 curriculum of the school. As long time geeks, Peggy and I, while impressed by the quality of the lab, were even more impressed by the program and the energetic instructor.

John explained immediately that the point of the program was not to plonk a lab into the school and teach kids technology for the sake of learning technology, but rather to integrate the tools and the work space into the school curriculum, to leverage the tools so the kids can use them to explore their education.

One example offered by John was the use of iPads in the classroom. The kids learn about symmetry in a lesson, and then take their iPads out to the playground, take pictures of things they think are symmetrical, use a paint program to circle the symmetrical elements in the picture, and then discuss what makes the item in the picture symmetrical back in the classroom.

The laser cutter and 3d printer, with exhaust vents.

The laser cutter and 3d printer, with exhaust vents.

John showed us a piece of an old motorcycle inner tube, a square piece flattened and cut with the laser cutter into an intricate, delicate pattern by some students as part of an art project who were inspired by lace textiles and wanted to design their own pattern.

He then showed us the silk screen press he built with students, and the silk screen stencil made on the vinyl cutter, part of a project to make tee shirts with the school design.

It became clear that the success of the Gateway Discovery Center will have less to do with the quality of the technology and equipment, and more to do with how the school utilizes the lab to enhance the K-6 education of the student. At $45,000, the cost of setting up the lab is minor compared to the ongoing salary of the instructor and the ongoing effort by the entire staff to integrate the tools into the curriculum.

The payoff will be many years down the road, when Gateway School, and other schools developing like programs, start graduating not just students, not just learners, not just test takers, yes, all of that, but something more: 21st century explorers, builders and makers. These are the kids who will clean up and fix our world, and take humans to the stars.


Sara Isenberg curates and publishes Santa Cruz Tech Beat for the benefit of the extended business and technology community. When she is not volunteering her time for the tech scene, Sara makes her living by managing software projects, web strategy planning, and providing development team services (including account management, vendor management, strategic partner management, beta project management, referrals to qualified technical team members, and more). Please visit her website: Sara Isenberg Web Consulting & Project Management, or contact Sara by email if you have any project management, account management, or Development Team leadership or service needs.

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