Science is exact, precise and methodical. Teaching, on the other hand, is messy and sometimes completely unpredictable – and that’s exactly how Melissa Wright likes it. Wright is the owner and lead mad scientist of The Lab at Lakewood, where children are invited and encouraged to think outside the box when it comes to learning science.
“I’m not a teacher and I don’t desire to be,” said Wright, whose nametag on her lab coat reads “Mess” instead of Melissa. “I’m not a drill sergeant and someone that wants to get them in a seat and have them follow a very specific course of action. What I want to give them is a safe place to just explore in their way, and I think that hones critical thinking skills.”
The Lab, located at 5304 Junius Street, is the result of Wright’s desire to create a venue for kids that is a middle ground between the brainless fun of an arcade and the boring, strict confines of a museum. The Lab provides students with an enriching experience that promotes critical thinking to give students the freedom to learn at their own pace and also emphasizes having fun.
According to Wright, The Lab is a wholly unique facility in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. There are other science-entertainment franchises, she said, but their business model didn’t support having a facility, which is very costly. However, that’s exactly the kind of experience that Wright wanted. It isn’t exactly how science in school is taught but that might be a good thing.
Science (and education in general) in America lacks in comparison to other Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, particularly those in Asia. In the latest OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) report, which compares the knowledge and skills of 15-year-olds from 70 different countries, the United States ranks 17th in science. American students, in comparison to their counterparts in Canada, are more than half a school year behind in science.
“I think science in school is reading the book, definitions, vocabulary and quizzes all week and if you’re lucky, then with the last 15 minutes of your Friday science class, you’ll do an experiment,” said Wright. “And we’re like the exact opposite. We’re going to talk for 45 seconds – ‘Here’s the activity, here’s the gist of it. Okay, you’ve seen it before, how do you want to explore it?’”
Nearly every major branch of science is explored at The Lab – biology, chemistry, physics, archeology and paleontology. The biggest attraction and fan favorite at The Lab would be the slime bar, where kids learn how to make the best slime in town. Even adults, who are usually hesitant to get involved in kid activities, get excited for the slime bar.
The Lab also plays host to a variety of creatures. Children love to play with Einstein the ferret and gawk at the tarantula and scorpion. The Lab also has live feeding demonstrations with its ball python, Da Vinci, for students who wish to watch.
“The ones that do want to watch, I think they gain a lot by it,” said Canaan Sutton, an assistant at The Lab. “We also explain to them that Da Vinci is a juvenile ball python. He’s been raised in captivity; he’s learning how to eat and do these things. So if he didn’t have this proper introduction or if he’s disturbed while eating, he could starve and die. So, I think the kids really get an idea of the sympathy that they should have for a predator-type animal.”
Wright’s dream of creating a venue for kids that was both fun and intellectually stimulating would have been a short-lived one if no other parents supported her idea. Fortunately, she said, The Lab has caught on like a wildfire and Wright has an average of six to seven birthdays lined up every weekend.
The Lab also hosts a variety of programs that usually coincide with the longer school holidays such as summer, winter and spring breaks. The programs typically reflect the season or holiday – for instance, The Lab is hosting “Columbus Day Explorer Camp” in October and “Cold Weather Chemistry” during the month of December.
The unique approach that The Lab has to teaching and learning has drawn the attention and praise of another sect of students. Children with autism are thriving at The Lab and the word has been spreading to parents of autistic children from all over the Dallas area. Wright is the first to admit she is no teacher or scientist but her methods of interacting with autistic children seem to be working.
Autism in a condition that affects a person’s ability to process, organize and put together information. This can affect a multitude of things, including the ability to communicate and learn.
“People with special needs want to do things that aren’t…museums are set up for you to move through it this way. Even if you go to IKEA, they’re herding you through in a certain way,” says Wright. “Anybody that’s special – autistic, Asperger’s, anywhere in that spectrum – those people want to go backwards through that. They want to do a cartwheel through it; they want to roll a ball through it. The Lab allows for that because I’m not dictating everything all the time.”
Wright knows how to create a fun and friendly environment for people with disabilities, thanks to her time spent with retirement communities prior to starting up The Lab. Wright was a program director, and she spent a lot of her time with aged people who were impaired.
In fact, Wright even thinks of herself as just a big kid. It isn’t unusual for her to come to work in a dress one day and then in her pajamas the next. She sometimes wears skates instead of shoes and occasionally forgoes footwear all together. She loves to buy big, expensive toys and invite kids to play with them.
When a mother and child popped into The Lab recently to take a look around, the mom told the child not to touch anything. Wright objects to this and insists that everything is fine to touch. Stuff at The Lab breaks and Wright is just fine with that.
“What I’ve figured out just through doing this now for a year and a half is that this really is just me and my playroom and my toys,” says Wright. “I want to share. It’s that simple. When a kid walks in, I say, ‘Play with my toys! I don’t need them. I can’t possibly play with them all today. So come in and play with my toys.’”
The Lab at Lakewood isn’t successful because of a perfect formula. It’s because The Lab is willing to teach in different ways that students enjoy their visits so much. There are only three rules that Wright enforces: be safe, play nice and be safe. Otherwise, students are free to do as Wright has done and “Get Their Geek On”. It’s the perfect environment for students to experiment and figure out what learning method works best for them.
“All of these kids that are being called special needs… sometimes it’s just their brain works a different way,” she said. “We’re a friendly place for them to do that – to think differently and think openly and think critically.”
The Lab wasn’t always located in Lakewood. The Lab originated in Lake Highlands before Wright packed up for Junius Street. And after completing her first full year in Lakewood, she has big plans for 2012. According to Wright, she is hoping to expand to a second location before the year is up. If the hundreds of satisfied parents and happy children are any indication, The Lab will thrive wherever it goes.
“Seeing their [the kids] faces light up and seeing that look in their eye as they say, ‘Hey, I discovered that on my own,’” said Sutton. “You can show a kid anything that you want from here and you can try and teach them and drill it into their heads but really just seeing them discover it on their own – that’s my favorite experience I’ve had here so far.”
Many of the students that regularly attend The Lab would likely agree with him.