Randall Kohr, creator of the Ocean City TECH Lab, knows young kids learn best when they’re having fun

Think of Disney World. 

“Kids walk into Disney World and they see all the attractions, they see all the lights, and they see all of the things going on, and they’re excited about being there,” said Randall Kohr, the leader of the Ocean City TECH Lab program for students from pre-kindergarten through third grade. 

“When we designed our technology lab, we lit it up, we filled it with attractions, with robotics and computer programming. We had 3-D printers, we had life-sized Legos, there are lights everywhere, there’s a full production studio,” said Kohr.

In short, there are plenty of ways for kids to laugh out loud and have fun. 

“That’s how we hook them,” he explained.

The Ocean City TECH program won recognition as an “Outstanding Program” in the 2019 NJSBA School Leader awards.

Programs were judged based on their level of innovation, how well they meet the specific needs of students, the relationship of the program to the state’s curriculum standards, and program results. In the 33rd edition of the NJSBA’s awards program, there were 17 entries, and Ocean City was one of four programs recognized by the judges for outstanding achievement.

There are 76,000 Legos in the Lego Lab, which, quite naturally, is built with Legos. It’s a brightly colored space.

The kids helped design the room, and when they want to change a design, they can just take it apart and rebuild it, Kohr said.

Through hands-on robotics programming, challenges and games, students learn the computer science skills outlined in the state’s learning standards. 

In addition to learning about engineering and design, students learn to integrate mathematics with computer coding, Kohr said. By starting them as early as kindergarten, math and coding will be second nature to them by the time they are young adults. 

In its application for the School Leader award, Ocean City said a primary example of computer science and mathematics integration is the annual March Madness Coding Tournament.

“The competition is made up of a robotics coding game, which teaches students to use measurement, angles, sequencing, estimation and addition in a hands-on and engaging atmosphere,” according to the application.

From their earliest years, students work in Ocean City’s state-of-the-art media production facility. Kindergartners write a sentence about what they want to be, and they gain confidence and experience, speaking for an audience. 

Ocean City Primary School Principal Cathy Smith said students compile their earlier writings in a Google document so, as they grow older, they can see how they’ve matured.   

Lauren Gunther, the K-12 curriculum director for the district, said Kohr is not afraid to challenge his students. For example, the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education sponsored a competition to design a mission patch for the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP). According to the SSEP, 21,200 patch designs were submitted by K-16 students. 

Of that large group, 67 were selected to be flown to the international space station in July 2019. A patch designed by Kohr’s third graders, of an astronaut walking on the Ocean City boardwalk having his pizza stolen by a seagull, was one of the patches selected.

“That’s every kid’s dream, to send something into space,” said Kohr.

Ocean City Superintendent Kathleen Taylor said Kohr, Gunther and Smith “have far exceeded what I ever anticipated this program would ever achieve.” She said Kohr had been contacted by schools from Africa, California, Texas and Maine to learn how they can develop a program similar to the TECH Lab started in Ocean City. 

Asked if the program has been affected by the pandemic, Kohr said, “We didn’t miss a beat.

“The kids got to design things at home,” he said, “and they have been submitting videos on a daily basis.”

Alan Guenther is the NJSBA’s assistant editor.