Competition of “Thinkers’ Laboratory”/ Prātnieku laboratorija “Dare! Think! Create!” © Photo: Toms Grīnbergs, UL Department of Communication and Innovation

The slogan “Dare! Think! Create!” has headed implementation of a three-year project at the University of Latvia Interdisciplinary Centre for Educational Innovation (ICEI) resulting in approbation of the curriculum for primary school pupils in the field of natural sciences, mathematics and technology. Further work of the “Thinkers’ Laboratory” is related to continuing education for teachers and introduction of the new curriculum in Latvian schools. The large-scale project was funded by the patron “Mikrotīkls” and administered by the UL Foundation.

The “Thinkers’ Laboratory” lessons gave pupils the opportunity to perform exciting experiments, research in nature and in the laboratory, develop engineering design and math skills, take the first steps in the world of programming, create, plan and implement their ideas.

Implementing STEM tenet – to develop skills in science, technology, engineering and mathematics

Ilze France, the project manager and doctor of mathematics, explains that the “Thinkers’ Laboratory” is an in-depth curriculum for 4th to 6th grade pupils to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics, using an integrated and creative approach. UL ICEI encourages its implementation both within the framework of interest education and encompassing it in the school curriculum. “When we created the programme, we looked at how to really put STEM learning into practice,” adds I. France. According to the project team, the current project “School 2030” is an overarching element, namely, during the approbation of the “Thinkers’ Laboratory” lessons, connections and opportunities to include it in the new programme were sought throughout the three years. The project manager clarifies: “Linking our efforts to “School 2030” throughout the development of the project was a driving force for finding the best design of the programme and integrating it with the new curriculum.”


Head of Thinkers’ Laboratory”, Dr. math. Ilze France. © Photo: Toms Grīnbergs, UL Department of Communication and Innovation

UL ICEI succeeded in implementation of their idea, respectively, starting from this school year 2020/2021, many exercises developed in the “Thinkers’ Laboratory” can be included in daily curricula in every school in Latvia this year, 4th grade students will learn according to the new curriculum. “Thus, the synergy of these ideas, which we have embedded in the “Thinkers' Laboratory” lessons, is even greater. This is an invaluable benefit! This project will definitely evolve and will continue in the long run, if schools decide to give these additional opportunities to their students. In terms of content, the existing curriculum and the newly introduced proposals complement each other. The results are ready to be used!” explains France.

“Thinkers’ Laboratory” – from the idea to the approved content

“The idea behind the “Thinkers’ Laboratory” project emerged when we began focussing on primary school pupils and their opportunities to study exact sciences,” says project manager I. France. The team of “Thinkers’ Laboratory” realized that 7th–9th grade pupils and those in secondary school can benefit from numerous opportunities offered by the University of Latvia, for example, the University of Latvia also offers various opportunities – the School for Young Physicists, the Little University of Mathematics and other initiatives, while younger pupils do not have additional learning opportunities of this kind. “We realized that the 8th or 9th grade is too late to offer a chance to those pupils who are interested in doing more. We started a complex and purposeful consideration – what could it be? Until now, the interest education groups mostly had specifically oriented classes or lessons – programming, environmental education, chemistry and others. However, the 4th–6th grade group is in transition age, when the pupils are prepared to study subjects representing particular exact sciences, hence, it is necessary to create a content that suits this target audience,” comments France.

Competition of “Thinkers’ Laboratory” “Dare! Think! Create!” © Photo: Toms Grīnbergs, UL Department of Communication and Innovation

The team of “Thinkers’ Laboratory” had established long-term cooperation with several schools, including Saldus Secondary School, Jelgava State Gymnasium, schools of Vecumnieki. The pupils who participated in on-site lessons for three years admitted that, after all, it was different at school. “I think that this is a time of great changes, schools and teachers are open to new opportunities. The “Thinkers' Laboratory” is a kind of springboard for educators and their ideas. Practice shows that searching for different versions, combinations and arrangements yields the best result,” emphasizes the project manager I. France.

The project team appreciates the support of the patron “Mikrotīkls”: "The UL Foundation-administered project gave the UL Interdisciplinary Centre for Educational Innovation strength and courage, a kind of stepping stone, enabling us to move on in realisation that there still remains much to be done to evolve the content of primary school curricula.”

Competition of “Thinkers’ Laboratory” “Dare! Think! Create!” © Photo: Toms Grīnbergs, UL Department of Communication and Innovation

Impetus for young engineers

Until now, the curricula of upper grades also lacked a chance to master the skills that develop engineering design thinking. By attending the lessons of “Thinkers' Laboratory”, the pupils learned specific knowledge, skills and ways of thinking. For three years, the approbation group actually completed the entire training cycle, thus, during the approbation it was possible to develop the most appropriate methodology, defining the elements that had to be altered, as well as finding the best topics and exercises. It is very well known from the theory of education that the motivation of pupils is very important. In order to gain the interest of pupils, the content was selected with the aim of promoting motivation.

We created the content both thematically and in consideration of acquiring specific skills. Particular attention is paid to the way how pupils master the content, such as experimenting and researching, modelling, creating their own projects and thinking about what we do and how we do it, how well it works, what needs to be improved, and thus gaining new knowledge. It was also one of the guiding principles – to emphasize that we learn by doing, not always starting with theory. We also want to provide methodological support to teachers by offering continuing education courses, experimenting together and discussing the most successful ways of learning,” adds France.

Competition of “Thinkers’ Laboratory” “Dare! Think! Create!” © Photo: Toms Grīnbergs, UL Department of Communication and Innovation

"Our goal as educators is to give children an idea of how the world is built. To offer a chance of practical experiment and personal improvement by doing. The new content includes apprehending the working skills of an engineer, mathematician or researcher, learning appropriate ways of thinking, gaining capacity to plan, to clearly understand what the result and product will be. These are the skills needed to solve problems in new situations, while gaining an understanding that learning is diverse.”

Within the framework of the project, two methodological and practical materials “Thinkers' Laboratory” (Prātnieku laboratorija) and “Teacher at the “Thinkers' Laboratory”. Reminders to a teacher who learns” (Skolotājs “Prātnieku laboratorijā”. Atgādnes skolotājam, kurš mācās) have been developed for teachers. These materials can be used and adapted to the needs of each particular school. Support materials for the teacher also include detailed lesson plans, worksheets for students. They will be useful both for a student who presently studies to be a teacher and for an educator who has worked at the school for 30 years and who is ready to take ideas, learn on his own, acquiring various methodological techniques.

Primary school conference “Natural Sciences, Mathematics, Engineering and Technologies at School” (2020). Photo from the archive of UL ICEI

Project cornerstone – continuing education of teachers

The aim of the study content approbation was to introduce a sustainable model. After the development of the “Thinkers' Laboratory” lessons, the work with the education of Latvian teachers continues, thus further and more extensively implementing the new methodology throughout the country. Educators welcome the preparation of actual examples and elaborations, being ready to introduce new ideas into their lessons.

Content development of the “Thinkers' Laboratory” gave the UL students – future teachers who associate their careers with school a valuable practice. Students at many study levels, such as primary school teachers and postgraduate students, were involved as approbation group leaders. The UL ICEI team created lessons, supported, observed, analysed both the content itself and the way the new teacher worked.

Competition of “Thinkers’ Laboratory” “Dare! Think! Create!” © Photo: Toms Grīnbergs, UL Department of Communication and Innovation

Dare! Think! Create! – I use this slogan everywhere. I believe that these are motivating keywords for each teacher and for ourselves. If we all want to do more together, we must dare to want and do more. This is my inner tenet and call to teachers and students, as well as to any citizen. These three words, in my opinion, say very, very much to everyone involved in the education system,” emphasizes I. France. The project manager continues: “Sometimes children have been suffocated by the only correct order. And then we wonder that they don't want to do anything. The story is exactly why don't they want to do, to act? It is also about encouragement of students to dare to want, to do, to get involved.”

About the University of Latvia Foundation

Since 2004, the UL Foundation provides an opportunity to patrons and cooperation partners to support both the University of Latvia and other leading higher education institutions of our country, thereby investing in the future of Latvia. The priorities of the UL Foundation are to support the most outstanding, dedicated students and researchers, to advance creation of a modern study environment, as well as to promote construction and refurbishment of university’s buildings.