Kuriosity Lab is Menlo Park’s new Willy Wonka’s learning factory
At the end of Marsh Road near Bayfront Park lies a nondescript warehouse space housing a unit that surprisingly defies description. Step inside 3553 Haven Street #6, and it’s simply impossible to process the sensory input: bouncing balls of every size, a ladder for climbing, blocks of wood, a door off its hinges, little floor scooters, hanging pipes, hula hoops, a darkened dome with mirrors and prisms, and every kind of gadget and gizmo, all seemingly begging you to touch and explore.
What is this place? Mark Gordon is director of The Kuriosity Lab. His best attempt at describing it: “I feel like it’s Willy Wonka’s learning factory.”
It’s also the manifestation of Mark’s educational knowledge, passion and insights. Since 1996, his focus has been on teaching the at-risk, the unmotivated and the underachieving at institutions like Mid-Peninsula High School, Charles Armstrong and his own AHA Learning Center. “I knew immediately the first step was how to get them back into becoming curious,” Mark says, explaining why he discarded the standard textbooks and began developing his own curriculum. “Curiosity is innate, but it’s a use it or lose it proposition.”
In recent years, Mark had transitioned out of the classroom and into private educational consulting but was jarred to think bigger by the encouragement (and funding) of former students. This past January, he embarked on the all-consuming journey of transforming empty warehouse space in Menlo Park into The Kuriosity Lab.
“To get a kid to say ‘aw’ and ‘ooh,’ ‘I want to find out more.’ That’s what this whole thing is about,” says Mark. “Pythagoras thought the most difficult thing in the world to do was to ‘Know Thyself.’ I agree. So, at the Lab we are offering kids the clues to begin to find themselves and a sense of how exciting learning can be.”
As an example, Mark uses a ball room to teach writing. “So much of writing is tedious,” he points out, so instead, balls of all sizes get tossed every which way and about. “And then we come up with all these crazy adjectives, nouns and verbs. Kids make silly sentences and get really descriptive. Kids have fun.”
In another area, Mark shows off his newly-tinkered “math carts” which younger kids can race about to collect and add up numbers scattered on the floor. Older kids zip around a small rectangular track (based on the Fibonacci sequence, of course) in a living lesson of rate = distance over time. “Kids are always moving, they’re always curious,” Mark says. “That’s how they figure things out.”
On this particular day, Mark’s nephews, Palo Alto High students Sullivan and Michael Tuttle, have stopped by to check out some of his latest contraptions. “We’re still in Beta testing, so they’re my guinea pigs,” Mark says.
After taking a whirl on the math carts and tinkering with lights, mirrors and string in the darkened dome, the boys give their Uncle Mark a thumbs up. “They are usually things you can just find around your house, but then he finds ways to make them really interesting,” says Michael.
While there might be a tendency to peg this place as a wanna-be mini-Exploratorium, Mark steers away from that comparison. “The Exploratorium is great. There’s no way I could be the Exploratorium,” he says. “The bottom line is to find out who they are. I want kids to walk away knowing what kind of learner they are.”
Although The Kuriosity Lab is still a “work in progress,” Mark says individual students are already welcome for private consultations. Later this fall, the plan is to open up for classroom and group events, curriculum development and teacher training. Mark is also posting free videos on the website to drive even broader reach and engagement. The collective intent is to kick-start as many students as possible.
“Curiosity is the driver for learning,” says Mark. “Once you make someone curious, they become their own teachers.”
Photos by Irene Searles