San Diego French-American School builds Innovation Lab to teach robotics, coding in La Jolla


As part of their curriculum, the students at the San Diego French-American School in La Jolla learn multiple languages, and they come through the doors speaking languages heard all over the world. But when the school year started Aug. 30, another new language was introduced: digital.

Over the summer, the school built an Innovation Lab within a modular steel container to teach robotics and coding to the kindergarten through eighth-grade students — complete with movable tables, rolling glass doors, computers, green screens, 3-D printers and more to allow them to work in multiple settings. Furnishings and equipment went in the early weeks of school.

“We want the students to dictate how they learn, not the teachers saying ‘this is how you are going to learn,’ ” explained Francois Tregouet, the STEAM coordinator and third-grade teacher who came up with (and will teach) the class. “And when students are comfortable, that is the best time to learn. As for coding and programming, they are part of many jobs today and will continue to be so. Creativity and cooperation are the skills students must have to work these jobs. The future will have a lot of robots, so we want our students to be ready to manage robots and work in a different way.”

Having started the program last year — but soon realizing he was limited by the space in his classroom — Tregouet pulled from other age-appropriate robotics curriculum to develop the course for all grade levels.

The robotics and coding course will also be offered as a club after school.

Getting the Innovation Lab together was an exercise in collaboration. School facility manager Matt Baranowski said the process wouldn’t be possible without the support of parents.

“We got prices and knew what our options were in March, but the board wouldn’t pull the trigger until they had raised the funds to do this,” he explained.

“We knew we wanted to do this fast, but we only had a one-month window in which there weren’t going to be any kids here for school or camp, and that was the month of August.”

To get everything in line and ready to go in just five short months, timing was everything. It started with the school’s annual fundraising gala at the end of March, at which the parents — auction paddles in hand — raised the $400,000 needed to build and stock the Innovation Lab.

“We were sitting there eating dinner the night of the gala and one big donor (who wished to be kept anonymous) stepped up. He said he wanted to give $150,000 to this lab because he believed in the project. Then another person stood up and gave $50,000. Then there were a few $10,000 and $5,000 donations. People stood up at every level to raise that money. It was truly a collaborative effort and it was amazing,” Baranowski said.

The down payment was made at the end of April and contractor S3DA Designs got to work soon after.

S3DA consultant Saeed Shams said: “We had our architect do everything so we could move really quickly. We work in a way that we gather all the information we can so we’re ready on Day One — we have our designs, we have all questions answered, and we put it all together at once.”

Because the San Diego French-American School is a privately funded school on San Diego Unified School District property, at 6550 Soledad Mountain Road, the project had to adhere to the District of State Architect (DSA) process, which Baranowski called “a tough process on a good day,” and had to be modified to meet the District’s terms.

The building itself was constructed off-site and brought in by crane in two pieces and re-assembled onsite, and the finishing touches were added in late August. Students explored the Lab the first week of September.

— San Diego French-American School serves 365 students, Pre-K to eighth grade. Pre-K tuition starts at $11,580. Middle school tuition is $18,200.