SmartLabs help prepare students for future high-tech careers

by Paul Braun | New Earth

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Fourth grade students at Trinity Elementary School, West Fargo, work on a mechanical project at the Trinity SmartLab. (Paul Braun | New Earth)

Learn, serve, lead, succeed. That is the theme for National Catholic Schools Week, observed this year from January 28 to February 3. Since 1974, the National Catholic Educational Association has dedicated a week each year to promote the benefits of a Catholic education, and to highlight the progress made and successes achieved by Catholic schools throughout the nation.

Catholic schools across the Diocese of Fargo will join in on the annual observance, and that includes the St. John Paul II Catholic Schools Network (JPII Schools) in Fargo, which operates Shanley High School, Sullivan Middle School, and the elementary schools of Holy Spirit and Nativity in Fargo, and Trinity Elementary in West Fargo. One initiative the JPII Schools network is boasting about is the creation of new SmartLabs in their schools over the past year and a half.

“Our Technology Advisory Committee had been exploring various options for 21st century-learning, including SmartLabs,” said Michael Hagstrom, President of the JPII Schools network. “An anonymous donor offered to fund a SmartLab at Nativity School for the 2016-17 school year. We gratefully installed it and our students and staff truly embraced it last year.”

SmartLabs are technology-based learning centers that incorporate the STEM approach – science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Hagstrom said the immediate results were encouraging enough to look at setting up SmartLabs across the network.

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Two Trinity School fifth graders learn basic mechanics through a pulley mechanism they created. (Paul Braun | New Earth)

“Our science standardized scores shot up,” said Hagstrom. “We saw the many benefits and wanted to extend that to our other two grade schools and our middle school. Last spring, thanks to major lead gifts in memory of James Wold, a lead gift from another anonymous donor, and a very generous auction special project bidding, we were able to secure funding for the new labs, staffing, and training. Now across our JPII Schools Network, we are seeing the benefits of the new labs. It all goes back to that first donor’s investment in our children’s learning and how giving begets more giving and unanticipated blessings.”

Students in kindergarten through 8th grade utilize the labs. The lessons taught and programs used vary with each grade’s skill level, but they range from basic keyboarding and computer skills to working with animation, coding video games, circuitry projects and building simple machines and pulley systems.

“When they are playing games on the computer, they actually have to code the programs,” said Sarah Floyd, who teaches the SmartLab at Trinity Elementary. “They’re using skills that are really common today because of all of the new technology-based jobs out there. Therefore, what they’re really doing is computer coding, programming, a lot of engineering and making simple machines and circuitry. We haven’t gotten to everything, but they’ll be able to create and design 3-D objects on the computer. It’s really not video games, but in fact it’s more fun than video games.”

Part of the purpose of the SmartLab is getting kids excited about science and engineering, eventually equipping them for jobs that use technology, an important skill to have with the prominence of technology in today’s work environment.

“I feel that it provides my students a background with STEM,” said Davonne Eldredge, Principal at Trinity Elementary. “It helps them learn how to problem-solve, and as they go through trials of different things it helps them learn that sometimes things don’t work out the first time and you have to come back and make a new plan. The other part of it that’s really great is that they are learning to make presentations through PowerPoint and use them, which they will be doing the rest of their life.”

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Sarah Floyd, Trinity Elementary School SmartLab instructor, gives advice to a fourth-grade student. (Paul Braun | New Earth)

While the STEM curriculum is important, the JPII Schools network is adding an extra dimension to the technology-centered aspect of the SmartLabs through religion and the arts. According to Michael Hagstrom, these project-based, collaborative STEM learning labs are cutting edge for our 21st century learners. “We are one of a handful of school networks in our region to obtain even a single SmartLab, and by enhancing these labs with religion and the arts, we will have a STREAM flowing through our schools!”

“Something I saw the last time I was in the lab was that they were doing a presentation on recycling and taking care of the environment,” said Eldredge. “When we look at our faith, one of the things we are called to do is take care of God’s creation and our environment, so that is one way our Catholic faith was brought in.”

For the students, the chance to get on to a computer during the school day to play a game they helped to design, or to get their hands and minds wrapped around a simple machine they are building, brings with it a sense of independence.

“I see a lot of participation when they come in here,” said Floyd. “They get started right away and they’re doing a very good job of being in charge of their own learning. In fact, when I try to help them out, they don’t really want my help. I think they like the fact that they are kind of in charge of their projects. There’s no lecturing in here. The most I say to them is giving them reminders to journal or to leave their launchers, which is kind of their instructions for their activities. If they have questions, they have to go to three sources before coming to me, which could be online, re-reading or asking a friend for help, which they think is cool and they like being in charge.”

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Hands-on learning is a big part of the SmartLab experience. (Paul Braun | New Earth)

The plan in the near future for the JPII Schools network is to build an even more advanced lab for students at Shanley High School. Funding, not desire, appears to be the limiting factor when trying to establish SmartLabs at other Catholic Schools across the diocese. Hagstrom said if the money can be found, there’s no reason why other schools across the diocese can’t have a SmartLab of their own.

“Each of our Catholic Schools has a pastor and a governing board,” said Hagstrom. “That step would be for their discernment of priorities for future initiatives. We would gladly assist any schools that would like more information and assistance in that discernment process. Funding would be a key determination, I’d think. Perhaps there are donors out there who would be glad to help with that.”

Events like National Catholic Schools Week are the perfect opportunity for schools to reach out to parents, the community at large and potential donors in order to set a course for the future of our Catholic schools, so they can best meet the needs of students and prepare them for their futures as prosperous, faith-filled adults.