But in the next few months, that empty classroom will transform into an area for enhanced hands-on learning.
The private Catholic elementary school plans to install a SmartLab program in the room, bringing workstations, materials and technology that will help broaden the scope of its students’ educational experience and give them a head start on the knowledge and skills they will need as they grow into adulthood.
“It will enhance the learning experience in all areas of education, from math and religion and arts and sciences, and it’s all collaborative, hands-on group activities,” Robin Cahoy, principal for John Paul II Elementary, told the Mitchell Republic in a recent interview.
The SmartLab program involves an action-driven, repeatable process where students explore technology without any preconceived notions, gather information and learn how technology works. It allows students to plan a project, goals as well as determine an outcome, gather information and learn how technology learns in general.
Students can then do their project, document it and reflect on their progress, according to a synopsis on the company website.
—Robin Cahoy, principal for John Paul II Elementary School
The lab will act as a complement to the traditional classroom setting, Cahoy said, bringing in a new modern element that reflects current teaching and learning trends.
“It’s an enhancement. We’re still doing (traditional classroom teaching), but it’s just educating them a little further,” Cahoy said. “We’re keeping up with the trends of the world today.”
The idea to bring SmartLab learning to John Paul II Elementary began as the result of a meeting among parents and school officials about the future vision for the school. As discussions were held, the concept of improved marketing for the school to draw students was explored, but the idea of a SmartLab also drew serious interest.
“Our development director set up some meetings and we talked about where we can go next. What can we put our finger on and work toward?” Cahoy said. “One idea was marketing and another was the SmartLab.”
Renee LeBrun, development director for the school, said once parents were on board with the SmartLab project, the ball started rolling.
“We’re a small, private school, but let’s say we have no limitations. What are some things you’d like to see happen? Some other things also came forward, but this was one we had visited about for a while, and our parents said we need to make it happen,” LeBrun said. “Anytime you have parents behind you, it speaks volumes in terms of its importance.”
With the school and patrons on board, it was time to secure funding. The cost of the hardware, software and materials to launch the program would be considerable at about $140,000, but the school set a goal of $300,000 for additional funds that needed to be set aside for other costs, such as the first three years of full-time salary for a SmartLab facilitator.
LeBrun wrote grants, the school pursued potential donors and held fundraisers for the SmartLab, and soon was within reach of the goal. A pair of donors, Mark and Chris Buche of Mitchell, provided the cornerstone donation to fund the lab, which will be named after them. They, along with other generous patrons and donors, helped turn the idea into a reality, LeBrun said.
The materials for the lab are expected to arrive sometime in August. From there, installation will commence and training on the equipment and in the environment will take place. A ribbon-cutting is tentatively scheduled for September.
Jennifer Herrmann will serve as the SmartLab facilitator at the school. A teacher at John Paul II for 12 years, she and her family recently moved to Nebraska briefly before returning to Mitchell to take the new position at the school. She said it’s an exciting time for both the students and for herself as the person who will help guide the students through the new learning experience.
—Jennifer Herrmann, SmartLab facilitator for John Paul II Elementary School
The SmartLab experience, one where students are allowed to experiment and fail without serious consequence in a variety of technology projects, is one where students can learn whether they excel or struggle inside the traditional classroom structure.
“I’m most anxious for the kids to get in and learn to do things on their own. Being able to try and fail and try and succeed and go through all those steps,” Herrmann said. “For the traditional student, maybe the ‘normal curriculum’ is not their favorite, but, gosh, maybe this will be. Maybe this steers them in a more technical direction. We’re seeing so much more of that today than ever.”
John Paul II Elementary has a K-6 enrollment of 138, and all of those students will be taking part in the SmartLab program to some degree. Students will take part in SmartLab learning several times a week, with younger students seeing about 30 minutes in the lab per session and older students closer to 45 minutes per session.
The students will work through online modules that will be coordinated by the facilitator. Between the online portion and the facilitator guidance, the young learners will take a number of different approaches to solving problems. Robotics, coding and electrical circuitry projects are all expected to be on the agenda for the program.
“We may be working on an electrical project, but maybe your scenarios are different than the group scenario,” Herrmann said. “Some projects will be more step-by-step, others will be more open-ended. Kids will work at their own pace and keep working toward their goal.”
Cahoy said as a small school, John Paul II Elementary does not often take on large-scale projects, but she and the staff are thrilled to have added a new element in their teaching toolbox that will help prepare their students for their education when they move on to middle school, high school and even college.
It’s something that would not have happened without the dedicated work of the staff and the generosity of donors and the community at large, she said.
“It’s very exciting. We just don’t do things this huge that often, and I was thinking it would be a work in progress,” Cahoy said. “But nine months later here we are. I’m very grateful for all the people in our communities who helped us reach those goals so quickly.”