Monsignor Clarke students say new science lab makes learning ‘fun’

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WAKEFIELD — Pre-kindergartens Keira Canning and Lila Moffitt are learning the concept of more and less during an experiment they are conducting at Monsignor Clarke School’s new science laboratory. They’re working as a team, as Moffitt steadies a cylinder while Canning pours water from a small pitcher.

“Even our littlest ones have been in the lab,” said Principal Karen Swoboda, noting that the lab is not only helping students with science skills, it’s also promoting camaraderie. “There is true collaboration and partnership. They are not competing; they are moving along together.”

Some of the school’s older students, including seventh graders, are enjoying the lab. Many say they “love” the investigative aspect and working with “cool” equipment.

“It’s a whole new curriculum,” said Luke Slom, 13. “There are a lot more opportunities than there have been the last couple years.”

Other students, such as Aaliyah Capalbo, 12, Aidan O’Neill, 12, and Heidi Eddleston, 12, agree.

“Last year, we didn’t do anything like this,” said Capalbo, with O’Neill adding, “we used to just talk about stuff; now, we’re actually doing it.”

Sarah Walsh, 12, has been attending the school for eight years. She likes the lab because “we haven’t had much hands-on experience before,” while Noel Livingston, who is new to Monsignor Clarke, said she appreciates the “interactive” tools.

Lexie Regan, 12, along with Fiona Atoyan, 13, said their parents decided to send them there after Swoboda informed them of the lab.

“They wanted me to learn more about science,” said Regan. “It’s really fun. I like science now.”

Sarah Campbell, 13, Mitch Lindley, 13, and Jack Antone, 12, also like the hands-on element. Tim Clarke shared a similar sentiment.

“I feel like a scientist,” he said.

Swoboda, who joined the staff at Monsignor Clarke last year, is thrilled that students are responding well to the lab. Since becoming principal, she said she hoped to enhance the curriculum, and identified science as an area where they “could make really big strides.” She then contacted Catholic School Superintendent, Dan Ferris, who suggested LabLearner.

“I was familiar with LabLearner in the Mid-Atlantic states, where many high performing public and private schools have picked it up,” said Ferris, noting that Monsignor Clarke is the first school in New England to implement the program. “LabLearner allows the students to be scientists, not just imagine they are scientists.”

Created by Cognitive Learning Systems in conjunction with practicing scientists and educators, LabLearner is a research-based, hands-on system of science education for pre-kindergarteners through students in grade eight. It includes a fully equipped in-school laboratory, curriculum, assessments, online parent and teacher resources, and teacher professional development.

Heeding Ferris’ advice, Swoboda began researching LabLearner. After contacting the organization, she connected with educators who were using the program in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia. She visited St. Luke School in the Diocese of Arlington, which had been using the program for four years.

“To make a big investment like this, I needed to see it,” Swoboda said. “I came away totally convinced that this was the right thing for our students. I was blown away.”

Ferris also said the program is impressive. He likes the fact that in addition to encouraging student growth, it is beneficial for teachers, too.

“It helps any elementary school teacher become proficient at teaching science,” he said. “The curriculum spirals thematically, introducing, reintroducing and then strengthening a student’s comprehension of fundamental scientific principles, principles they will encounter in any science course — elementary, high school or college.”

Monsignor Clarke teachers Greg Crout and Jennifer DeOliveira, agree. DeOliveira said not only has the program allowed her to enjoy teaching the material, but it also has become a great way to get the students interested in what they are learning.

“Students are more eager to learn and are truly excited when they enter into the lab each week,” she said. “They look forward to ‘seeing’ what they have learned and have a better understanding of the material because they get to practice what they learn, and not just read about it…This hands-on approach is a wonderful learning experience for students and has truly allowed me, as a teacher, to watch the excitement from each of their faces when that ‘aha!’ moment happens.”

Crout feels the same. He has noticed that students are more active in their class involvement.

“They’re much more engaged,” said Crout. “Instead of trying to explain an example, they can just see it or touch it or do it themselves. They are thinking more independently and are becoming more inquisitive about the world around them.”

To help fund the program, which costs $80,000, as well as additional fees for supplies each year, the school has initiated various fundraisers. They raised about $20,000 via a recent PTO-sponsored golf tournament, nearly $10,000 from participation in the Stop & Shop A+ rewards program, and another $1,000 when the school opened its parking lot during a local fireworks display in July. They are thinking about starting a crowdfunding account, as well.

“We’re also looking at grants and continued PTO support and donations,” Swoboda said, noting that a school family plans to purchase and install a SmartBoard and document camera for the lab.

Parents are further involved, as many of them volunteer as lab assistants. They visit the school and prepare the lab before each experiment.

“It’s a really nice way to include parents,” said Swoboda.

Aside from learning more about science, Swoboda said the program incorporates other subjects. They are enhancing their mathematical and language arts skills, as students write about experiments after performing them.

“It’s a really thorough program,” she said. “For the most part, they were learning science out of a text book. Now, they are learning science by doing it.”