smart lab2By Tracy Ouellette

SLN Staff

The East Troy Community School District will be the first in the state to offer SmartLabs in its schools. The Board of Education voted unanimously Monday night to purchase the labs for Prairie View Elementary and East Troy Middle schools.

School District Administrator Chris Hibner gave a presentation about the SmartLabs during the School Board’s monthly meeting, describing the program as something that focuses on STEAM, which stands for science, technology, engineering, arts and math. However, Hibner said he’d rather people think of the program as Strategies That Engage All Minds.

Hibner told the board recent research has shown that 98 percent of 5 year olds are considered “creative” but by the age of 15 only 10 percent of kids are considered creative.

“We need to have our kids be less consuming of education and more producing,” Hibner said.

“It doesn’t take long for disenchantment to occur,” middle school Principal Peter Syens said Tuesday morning. “Hopefully, with this, we can start bringing that creativity back. We’re trying to educate these kids for positions that we have no idea what will be. We need to teach them to be self-motivated problem solvers and this is designed to do just that.”

A delegation of educators, administrators and School Board members traveled to Illinois in February to see the SmartLabs in action in the North Shore School District. Administration members and teachers also visited a school district in Denver last fall to get an idea if the program was something the district would be interested.

The consensus of opinion from those who saw the kids using the SmartLabs was that East Troy needed to seriously consider purchasing the program.

The program, which engages kids on all levels in a self-directed learning environment, gives the students the tools they need to complete project-based learning activities and promotes hands-on engagement at a level not always seen in the traditional classroom.

Prairie View Principal Mark Weerts told the board Monday night the third- through fifth-grade school was “well equipped to implement the program” into the schedule because Prairie View already has a PBL class in place. There was even some minor renovations to some classrooms last fall to accommodate the larger space needed for a SmartLab.

Prairie View also has a full-time PBL teacher, Melissa Deutsch, who will be also be working with the middle school to get the program rolling.

“This is how we promote project-based learning throughout the district,” Weerts told the board. “We’re giving third graders the opportunity to do this and grow with it through fourth and fifth grade. It’s a great spring board for action at the middle school with the robotics, coding and other electives.”

Syens said the process that starts at the elementary level will be expanded upon at the middle school, prepping the kids FAB and Innovation Spaces at high school.

“It will just take off for the kids,” he said.

The School Board is considering making a part-time position at the middle school into a full time position to have one person heading up the program there. The additional cost to the district for that would be $38,000, starting next year, if the board approves that option.

The other option at the middle school, which isn’t ideal, would be to have 11 different teachers manage the program. The district was advised by Creative Learning Systems not to do that, however.

As for the cost of the SmartLabs to the district?

“It isn’t cheap,” Hibner said Monday. “But I think we have to look at it as an investment.”

The total cost of the two SmartLabs will be about $290,000. There is also an $9,000 annual fee for updated curriculum and support agreements, but Hibner said the district was going to ask for that to be waived. Being the first district in the state, he said other school districts would be interested in touring the East Troy labs and they were hoping Creative Learning Systems would be willing to waive those annual fees in return for the advertising in Wisconsin.

The SmartLabs will be paid for out of the positive variance in this year’s budget, which district Business Manager Kathy Zwirgzdas said was, in large part, because of the lower gas bills this year. Hibner said the reason for the push for a decision at Monday night’s meeting was so the labs could be installed before the end of the school year, since that was a requirement if purchased with this year’s budget money.

The board members had a few questions, but were fully in support of the new program.

“I’m excited as all heck about this,” board member Martha Bresler said.

“I’m just really happy were going to have an opportunity for kids to explore and investigate topics they are really interested in,” Syens said Tuesday. “We’re constantly re-inventing what we can do to keep kids engaged, hopefully with this the shift will go from us to them.”


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