Special to The CS&T

WEST CHESTER – Sister Margaret Rose Adams, I.H.M., principal at SS. Simon and Jude School in West Chester, is always searching for challenges for her students, grades kindergarten through eight.

The goal is to prepare the students for a complex world, one where science is an integral part. “We are developing life skills,” Sister Margaret Rose said. That is where a program called LabLearner plays a major role.

The LabLearner program will be part of the SS. Simon and Jude curriculum for the 2009-2010 school year. The company’s web site describes the program as representing “a community of professionals who believe in the power of hands-on science instruction. Focused on the influential PreK-8 years of learning, the LabLearner Science Program encompasses a furnished lab, curriculum, real science equipment and onsite professional development.”

The object is to increase understanding and appreciation of the physical world.

“We (the Archdiocese of Philadelphia school system) are very much about educating the whole child,” Sister Margaret Rose said. “Science is a linear development of the child. Science involves creativity, imagination, the reality of why things happen in the world – from cell phones to understanding our bodies to chemical reactions. Everything happens because of science. Science is closely associated with God and His world.”

In the spring of 2008, Sister Margaret Rose attended a meeting with Mary Rochford, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese, at which Rochford, whom Sister Margaret Rose calls “a visionary leader,” talked about the LabLearner program.

Sister Margaret Rose saw an opportunity, but one that she wanted to study. Already on board for the 2008-2009 school year was a school-wide program implementing Spanish. Although SS. Simon and Jude has no Hispanic students, Sister Margaret Rose felt that students needed to learn a second language, one they can use in a culturally spanerse world.

So to implement the LabLearner program, other steps had to be taken, for example, consultation with teachers and parents, fundraising and finding a room large enough to accommodate the science lab. “I did my homework,” Sister Margaret Rose said.

The lab was installed in late July. What were once two classrooms – the development office and the honors math classroom – are now the science lab, thanks to the removal of a wall. The other classrooms have been relocated.

There are more than 400 students at SS. Simon and Jude, with two classes of each grade. All students will participate in the LabLearner curriculum. It replaces a science program that utilized textbooks and software.

“It was a good program, but this is more hands-on,” Sister Margaret Rose said. It’s a program that the principal describes as “rigorous and relevant.”

The LabLearner program involves what are called “curriculum cells” working with such topics as acids and bases, atomic structure and cellular organization.

“Each cell builds upon what was previously learned,” Sister Margaret Rose said. “It will take a lot of professional development on the part of our teachers (there are 25 teachers at SS. Simon and Jude; 14 will be involved in the science program). It will be a lot of work for the teachers but it will be very beneficial for the students. Everybody seems to be behind it.”

Funding for the program, approximately $70,000, was provided by the home and school association, the SS. Simon and Jude Beaker Bash (parent fundraiser gala with auctions), family donations, an anonymous grandparent, the Robert and Joan Dircks Foundation, the Connelly Foundation, the Sullivan Foundation, the Office of Catholic Education, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and a grant from the state of Pennsylvania.

Keith Verner, founder and president of the five-year-old, Harrisburg-based LabLearner organization, sees the program’s key component as “building students’ critical-thinking skills.”

“There is a real push nationally in education to enchance 21st century skills,” he said. “As we move forward, we train students to be problem-solvers and, mainly, to think critically. It goes against the old concept of memorizing lists. Today, for example, you can look up that type of information on an iPhone. Science education lends itself to marrying ideas of critical thinking and problem solving while delivering real content and process.”

Verner says four other schools in the Archdiocese – Our Lady of Calvary, Philadelphia; St. Pius X, Broomall; St. Albert the Great, Huntingdon Valley; and Holy Cross, Springfield – will institute the LabLearner program in the 2009-2010 school year, bringing the total to 27 in the Archdiocese. He said as many as 30 other schools are interested in the program, funding remaining the critical issue.

Leslie Minton, a member of the school’s marketing committee and mother of first-grader Daniel and fourth-grader Matthew, is enthusiastic about the program.

“I think people have the misconception that all we do is teach religion,” she said. ” [But] we bring religion into the education process.”

The science lab will be dedicated Tuesday, Sept. 15, following 9 a.m. Mass celebrated by Auxiliary Bishop Joseph McFadden.

Sister Margaret Rose describes SS. Simon and Jude School as “a real pacesetter.” For the past four years the school has used online grading and computer report cards accessed by parents.

“We want the next generation to inherit a clean, healthy environment,” Sister Margaret Rose said. “We want them to understand what is involved in the care of the world that God has given us.”

Jim Gauger is a freelance writer and a member of St. Luke the Evangelist Parish, Glenside

Curriculum Cells

Acids and bases
Atomic structure
Cellular organization
Chemical relations
Earth’s forces
Ecosystems and adaptations
Genes & proteins
Health & hygiene
Kinetic & potential energy
Microscopes & magnification
Properties of matter
Properties solids & liquids
Sensory perception
Our senses
Our solar system
Solutes & solubility.

Science lab inventory
Stools & tables
Oxygen meters
Light meters
Scientific glassware
Curriculum DVDs