By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T

WARMINSTER – LabLearner, the innovative computer-based science curriculum utilized by about 30 area parochial schools, has graduated and is going on to high school. This year, as a first in the country, it is being continued through “Exploration 21” a science course offered to freshmen at Archbishop Wood High School in Warminster.

Elementary school students using LabLearner supplement the computer-driven tasks through workbooks, but Exploration 21 is totally green – there are no texts of any kind and everything is done through computer discs or downloadable programs, which students can also access at home.

As explained by Diane Antes, teacher and chairperson of Wood’s science department, the students work at tables in teams, and each team has the necessary equipment for the experiment at hand and a laptop, which provides the various steps and instructions. {{more}}

On this particular day the students were experimenting with freezing temperature water; fresh water, salt water and water to which certain chemicals were added.

When it comes time for quizzes or tests, each student will have a smaller notebook computer. As students answer questions the results, correct or incorrect, are instantly available to the teacher and to the students themselves.

The initial outlay is more than the cost of textbooks, Antes conceded, but the same computers are used by all 186 students in seven sections, and of course new equipment is not purchased every year.

“I love it. It is absolutely awesome,” Antes said. “The kids are having fun and they are learning science concepts.”

Although Wood is the first school to have the new secondary school program, there are almost 100 schools utilizing LabLearner, according to Keith Verner, founder and president of Hershey, Pa.-based Cognitive Learning Systems, the company that created both LabLearner and Exploration 21.

“The mission is to develop more critical thinking on the part of the students,” he said. “The program is less teacher-centered and more student-centered, with the students working together in groups. We are asking them to think harder. It requires an administration that sees the future being ahead of the curve. We are in some of the best schools in the country.”

Every student taking the course has access to a personal computer for any homework involved. As to whether or not this would be the case in less affluent areas could be seen as a possible problem. Verner doesn’t think so because schools usually provide computer times for students who might fall into this category, and there are also computers available at public libraries, as an example. In any case several of the Philadelphia schools using LabLearner are in fact in inner city neighborhoods.

While LabLearner covers science programs pre-k through eighth grade, at this point Exploration 21 is limited to high school freshmen. As to whether it will progress to higher grades, Verner believes so but it will take time. It has taken the combined efforts of six computer programmers just to design and maintain the single year course.

“You can take any level of kid, from gifted to kids who struggle in science, and have them successful in the same classroom,” said Mary Harkins, principal of Archbishop Wood. “It’s giving the children in science the opportunity to have a hands-on experience and to work collaboratively. We are excited about a chance to embrace education as it should be in the 21st century.”

While both LabLearner and Exploration 21 are designed specifically for science programs, Harkins believes much of the method could easily be applied to other programs, for example paperless courses, practice exercises, quizzes and examinations via computer.

“We hope to use this as a springboard to bring these types of 21st century skills to other disciplines,” she said.

Bottom line, what do the Wood freshmen think?

“You don’t have to read a lot, and on the web site you have worksheets; you don’t have to write everything out,” said student Deanna McGuckin. “It is less boring and quicker and you do more hands-on.”

“It’s more fun,” added classmate Bridget O’Donnell. “We had it at St. Albert the Great.”

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.