By Jennifer L. Warren
POUGHKEEPSIE – Imagine having the task of finding a way to transform a $180,000 Smart Lab at school into a workable learning tool for both students and teachers at home.
That’s the exact challenge the educational services company, Creative Solutions, was faced with this summer. When COVID-19 forced the closing of all area schools in March, it limited students to distance learning in their homes. However, the dilemma soon surfaced: How could super specialized learning options like Smart Labs which rely upon highly specific technology, hard at best to replicate in a home environment, still effectively exist?
With the still in limbo status of the question of how the approaching school year will unfold in September- in person, virtually, or hybrid- Creative Solutions wanted to have a home Smart Lab experience tested and ready to unveil should it be needed. They collaboratively and arduously worked with Smart Lab professionals to create the pilot program, Home Backpack, and test out its effectiveness on real students and families. One of just five of the schools out of 200,000 nationwide selected was Poughkeepsie Middle School. Carrying the city-based school district criteria, PMS also possessed another vital element: The right personnel.
Here’s how an in-person Smart Lab works. It is a highly specialized STEM computer lab space with interactive-based, real world activities. Students are provided with supplies and directions and working in teams collaboratively and innovatively set out to develop ways they can be used. The teacher is more of a facilitator, ensuring students are actively engaged, asking questions only at appropriate times.
“I guide and support my students, but don’t give them information; it’s child and not teacher centered, Tovah Goldfarb, who leads the almost two year old Smart Lab Program at PMS explained. “I am not seen as the gatekeeper of all knowledge; rather we are all experts, working and learning together, and the goal is to get the students to think for themselves.”
Last week that learning was once again actively happening, as 36 families of learners, who were carefully selected for their motivation and home support, from PMS picked up (at designated times) one of eighteen different “Home Backpacks,” containing such topics as; a Solar Oven kit, Lux Builder, Solar Car, and Engino Building Bridges and Gears. After selecting a learning challenge through “Learning Launcher,” they seek out a mission statement along with three sources of information as well as a solution. Once those steps are completed, students and their families provide critical feedback on how effective the activities and learning experiences were. This week, those now used Backpacks from last week’s educational venture will be returned, and families will again pick up a new sanitized Backpack with different activities and devices to test out and review. The process has already produced an assortment of tangible positives.
“So far the students and their families are very excited; we are connecting through Google Classroom and Google Meet, and everyone is happy to be involved with this program,” reported Goldfarb, one of the selected teachers who helped provide integral feedback on the Home Backpack’s development. “It’s an optional program, designed to offset the “Summer Slide” and is a real solution to what districts can do to help out with those losses.”
Able to also be applied on a hybrid basis, the Backpack Program is hoping to nationally launch in September. Whether it comes to Poughkeepsie School District or not in the fall, the pilot experience alone has been a golden growth opportunity for all involved.
“We are all so excited and grateful,” said Goldfarb. “To have the chance to be on the cutting edge of technology in this manner, is wonderful.”