Brent Bachus takes his seat on H-F park board

SmartLabs, a new approach for collaborative learning by middle school students, will be in place at the start of the 2016-17 school year at Hart School in Homewood.

The District 153 School Board agreed March 21 to spend $348,000 on the program designed for sixth, seventh and eighth graders.

“I’ve never been so excited by anything we decided to do,” said Board President Shelly Marks. “It offers a whole new level of engagement.”

At Hart, the new program will be designed in two parts – six weeks on media arts and six weeks on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) issues. Students will work through major topics: alternative and renewable energy; circuitry; computer graphics; digital communications; mechanics and structures; robotics and control technology; scientific data and analysis; and software engineering.

Hart students will explore materials for hands-on project-based activities from more than 60 content areas using SmartLabs’ more than 300 Learning Launchers, described as a comprehensive, interactive student-centric system developed by curriculum specialists.

Superintendent Dale Mitchell said students are graded for their work.

This is an online curriculum that will be customized for Hart students based on District 153’s design and educational goals. Two middle school teachers will receive special training for SmartLabs during the summer.

Board members said they have been investigating the best way to get information on STEM topics to students. The program also is compatible with the district’s curriculum in music, health, art and industrial arts. A District 153 delegation investigated several learning options and visited schools in Deerfield and Park Forest that use SmartLabs.

Marks said District 153 representatives were very impressed by how students “took responsibility for learning” through collaboration, communication and coding, skills typically used in the workplace.

“Our kids deserve this opportunity,” she told the audience. “We’ve found a way to give them this experience.”

With Millennium School closing in June, the board said it would convert the Millennium Media Center into the lab area by installing eight work stations. Six students work together at each station. The arrangement will accommodate two classes at a time.

Mitchell said the district is fortunate that the space, when it was built as an addition to the building, was updated for computer and electrical needs so only minor improvements will be needed.

The district is updating its computers as part of a routine upgrade, but the SmartLabs computers will require special software to be able to run the real-world applications.

A robotics class, begun this year for fifth graders, will become a permanent curriculum offering. 

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