LabRatz teaches science after school in Cornell


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When school's out for the day, instead of going home or running outside to the playground, many students at the Cornell Elementary School cheerfully report to a science class called LabRatz. They giggle as they don big goggles.

"The goggles are to protect our eyes. Not our foreheads. Not our necks," instructor Shawn Miller told 30 students in fourth and fifth grades. Mr. Miller and instructor Holly Bomba made sure all goggles were in the right position before letting students pick up their supplies for the day's experiments.

Given the age of students, they were not given caustic chemicals or anything that could blow up. The goggles stayed on as students handled water, pepper, dish-washing soap, plastic cups, eyedroppers, aluminum foil and waxed paper.

The science lesson of the day was "surface tension," including a segment where children learned why some things float while others sink. Children were cheerful throughout the class, which was all "hands-on" lab work with no textbooks. And, there will be no tests.

"We never do any testing," Mr. Miller said. "We let them know it's OK to be wrong, which takes the pressure off. In science experiments, it's all about trial and error."

At the end of the hour, students filed out of the lab and a big group of second- and third-grade students came in for the same LabRatz experiments.

LabRatz is one of 20 after-school clubs that started in late March thanks to a $17,500 grant from the Grable Foundation. The after-school clubs are funded for three years. The Grable grant supplements Cornell's Elementary PRIDE Program and a grant received earlier from 21st Century Communities Learning Center.

About 120 students at the school in Coraopolis have signed up for 20 after-school clubs that run Monday through Friday, said principal Chris Very.

The clubs include homework help, enrichment, foreign language, technology, Wii Fitness and an array of sports, including volleyball, basketball, baseball, football and swimming.

Each student signs up for two clubs on each day, and one of them must involve physical fitness. The after-school swimming club is the most popular so far, Mr. Very said.

All but one of the clubs are taught by teachers from the Cornell School District, which serves Coraopolis and Neville Island. Science is taught by LabRatz Science Club, a private company founded in 2005 by Mr. Miller, 28, (and a friend who is no longer involved in the company) while he was an elementary education major at Duquesne University. He graduated in 2006, and LabRatz has been his full-time job.

"We started this to pad our resumes and it took off," Mr. Miller said.

LabRatz has seven instructors in addition to Mr. Miller. They provide after-school science programs and school-day assemblies in 60 school districts, many of them in the North Hills because Mr. Miller is a Hampton High School graduate and a resident of Shaler.

They also do science clubs at homeless shelters, through the Homeless Children's Education Fund. Districts that contract with LabRatz include North Allegheny, Hampton, Pine-Richland, Cornell and West Mifflin. LabRatz also holds weeklong summer science camps.

LabRatz "is perfect," said Mr. Very because "it's in sync with the science we are teaching in class."

"This is the coolest thing EVER," said Sydney Grannis, a fifth-grade student, as she used her eyedropper to deposit water on aluminum foil and then on waxed paper.

On the waxy paper, the water collected into big bubbles.

She and her lab partner, Noah Lach, also used straws and dish washing soap to create big bowls of bubbles.

"Do the opposite of drinking," Ms. Bomba told students. "You blow out. Don't suck in."

Maya Goins, a fifth-grader, carefully followed instructions on the sink/swim lesson. She used a plastic fork to drop a metal paper clip into water, and it floated. But when she touched the clip with a finger, it quickly sank.

Fingers contain oil, and oil and water don't mix, instructors explained.

"Next week they'll learn about the human body," Mr. Miller said.

The students will do respiratory tests that include using stethoscopes.

They will move on to other branches of science including physics, to learn how to prevent an experimental asteroid from colliding with Earth.

education - neigh_west

Linda Wilson Fuoco: lfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-722-0087.


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