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FAITH AND SCIENCE St. Edward School, Corona, and St. George School, Ontario, have each opened a new "SmartLab" learning center, a fully-equipped, project-based STEM classroom and education program for students in kindergarten through eighth grade. TOP LEFT: The ribbon-cutting at St. George, Ontario on Feb. 3. BOTTOM LEFT: St. George students excitedly watch the results of their robotics experiment. RIGHT: Standing in the new St. Edward SmartLab on Feb. 2, from left to right are: Kurt Vanegas (Smart Lab facilitator), Ashley Mathis (Creative Learning Systems CEO), Nathan Arnold (St. Edward Principal), Dr. Samuel Torres (Superintendent of the Catholic Schools) and Robert Yanez (Corona Chamber of Commerce). 

By Mary Pearson

Two of the oldest Catholic schools in the Diocese are now home to state-of-art STEM classrooms, thanks in large part to state funding made available in response to the COVID pandemic.

St. Edward School in Corona and St. George School in Ontario each held their own ribbon-cutting ceremonies during Catholic Schools’ Week in early February to celebrate the opening of their new “SmartLab” learning centers.

A SmartLab is a fully-equipped, project-based STEM classroom and education program for students in kindergarten through eighth grade. You might think of it as the computer lab for the next generation. Instead of playing “The Oregon Trail” or learning how to surf the web, students in a SmartLab are working together to learn how to code, use 3D printers, explore circuitry, practice video production and so much more.

“I found the SmartLab to be the way to lead St. Edward students into the future,” said Nathan Arnold, St. Edward School principal. “I was looking for ways to improve student enthusiasm for learning, and to do that, I wanted to give the students activities that would create a hands-on approach.”

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I am happy that we were able to do something unique that will last for many, many years,” Principal Andrew Ramirez of St. George School said in his remarks to a packed house of excited students, families and community members before the school’s ribbon cutting.

St. Edward and St. George are the first schools in their respective cities to open SmartLab learning centers. Students in grades kindergarten through eighth grade will have weekly access to the equipment in these classrooms as part of their regular curriculum.

STEM, or, STEAM as it is sometimes called, stands for science, technology, engineering, (art), and math. In the past several years, these acronyms are seemingly everywhere in education, as schools strive to best prepare students for the technology-driven world in which we live. However, as it became apparent in visiting St. Edward and St. George, STEAM programs are as much about equipping students to find creative solutions to problems as they are about churning out engineers or computer programmers.

“The goal here is to try new things,” Izabella, a member of the sixth grade student council at St. Edward, told the BYTE. Another student quickly chimed in to add, “It’s about getting comfortable with the uncomfortable.”

The current facilitator of St. Edward’s brand-new SmartLab is alumnus Kurt Vanegas, who graduated the school in 2014. He emphasized that his role as facilitator is not simply to lecture but to allow the students to work together, be willing to fail and find solutions themselves.

“In this day and age there are so many jobs out there that require different things that maybe you’ve never tried ... but this gives you that experience to try new things and take new risks,” he said. Vanegas’ excitement about the program for St. Edward was obvious as he led a fourth grade class in a programming lesson on building a functional city just prior to the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

At St. George School, parents and teachers shared the story of how the school community worked together to transform an old storage closet in the school’s basement into what is now their SmartLab. Third graders Sebastian Noriega and Mariah Escalante excitedly showed off the projects they had been working on and said that their time in the SmartLab is the highlight of their week.

“My favorite part of teaching in the SmartLab is the excitement of the kids,” said Christina Murguja, SmartLab facilitator at St. George.

City officials from Corona and Ontario were also present at both ribbon-cutting ceremonies, underscoring the benefits that these programs will offer the larger community. At St. George, students lined up for pictures with Ontario Mayor Paul Leon, who told those gathered that the SmartLab will prepare students to compete in the global economy after they graduate. Deserie Ramirez from Corona’s Chamber of Commerce told St. Edward students that they are the city’s future business leaders, and that she is excited to see how the SmartLab will prepare them for tomorrow’s challenges.

For both schools, funding for the SmartLabs (which cost around $300,000 per school) came from an unlikely source: the state of California. Typically, state funding for such projects is not made available to non-public schools. However, as part of President Biden’s 2021 stimulus plan in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the state of California was required to set aside $2.75 billion of emergency assistance to non-public schools. The Emergency Assistance to Non-Public Schools Program, as it became known, provides non-public schools that meet certain criteria with an allocation of funds and a list of vendors where they can choose to spend the money.

The list of vendors has over 1,000 options of items and programs where schools could choose to spend these funds, including COVID related items (such as personal protection equipment, cleaning supplies and air purification systems), services to help address student learning loss that occurred during the pandemic (such as tutors, paraprofessionals and counseling services) and educational technology programs such as the SmartLab.

According to Dr. Samuel Torres, Superintendent of the Catholic Schools for the Diocese of San Bernardino, the Emergency Assistance to Non-Public Schools Program was the first time that Catholic schools in our Diocese have had the opportunity to receive state funding for something like this.

Dr. Torres also spoke of the importance of integrating the faith into what he refers to as STREAM programs, adding an “R” to the acronym which stands for religion. Using the visual of a stream, Dr. Torres illustrated how faith, science and technology are all meant to work together.

“If you look at a stream, you have many tributaries coming through ... And guess what? They blend,” Dr. Torres said. “Knowledge is important, but what is God asking me to do with my knowledge?” This integration of faith and science will help schools like St. George and St. Edward advance further in their mission of offering an education for the whole person.

Mary Pearson is a freelance writer and parishioner of St. Martha, Murrieta.