By LOU PONSI     1/23/2024

Students at St. Joseph  Catholic School in Placentia have been engaging with a high-tech workspace called the SmartLab.

As Diocese of Orange schools celebrate Catholic Schools Week, the addition of a SmartLab is one example of the efforts being made by Diocese schools to strengthen students’ faith and learning experiences.

Serving students in kindergarten through eighth grade, the SmartLab is equipped with computers and advanced programing, enabling students to learn science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“It gives them ownership in what we do here at school,” St. Joseph principal Amanda Hawley said. “And it gives them the experience to work with somebody, accept critiques, really work on what someone needs and be able to put out something that they can be proud of.”

With 12 workstations that can accommodate up to 24 students, SmartLab enables students to collaborate on hands-on projects focusing on science, technology, engineering and math projects, commonly known as STEM.

When combined with art programming, as is the case with St. Joseph, the curriculum is often referred to as STEAM.

The school acquired the SmartLab through its relationship with Campos EPC, an Engineering, Procurement and Construction company with offices in nearby Anaheim.

When Campos was opening its new Anaheim office in 2020, company administrators were looking to  identify a school in the area that they could support with both educational materials as well as engineers to teach and inspire students about their industry, Hawley said.

In March 2022, Campos engineers installed a SmartLab at St. Joseph. Shortly after the SmartLab was installed, Bishop Kevin Vann visited St. Joseph to celebrate Mass and bless the new workspace. SmartLab users utilize elements such as Snap Circuits, K’nex machines, Ozbots and Claymation stop motion video.

In December, Campos engineers returned to St. Joseph and gifted some of the latest SmartLab technology used for media arts, including Go Pros and a robotic camera.

“We wanted to come to have the opportunity to see what you guys have been working on, and perhaps focus on this upcoming year with film arts,” Campos engineer Christien Lindblom told students during his visit. “Science, technology, engineering and math are very dear to our hearts, and we are really happy to be here.”

Campos engineers will continue to visit St. Joseph to help students become more proficient in SmartLab.

The lab has helped students become more focused and build stronger critical thinking skills that they will take with them into high school and use in all areas of their lives, said St. Joseph technology coordinator James Weiss, who teaches science and STEM classes.

“It’s been so amazing just getting the opportunity to see the kids, because the STEM lab is so different,” Weiss said. “In a normal classroom, it tends to be me giving them information and then they have to absorb it, use it and figure out how it works. Whereas, in here it’s not necessarily me being the end-all expert on things. It’s more that they have the technology and then they are figuring out how to use it. Teaching themselves in a sense, figuring it out for themselves.”

In September, St. Anne Catholic School in Santa Ana also installed a SmartLab, which was partially paid for by John and Barbara Heffernan, who have spent decades supporting the school with monetary and in-kind donations.