The new STEM lab at St. Leonard School, Muskego, has proven to be a popular addition. (Submitted photo)

When Principal Laura Bisher joined the staff at St. Leonard Parish School in Muskego, she had a vision for bringing something “different and innovative” to the school: a STEM lab where students could engage in collaborative learning experiences.

“I thought it would be really neat to have a place where kids can go for hands-on learning,” said Bisher, who came to the school in 2021. “While they do that already in their (individual) classrooms, this would just be an extension of that.”

Thanks to a GIFTS grant from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, that dream has become a reality. The grant funded a lab focused on science, technology, engineering and math that Bisher said has brought “a different type of science into the school” — one that is able to impact every grade and each one of St. Leonard’s 164 students. Grant Initiatives for Today’s Students is funded through the annual Archbishop’s Catholic Schools Dinner.

“It’s a really great opportunity to give them a different place to go where all the materials can be shared throughout the school,” said Bisher.

To create the lab, parish volunteers transformed a storage area and hallway in the school. “We have many people (in the parish) with many talents, and they jumped in and they took care of it,” said Bisher. Lockers were removed, new walls and a window were installed, and the space was outfitted with cabinetry, furniture, a giant worktable, 3D printers, robotics and other STEM supplies and equipment.

Students began utilizing the STEM lab in August 2022. Each class spends time in the room under the supervision of their teacher, but Bisher is hopeful that one day they can hire a dedicated faculty member for the STEM Lab.

Teacher Jennifer Romine brings her class to the STEM Lab every Monday. “As a teacher, I am able to use the STEM lab to extend an activity, help them learn something deeper and more meaningful and allow them an opportunity to shine,” she said. Each week, she challenges her students to create a project with specific criteria. The students then work independently or in groups to plan their ideas, draw a diagram or write an explanation of it, and ultimately build something based on that concept.

When the class was studying maps, they were tasked with recreating their classroom using materials found in the STEM Lab. “They used Saran Wrap to represent windows, Dixie cups as desks and sugar cubes as chairs. Watching them collaborate as small groups and then as one large group to see how it all came together is why I love teaching,” said Romine. “The best part of STEM Lab is that the children have an opportunity to let their imaginations flow without step-by-step procedures.”

The new technology in the STEM Lab also made it possible for the school to offer its middle students a new 3D printing elective, where they can learn the basics of CAD design programs.

For their final project of the term, they are tasked with using the CAD program and 3D printer to model and print a useful tool of their own design.

“I’ve had students make a cell phone holder; we had someone make a container that they could put on their locker,” said Bisher, who teaches the elective. “I had someone make a jewelry box.”

The 3D printing elective allows the students to tap into their own creativity in designing the tool, but it also demands that they are nimble with engineering and math concepts.

“They have to learn what scale looks like, they have to learn their measurements — all of that math is really important when you’re CAD designing,” said Bisher.

Bisher said that she feels the skills the students develop in the STEM Lab are ones that will prove invaluable to them later on.

“I really am a firm believer that having those opportunities gives them that one more step above,” she said.

“The collaboration I see when they are working in groups is exciting,” said Romine. “Every single child is engaged while in STEM Lab because they are able to create something that is truly theirs. They feel a sense of pride knowing that they can turn something simple into something useful or complex or creative.”

Even aside from all the fancy technological equipment and engineering concepts, the STEM Lab brings innovation and value to the St. Leonard community through an environment that fosters teamwork and ingenuity.

“It’s a continuation of what they do in their classroom, but that collaborative learning, being within that group, solving problems together — (those are) life skills that they have to have,” Bisher said. “And this just helps them along that path.”

“STEM Lab is our favorite part of the week because we get to learn in an authentic way about the true values of education: exploration, collaboration and creation of new ideas,” said Romine. “These kids are our future engineers, and they get the chance to start now.”