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Snapology discovery center in Bethel Park disguises learning as playtime

| Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2016, 11:00 p.m.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Josh Leco (center), 7, of Upper St. Clair participates in a Snapology scientist workshop Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2015, in Bethel Park.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Parker Erickson, 4, of Bethel Park plays in the 'Imagination Playground' on Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2015, at Snapology in Bethel Park.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Lauren Sabo, 9, of Bethel Park explores while playing at Snapology in Bethel Park on Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2015.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Collin Myers, 6, of Upper St. Clair and Ben Erickson, 6, of Bethel Park play with 'Combat Robots' at Snapology on Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2015.

It takes almost no time for the surge of children to knock over the piles of plush building blocks and stacks of Lego bricks in the Snapology discovery center in Bethel Park.

Dozens tumble around the room during “free play,” while others file into classes where they can design replicas of their favorite superhero or program Lego alligators to open and close their mouths.

Most are having too much fun to realize that there is an ulterior motive, Snapology's founders said.

“Our goal is that it's academic curriculum,” said co-owner Laura Coe, 44. “But it's brought to the children in such a way that they don't know that they're learning.”

Snapology, which Laura Coe founded with her sister Lisa Coe in 2010, uses Legos and other building materials to teach children 2 to 14 basic math, science and computer skills. The education company is opening franchises nationwide and has 22 locations in 12 states — including six in Pennsylvania — and one in Canada. The sisters hope to open at least 20 more this year.

“We always had the vision,” said Lisa Coe, 47. “I think how fast it came was a surprise.”

They founded the business after Laura Coe, a mathematician, began looking for a new business investment. A mother of two young sons, she wanted it to be something educational and child-friendly. Her oldest son, who was 6 at the time, was obsessed with Legos, she said.

Even though Lego is one of the hottest-selling toy brands in the world, there weren't many business opportunities in Pittsburgh that capitalize on the educational benefits of the toys, Laura Coe said. She talked to her sister, who works for a pharmaceutical company, and they decided to create their own concept.

Neither has a background in education, so they invited teachers and mental health consultants to write curricula for the classes. Many of the center's employees are part-time teachers or teaching students, the Coes said. Some Snapology locations have a permanent center like the one on Washington Road, while others take their classes and camps to schools or community centers.

The kids can choose from workshops in which they make models of Kennywood rides to study centripetal force and gravity or build animals that they program to move using basic computer software and motion sensors, Laura Coe said.

“It certainly gets their minds thinking in a more math and engineering type of way,” she said. “We're just building that foundation for them.”

The sisters plan to spend 2016 focusing on expansion, but also on establishing Snapology's Education Advisory Panel, which includes experts like a child development specialist, an engineer and a mental health researcher. The panel will help develop programming and work on quantifying the benefits for the children, Lisa Coe said. The Coes want to expand a class for kids with developmental challenges that improves social skills and develop “therapeutic play time” for children with health issues.

Mary Hlawati of Peters said her mother takes her sons to Snapology while she works. A speech therapist, she said she has recommended it to clients. “I had never seen a place like this before,” said Hlawati, whose sons are 3 and 6. “My kids get so excited to come here.”

Elizabeth Behrman is a staff writer for the Tribune-Review.

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