Lab Ratz founder makes learning science a blast
Enterprising Shawn Miller, 32, of Shaler never lets books hamper his clients' educations.
“Growing up, I didn't realize how much fun science could be until I got into high school, and even college, whenever we got into the labs,” said the cofounder of Lab Ratz Science, Miller's roving smorgasbord of science studies for kindergartners through eighth-graders.
His teaching aids range from animals' eye balls to bottle launchers.
“In elementary school, we didn't get to do a lot of hands-on experiments. It was a lot of books,” said Miller, a Hampton High School graduate and the son of Donalee and Glenn Miller of Shaler.
Eleven years ago, Miller helped launch Lab Ratz Science with a free program attended by about 40 children at Hampton Community Library. The gathering featured messy, hands-on experiments with water and cornstarch.
“It kind of took off,” Miller said about the business he began as a student teacher at Duquesne University,
A fellow Hampton High School graduate cofounded Lab Ratz Science but departed from their venture about two years ago, Miller said.
Today, Miller and fellow Lab Ratz instructors see 130 to 160 children per week in after-school programs across Western Pennsylvania.
Miller recently rented Room 6703 at Hampton High School for a five-day science camp for first- through seventh-graders.
The cost was $159 for morning sessions or $299 for morning and afternoon sessions.
“In our program we don't have any books,” he said. “We always start the class with ‘Why does this happen?' ... Then they try to set up an experiment to prove or disprove their idea.
“We're trying to show them you can't always go to a book or Google to get an answer,” said Miller, who has a bachelor's degree in elementary education. He and his wife, Leighanna, have one son, Declan, 3.
During the recent Lab Ratz camp, participants learned about aerodynamics, gravity, gases and liquids by launching air-powered rockets that they made with foil, wooden treat sticks, masking tape, Styrofoam cups and two-liter plastic bottles.
“I did mine with a point at the top so it would cut through the air,” said Alexis Abbett, 10, of Aspinwall.
After designing and building their rockets, everyone headed outside and Martin attached each child's rocket to an AquaPod bottle launcher.
One by one, each rocket then sailed off the launcher before falling back to earth.
“We get to do fun stuff while we're learning about physics,” said Garrett Frost, 11.
“There's no test,” raved Jake Grabowski, 11, of Shaler.
The Lab Ratz camp at Hampton High School also offered children the opportunity to help dissect a frog and shark.
“It's very engaging and hands-on for the children,” said Karen Brienza of Hampton, mother of multiple past participants in Lab Ratz programs.
In addition to summer camps, Miller and about 14 fellow instructors offer after–school programs in schools across Western Pennsylvania.
A goal of Lab Ratz programs is to acquaint children at a tender age with the terminology and scientific principles that they likely will hear, learn about and probably better understand as they grow older and enter high school and college.
“He has created something I've never seen for kids to experience science in a new way,” said Lab Ratz instructor Lindsey Petruska, 29, of Shaler, a 2005 Hampton High School graduate with a degree in early childhood and elementary education from Clarion University.
“The kids love it. The vocabulary is completely rich and they take it all in.”
Petruska praised Miller's approach to educating children about scientific methods.
“Quite often, people think that children at a young age aren't able to develop these skills or understand the language,” she said. “He has made it so they do, and they understand it, and they love it.”
Deborah Deasy is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-772-6369 or firstname.lastname@example.org.