An already strong academic program at St. Joseph Catholic School in Waconia is about to get even stronger thanks to the school’s recent commitment to implementing an innovative instructional model called C-STEM (Catholic – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) starting with the 2014-15 school year.
“What it comes down to is active, hands on learning,” said Bruce Richards, principal at St. Joe’s. “It encourages higher level thinking so kids are no longer being asked to simply recall information.”
As described by the Minnesota Department of Education, STEM education provides intentionally designed and linked learning experiences for students to develop and apply understandings of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics concepts and processes. At St. Joe’s, a Catholic component will also be present.
Integrated STEM education exemplifies standards-based, best practice instruction from each field to explore relevant questions and problems based in the natural and designed world.
“STEM learning is critical for 21st Century learners,” said Richards, who cited the National Science and Math Initiative quote: “Of the 30 fastest growing occupations through 2016, 16 will require substantial mathematics or science preparation.”
“The three R’s have been around forever, but for 21st Century Learning, there’s the three basic rules as well as the four C’s: Critical Thinking, Communication, Collaboration, and Creativity,” Richards added.
Richards is no stranger to the STEM model. Before coming to St. Joe’s, Richards worked at Weaver Lake STEM in Maple Grove and watched the model lead to rapid improvements in assessment scores.
“When people know about it and know what it does, they want to be a part of it. STEM is not a fad. There’s a lot of research behind it,” said Richards, who said the integrated approach replaces the traditional “teaching silo” method of instruction, where each subject is taught more or less independently from others.
One way to help facilitate the new approach is through the ACT (Activity, Concept, Text) model, which employs a combination of observation, investigation and exploration activities, along with related examinations of concepts and studies of non-fiction text, to help create strong educational memories for students.
“Of course, some of this happens with good teaching but we’re talking about integrating this across the curriculum across all grades,” said Richards, who noted that music and the arts will also be enhanced by C-STEM. “Our music and art program will be as strong as ever.”
As an example, Richards provided details on how “fishing” could be one of the practically limitless number of topics that could be taught in an integrated C-STEM curriculum.
To illustrate the fishing example, Richards explained how it could start with kindergarteners learning about the life cycles of fish. A variety of math lessons could focus on a changing number of fish eggs in a pond. For reading, students could focus on a book like “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish” by Dr. Seuss. The faith component could touch on how Jesus was a fisher of man, and so on and so forth.
“Each grade would take an appropriate approach to the topic,” he said, noting that the technology piece for the older students could focus on how depth finders work or how one might build one. Social studies lessons could examine why communities are often started along rivers or why fish stay in certain areas.
“It makes sense for kids to learn that way,” said Richards, who noted that the STEM model is being pushed on the national level. “The kids are active and engaged and their natural curiosities are harvested and allowed to grow and guide their interests. The kids are excited about it and the faculty is energized. The whole climate of the school is just buzzing … we are so excited to get it going.”
To help educate students and parents about C-STEM, the school has held informational nights in recent months. Patty Born Selly, the executive director of the National Center for STEM Elementary Education at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, aka St. Kate’s, gave a presentation on C-STEM in January.
St. Kate’s comes into play because all faculty members at St. Joe’s will be taking graduate level STEM courses at St. Kate’s in order to add STEM certification to their teaching licenses.
To achieve this, faculty members will take three courses (Engineering & Mathematics, STEM Integration, and Citizen Science) that are worth a total of 12 credits. The faculty will begin taking the courses this summer. The expectation is for the entire faculty to finish taking the courses by the end of the 2015-16 school year.
The total cost for the faculty to take these classes is approximately $75,000. Each faculty member will receive an endowment scholarship from St. Kate’s to help pay for the classes. School officials are hoping to fund the rest of the training through various grants and partnerships.
Another C-STEM informational night for students and parents was held last month. At this event, St. Joe’s staff prepared different activities to show how one topic could be integrated across the curriculum at all grade levels. Taking a cue from the Winter Olympics, the night’s topic was “luge” and the event was a hit.
“Kids didn’t want to go home because they were having so much fun,” said Richards, who acknowledged that some faculty members were a little nervous about making the transition to C-STEM when the idea first surfaced in October 2013 but many of those fears were calmed after visiting a STEM school earlier this year.
As the process has moved along, faculty members recognize the challenge associated with making the transition but they are excited about it. For Kim Heuer, a fifth/sixth grade language arts and fifth grade math teacher, she is looking forward to the hands-on units and collaboration between the whole school.
“It’s going to a breath of fresh air. We will still need to follow all the standards for all subjects, but the experience for the learners is going to be different,” Heuer said.
Sarah Szczeck, a middle school science and faith teacher, said she is “very excited” about C-STEM.
“I think it is a great way for students to be able to really show what they have learned and what they already know,” she said. “I am also excited to learn some new and fresh ideas from our training through St. Kate’s. I think this will help us as teachers become better teachers and it will help the students feel refreshed in their learning. I am very excited to work more closely with the other teachers to incorporate lessons that go hand in hand throughout the different classes. It will take a lot of work, but we are up for the challenge!”
First grade teacher Yvonne Litfin sees C-STEM as an asset for St. Joe’s.
“I am very excited to begin C-STEM at our school,” she said. “This inquiry based model will dig into student curiosity to make learning fun and engaging for all. As a teacher, I see my work will be even more fun and meaningful, working with active learners who don’t want to go home at the end of the day. Our principal has experience with C-STEM and I’m confident that his guidance and support will lead to success of this program in our school. I’m ready to get started.”
Julie Ludwig, a seventh/eighth grade language arts and faith teacher, is also on board with C-STEM.
“Over the past several years, we have seen a trend in students looking for more instant gratification,” she said. “They seem to want everything just handed to them without taking the time to think and apply their own knowledge. I feel that C-STEM will provide them with opportunities that encourage them to think for themselves and to solve problems with the resources given. It’s an exciting way to learn.
“Curriculum will still be taught and standards met, but student learning and retention will increase as they actively seek answers. They will individualize their way to achieve the end result while making connections across the content areas,” said Ludwig, who said visiting the STEM schools showed the excitement that both students and teachers have for the type of learning they will be implementing at St. Joe’s.
“It is a big undertaking as teachers will have to be trained on how to develop these lessons with a focus on student inquiry — to pose questions rather than give answers, and Mr. Richards is a strong leader who will help us through every step of the way. I personally am looking forward to the challenge. I see it as a positive change and a great opportunity for everyone involved,” she said.
The transition to C-STEM will result in a new science curriculum this fall. The school currently doesn’t have a specific engineering curriculum but school officials are looking at several options, including Project Lead the Way and Engineering is Elementary. Richards said whatever engineering curriculum is chosen will be implemented sometime in the next two years, possibly married to the new science curriculum.
In addition to the curriculum changes, St. Joe’s officials hope to incorporate a variety activities, such as engineering nights, summer camps and Mad Science events, for its students during the day and possibly the community at night. The school also hopes to take advantage of opportunities that include everything from creating a school yard garden to incorporating the use of 3-D printers and proscopes into the school day.
“The possibilities are really only limited by our imagination,” Richards said. “We’re hoping this will make St. Joe’s differentiated. We have the Catholic piece but this type of learning is for everybody. We want people to say ‘Whoa! Look at what they’re doing at St. Joe’s.
“It’s going to be a lot of work. We’re going to be working our tails off. But we’re expecting great things,” Richards said. “The smiles on the faces of the kids walking out of the door will be worth a million bucks.”
Contact Todd Moen at [email protected]