January 29, 2016

Catholic Schools Week Supplement

New program builds bridge between science and faith

A team of teachers at St. Barnabas School in Indianapolis has been chosen for a special three-year program at the University of Notre Dame that focuses on helping teachers inspire student learning in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Here, math teacher Doug Bauman poses with his students after they worked to create new pizza boxes—a challenge that Bauman made after he ordered an extra-large pizza that was placed in a box that wouldn’t fit in his car. (Submitted photo)

A team of teachers at St. Barnabas School in Indianapolis has been chosen for a special three-year program at the University of Notre Dame that focuses on helping teachers inspire student learning in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Here, math teacher Doug Bauman poses with his students after they worked to create new pizza boxes—a challenge that Bauman made after he ordered an extra-large pizza that was placed in a box that wouldn’t fit in his car. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

At 13, Caroline Prentice looked forward to the challenge—a challenge that would combine a fun, different way to learn with an opportunity to better understand the troubling situations that some people face around the world.

In the challenge, Caroline and her classmates focused on the area of water filtration—a major problem in areas across Africa.

“We took soda bottles, cut them in half and filled them with things like tissue paper, sand and dirt and charcoal, and we tried to see if the water came out clean,” Caroline says. “The water project related back to how we have clean water, and how there isn’t clean water in parts of Africa.

“I learned that it is not easy for people in Africa to get water, and they need people in developed countries to help them because water aids them in connecting with other resources like education, food markets and medical aid. It helps us be more grateful for what we do have, and it inspires us to believe we can make a difference in the lives of others who don’t have what we do.”

Caroline’s interest and inspiration reflect the enthusiastic response of many students at St. Barnabas School in Indianapolis—one of the outcomes of a team of teachers from the school being chosen for a special three-year program at the University of Notre Dame that focuses on helping teachers inspire student learning in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

The team from St. Barnabas was just one of 10 schools from across the country to be chosen for the summer-based, Notre Dame program. The teachers hope to share what they learn with schools across the archdiocese.

“The number of kids in America who are going into STEM careers has nose-dived,” says Autumn Scheer, a member of the St. Barnabas team along with Doug Bauman, Megan Burnett and Ryan Schnarr.

“Around fifth- and sixth grade, students stop identifying themselves as an engineer, a scientist, an astronaut, a mathematician. It’s because they haven’t had enough authentic real-world experiences in those areas. They need competent teachers to get kids excited and keep that identity.”

To challenge her fifth-grade science students, Burnett created a fun assignment that combines creativity and teamwork with one of the most popular snacks for both children and adults: popcorn.

The challenge is to design a container that will best hold exactly 293 pieces of popcorn. Burnett hopes the challenge will help her students understand the concept of volume by using math in a real-world situation.

Even more, she hopes the project will help them grow in at least three areas:

Brainstorming individually—to come up with an idea to solve the problem, while all the time understanding there isn’t a bad idea.

Becoming a part of a group where they will present their ideas to others before choosing the best one—or one that combines different elements of the different ideas.

Working together to design and build the container.

“They are so engaged and excited,” Burnett says. “There’s a lot of good thinking going on. They’re getting a lot of confidence in looking at the world from a science and math perspective. That’s what I want for them.”

The increased real-world emphasis has given Bauman—a math teacher for the seventh- and eighth-grades—a ready response to his students’ question, “How am I ever going to use this?”

“Because of STEM, it allows me to go beyond the numbers,” he says. “Why does your driveway slope to the street? It’s not just the construction of the driveway, but the science and math behind it. Some of my students have parents who are engineers and scientists, but we’re also trying to show how it applies to the carpenter, the nurse, the plumber—because they all use science, technology, engineering and math to solve real-world problems.”

The approach has connected with Caroline, who wants to be a nurse, and Max Greene, who wants to be an engineer.

“Last year, a lot of times we did simple experiments,” says Max, a seventh-grade student. “This year, we’re doing a lot more do-it-yourself, hands-on experiments. It’s more fun, and it gives you a better understanding of what we’re trying to do.”

Caroline adds, “It helps us grow our minds.”

While the Notre Dame program focuses on developing interest in STEM for fifth- to eighth-grade students, the teachers at St. Barnabas are trying to bring it to all grade levels at the school, including pre-kindergarten classes.

“I’m working with teachers in grade one and two,” says Schnarr, a fifth-grade teacher of math and social studies. “STEM has helped us understand what is being required at all grade levels. So we’re continuing to make these bridges.”

The best bridge, the teachers say, is how the focus connects to faith.

“The mission of Catholic schools is to form the entire student—academically, spiritually, physically, mentally,” Bauman says. “My wife teaches kindergarten here, and we have three kids here. When we say, ‘Today is STEM day,’ they leap out of bed. It gives kids another window of opportunity to express who they are.

“I’m a firm believer as a Catholic that God has blessed us with our own unique set of gifts. Prior to us implementing STEM, our kids weren’t given the full opportunity to display their math and science skills in a very creative way. By having these STEM initiatives, it gives these kids an outlet. As a dad, I’m so happy that my kids are able to use the gifts God gave them in such a fruitful and fulfilling way.” †
 


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