January 25, 2019

Catholic Schools Week Supplement

STEM classes create a bright future for students and society

Harrison Howell, left, Evan Nevitt, and McKinley Combs, all sixth-graders at St. John Paul II School in Sellersburg, smile after winning a competition in their STEM class in the New Albany Deanery school. (Submitted photo)

Harrison Howell, left, Evan Nevitt, and McKinley Combs, all sixth-graders at St. John Paul II School in Sellersburg, smile after winning a competition in their STEM class in the New Albany Deanery school. (Submitted photo)

By Sean Gallagher

Joe Esposito, technology teacher and coordinator at St. Pius X School in Indianapolis, says the future is now when it comes to preparing his students for a more technologically driven workforce.

That’s why St. Pius and more Catholic schools across central and southern Indiana are introducing classes that incorporate science, technology, engineering and mathematics, commonly known as STEM.

“It’s very important for Catholic schools to put an emphasis on STEM education because the demand for STEM skills is no longer on the horizon,” Esposito said. “The world in which our students live is employing technical methods of making things faster, smarter and more efficient, and we would be doing them a disservice if we didn’t equip them with the right tools today.”

What sets apart Catholic schools in their approach to STEM classes is that they help their students learn about these fields in light of faith.

“They need to study the natural world, how it works and be able to effect change,” Esposito said. “But they also need Catholic values to give them purpose and direction in their work. I actually was telling third graders today that because God created the natural world, we can find ways to connect with him by understanding how it works.”

St. John Paul II School in Sellersburg began offering STEM classes to its middle schoolers in the 2017-18 academic year.

Karen Haas, St. John Paul’s principal, has high hopes for the possible effects these classes can have on her students and the broader society.

“Those in the STEM field have the ability to solve problems,” Haas said. “They gain knowledge while focusing on real world issues and problems. Today’s STEM student may someday create a design to help the disabled, or have an impact on decreasing the impact of a natural disaster through better forecasting.

“The benefits to society are endless. God gives each student the gift of his or her abilities. What he or she does with those abilities is his or her gift to God.”

The focus in STEM classes is often on applying knowledge to specific projects that groups of students have to complete together.

For example, students at St. John Paul II were given an “egg drop challenge” in which they were given materials to create a package to hold an egg and keep it intact after being dropped to a hard surface.

In the challenge, they applied what they had previously learned about aerodynamics and impact forces.

The project was also a competition among the groups of students to see who could create the most protective package with the least materials used.

“We were able to apply in the real world things that we had already learned in class,” said Alexander LaMaster, a seventh-grader at St. John Paul. “It was really cool.”

Shelby Arthur, St. John Paul’s STEM teacher, said she uses the natural competitiveness among children to enhance their learning.

“It really allows them to naturally work together and brainstorm multiple ideas and concepts without the students realizing that they are still performing school-related tasks,” she said. “The students enjoy the positive reinforcement and praise for winning a STEM challenge.

“They get to carry that sense of achievement around with them. That continues to motivate the students to try their best and to really try to understand the STEM concepts we are covering so that they can win the next STEM challenge.”

Some students face challenges in STEM classes. Esposito appreciates helping them overcome obstacles and achieve success.

“To say it has been very rewarding is an understatement,” Esposito said. “So many students think that they ‘just aren’t good at coding’ or ‘STEM doesn’t make sense to me,’ and I have the privilege of popping those bubbles.

“My eighth-graders last year were learning about [software] programming, and one student asked me if what we were learning was actually coding, and when I said yes, he exclaimed that he actually understood it. You could see the empowerment on his face.”

With teachers like Esposito across the archdiocese helping students past barriers that they thought were beyond their reach, Haas is anxious to see what the future will hold.

“We envision that our students will be well prepared as critical thinkers for their school career and beyond,” Haas said. “We pride ourselves on the fact that John Paul II students start here and succeed anywhere. We can’t wait to see the world they create—a world we can only imagine.” †

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