Fun, STEM learning go together in Rochester Catholic schools - Catholic Courier
Young children look at a mesh butterfly habitat.

At St. Michael School in Penn Yan, students learn about metamorphosis and why butterflies are important to the environment. (Photo courtesy of Debra Marvin)

Fun, STEM learning go together in Rochester Catholic schools

Did you know the Three Little Pigs and Three Billy Goats Gruff are helping develop future scientists and engineers?

Welcome to some of the creative ways in which diocesan Catholic-school students are being introduced to STEM — an acronym for science, technology, engineering and math.

At St. Michael School in Penn Yan this past school year, students designed miniature Little Pig houses to be sturdy enough to withstand a wolf’s huffing and puffing. In addition, participants were tasked with devising a bridge that would allow the Billy Goats Gruff to cross safely and elude the treacherous troll.

According to Deb Marvin, St. Michael’s principal, fairy tale-themed tasks and other fun projects help students to begin grasping — and demonstrating — such key STEM-related concepts as brainstorming, teamwork, problem-solving and creativity.

“It’s amazing to see their variety of skills,” remarked Marvin, who teaches St. Michael’s STEM program, which began in the 2021-22 school year. She added that students’ enthusiasm for the Friday classes is obvious.

“They’re eager all week; they can’t wait,” said Marvin, a former technology teacher at St. Mary School in Canandaigua.

One such eager beaver is Keith Castner, an incoming third-grader at St. Michael.

“STEM is my favorite class. I like being creative,” Keith said. He and McKenna Hoover, an incoming fourth-grader, added that they’re interested in possible engineering careers.

Jessica Welter, who teaches fifth grade at Greece’s St. Lawrence School, observes similar student passion for the STEM initiatives that she oversees.

“When I tell them what (project) they’re going to do, they’re like, ‘Yes, an experiment!’” she said.

Rochester diocesan schools feature wide variety of STEM activities

Among other STEM projects at St. Michael this past school year were constructing a boat that could stay afloat along with a sail so it could move; creating roller coasters on which marbles are rolled; and building arcade games out of cardboard. Marvin noted that students also give Lego presentations regularly and engage in collaborative activities with a local ecology group.

A 2022-23 STEM highlight at St. Lawrence School, meanwhile, was the the “egg drop experiment,” which involved designing a parachute to hold an egg protected by tissues. Heights were then gauged from which the egg could be dropped without cracking or breaking. Another activity Welter hopes to facilitate in the future is “elephant toothpaste,” through which a yeast mixture is combined with hydrogen peroxide and dish soap. The mixture produces a volcanic reaction that looks like large amounts of toothpaste squirting out of a tube — enough, perhaps, for use by an elephant.

Materials for such projects may include sticks, straws, cardboard, tape, clothespins, pipe cleaners, newspapers, paper plates and coffee filters. Marvin and Welter noted that many of these objects can be recycled, so STEM students also gain an appreciation for environmental conservation.

Early exposure to STEM education helps develop vital skills

Another major plus of STEM education, Marvin noted, is that it allows students to step away from textbook learning and employ their creativity.

“It gives them the opportunity to not have that prescribed thinking. They’re able to think for themselves, think outside the box,” she explained.

“We do lots of building. It kind of sparks a new interest in their brains,” Welter added. “These are very smart kids. They think of things that I don’t even think of.”

“Our approach to STEM has been hands-on learning. It’s about experience,” agreed James Tauzel, whose tenure as Rochester diocesan schools superintendent concluded July 31.

Tauzel said many diocesan schools offer robotics and Lego clubs, and that recent increases in state funding for nonpublic schools will help to bolster STEM programs, staff and equipment.

Marvin observed that exposure to STEM-related concepts at a young age can help plant seeds for future careers in the thriving fields of computer science, engineering and other types of technology.

“There’s a lot of opportunity,” she said.

Tags: Catholic Schools
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