It’s full-STEAM ahead for the students and faculty of Sacred Heart Catholic School in Gallup, NM.
This semester, Sacred Heart becomes the first school in McKinley County to offer a full curriculum in Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math for each student in preschool through the eighth grade.
In the 2nd Grade classroom, Brenda Sanchez is distributing a lily and a kitchen spoon to her students. She asks them to feel the objects and describe the differences between the flower, which grows naturally, and the spoon, which is human-made.
“Another way to describe an object is by the form and function”, she stresses, introducing two specific scientific terms to her students.
This is the beginning of the STEAM program in the school, an initiative first championed by Anna Biava, who served on the school’s board for many years. Biava noticed the challenges facing students seeking to transfer to a career following graduation from high school or college.
“What I found is that New Mexico has a workforce crisis,” she said. “There’s a big movement in the state to try to remedy the education system in order to support the workforce.”
The solution: Biava developed a partnership between Sacred Heart School and Project Lead the Way, a national curriculum for engineering and science centered around hands-on learning and problem-solving.
New Mexico State University is the program’s official state affiliate, and seeks to establish new STEM programs throughout the state. Dr. Patricia Sullivan, an associate dean with NMSU’s College of Engineering, views the relationship between Sacred Heart School and the university as mutually beneficial.
“From our end, at New Mexico State, we’re just really interested in reaching out to partners, especially in rural areas and all over the state, to make sure that students have an opportunity to engage in quality STEM education at middle and high school levels,” Sullivan said.
Once students develop STEM skills, they then can choose to apply those skills to a specific field in college, which then fosters a better job market throughout New Mexico.
“A lot of kids, they have expertise in some of the hands-on applications, but they don’t necessarily relate it to degrees in STEM fields. They may have grown up in agricultural areas, they may have grown up around some of the manufacturing, and even there with the refineries,” Sullivan said. “A lot of those are STEM skills, so it may not just be masters and PhD degrees – we’re talking about associate degrees, we’re talking about just out of high school – people with STEM skills have a higher job opportunity.”
Sullivan visited Sacred Heart in the Fall semester when the school held a community launch day, complete with a parade and visits to the school. Over the following weeks, every teacher in the school undertook a two-day intensive given by members of Project Lead the Way, so that each teacher could begin to understand and roll out the STEAM initiative in their classrooms.
Each classroom now has a digital board, which functions as a giant touchscreen and interactive lesson display, and every student is provided with an iPad. The technology upgrades go hand-in-hand with new lesson plans, as vocabulary and directions of students’ assignments will also change.
“What this program does is it teaches children to problem solve through real-world problems,” Biava said. “Another thing, the vocabulary is advanced and technical – nothing is dumbed-down for them. They don’t ‘make’ a pulley, they ‘construct’ a pulley. The whole thing is based in teaching the children transferrable skills. In the future, our technology’s gonna look a lot different than it does when they’re in first grade. The idea is that they’re beginning to use the engineering thought process to solve problems.”
On Fridays following school, music teacher Amy Jo Mulvaney sponsors Sacred Heart’s LEGO Club. Students from all grade levels are welcome to gather in the downstairs cafeteria and build age-appropriate projects. One group of students might work on constructing a crane; another carefully pieces together an aerodynamic plane.
“We’re used to giving students information – this way, we’re all learning together,” Mulvaney said. “There’s a lot more critical thinking encouraged in the students.”
And her role as music teacher is still vital.
“Just because we’re embracing STEAM technology does not mean we’re letting language arts, math, paper and pen go – we’re incorporating it all. Yes, we are a technology school, but not at the sake of losing any of our foundations. We’re still learning poetry – we’re just using this to enhance everything else we teach at the school.”
Biava also stressed the importance of developing students’ cooperation and social skills.
“[The curriculum] is based on collaborative learning and problem-solving,” she noted. “Each child will take on a different role in the problem-solving scenario. One will step up as leader. That’s what the entire thing is based on: transferrable problem-solving for real-work scenarios.”
Like Mulvaney, Biava said that the new program will not exclude the arts or Catholic teaching – instead, Sacred Heart School will use the lesson plans to enhance students’ learning in all subjects.
“Part of the whole motivation behind encouraging the study of the sciences is that you can look at the world and define order in the universe, see that there [are] laws of nature, and you can come to your own realization – on whatever level – that a Creator exists, right?” said Biava. “Take it a step further. The more you understand about the intricacies of the universe and how science works – be it through physics or biology or whatever it is – the more grandeur that creation has for you, the more you come to realize about God’s creation.”
It was, after all, through Catholic universities that the scientific method was first developed. Major contributions and developments in genetics, astronomy, and computer science were fostered by monks, priests and nuns. Biava sees the implementation of the new curriculum at Sacred Heart School as another link in the longstanding relationship between faith and science.
“Eventually we will grow into this and kind of even enhance the aspects of it: the philosophical implications, the moral implications. Right now, because we’re in the ‘baby’ stages, that side of it is very basic, but when we really get rolling with the program we’re really hoping to tie in all the aspects of what this could mean for us in terms of the religious education and the moral formation.”
Dr. Sullivan is pleased to see any school forge ahead with an enhanced STEAM curriculum.
“I think the most exciting thing was just to see the level of engagement by the entire school community – the teachers, the students, and the parents and the business leaders. It was very exciting to see that this wasn’t just a school adopting a new curriculum, but it was a community championing a concept of student readiness.”
And with the program officially underway, a visit to classrooms at Sacred Heart shows students and teachers alike embracing the curriculum. For Biava, it’s a symbiotic embrace of the core concepts of Catholic education: faith and reason.
“The reason part teaches you about what God has done. The faith part teaches you how to live.”