Lessons in the Stream

A day in the life of a spider is about to offer a STREAM of learning opportunities for second graders at Saint Rose of Lima School in Haddon Heights. What once might have been a literature experience followed by a science lesson about spiders is now a hands-on learning unit that encompasses all components of STREAM: Science, Technology, Religion, Engineering, Art and Math. And it starts with “Diary of a Spider,” the entertaining tale of a spider who brings his grandpa to Grandparents’ Day at school and learns that a fly can be his friend.

Marissa Scullan, Annita Askin, Billy Usher and Sean Alemi of Saint Rose of Lima School, Haddon Heights, work on their STREAM project, learning structure and building with plastic cups. STREAM refers to a method of teaching that incorporates Science, Technology, Religion, Engineering, Art and Math.

“Our teachers collaborated across traditional curriculum areas last school year to develop four interdisciplinary, project-based learning modules for each grade,” said school principal William Stonis. “We want to help students delve deeper, be more inquisitive and get hands-on experience… really to eliminate the question ‘when am I going to use this?’”

Once they have read “Diary of a Spider,” Saint Rose students will design a means of transportation for Spider to visit his Grandpa in Paris. The structure must be made with assigned materials, able to move across the room and include a model of a spider.

Each student will be asked to state the challenge in writing, an exercise that will tap into comprehension and language skills. In groups, students will brainstorm ideas, draw conclusions and suggest solutions, and then begin to design and build a method of transportation — all critical 21st Century communication and collaboration skills. They will need to know the full anatomy of a spider (science) in order to create a replica. With technology they will research means of transportation and use engineering principles for construction. With size restrictions, the project will involve math skills as well.

Students will also create an artistic advertisement for their inventions. Themes of creation and relationships will provide a framework for the religious components unique to a Catholic school education.

Stonis credits upper school science teacher Justine Wilhelm with spearheading the curriculum planning efforts that led to the STREAM-focused plans and activities.

‘Uniquely Catholic approach’ to interdisciplinary learning

“In all grades, students will study topics in depth through research, inquiry, investigation, and outcomes,” he said.

“STREAM is a uniquely Catholic approach to the trend toward integrating science, technology, engineering, and math as STEM,” says Dr. Bill Watson, director of curriculum and assessment for the diocese. He noted that where science classes have traditionally included engineering and technology as “extras” or enrichment experiences, taking a STEM approach has helped elevate the skills in those fields.

“STREAM takes the approach a step further to highlight the approach to curriculum we have always valued in Catholic schools. Take engineering, which always looks at the social benefits and impacts, or costs, of a solution. You can consider proposed solutions through the lens of Catholic social justice, or a Catholic world view. Think about science. Maybe you can do the science, but you need religion to ask ‘should you?’”

Many Catholic schools include Religion and Art in the acronym to reflect the ways they are being intentional about integrating subjects in this way. According to Watson, though, “the schools who don’t include Art and Religion in the acronym also make these connections. It’s an approach that has differentiated Catholic schools for a long time.”

“STEM is about more than just teaching academic subjects,” said Schools Superintendent Mary Boyle. “Making learning more concrete and ‘real world’ is really at the heart of STEM or STREAM programs. Hands-on experience and problem-solving tools are critical for preparing a 21st Century workforce. For us, the religious perspective is a great gift. It’s what makes our schools unique.”

At Christ the King School in Haddonfield, students will return to a new STEM lab, a space school Principal Anne Hartman said is designed for “thinkers and tinkerers.” Gone are a sea of desktop computers, giving way to reconfigured space with furniture that will enable students to move about as they work independently or in groups, with or without laptop computers.

An integral part of the curriculum for students in all grades at Christ the King will be their weekly STEM lab and the King’s Garden, an outdoor classroom with a separate bed for each grade. Students plan, research, measure, plant, tend and reap in the garden — experiencing the joy of creation as they learn to treasure and care for the earth. In the fall, fourth and fifth graders will plant a pocket meadow, thanks to a recent grant from the Bowman Hill Wildflower Preserve. The meadow will bring indigenous bees and butterflies.

A brand new STREAM lab is coming to Saint Mary’s in East Vineland as well. In preparation, the school sent a team of faculty and administrators to a STREAM workshop at Loyola University, Chicago over the summer.

“It was empowering to know a lot of what we are already doing is STREAM,” said middle school science teacher Patricia Barse. Saint Mary’s Science Expo requires that students incorporate science, technology, and math into projects and make a faith connection. In 2017, eighth graders were tasked with creating inventions in the spirit of the school show, “Alice in Wonderland.” Students developed websites to support their projects as well.

Barse said a valuable take-away from the Loyola workshop was not to show students a model. “Having a model suggests there is a right and wrong way to create something new,” she said. “It sets them up for failure. They need the freedom to do their own [project].

“In a STREAM environment, students are innovators, collaborators. They aren’t spoon-fed information to memorize and spit back out,” added Barse, who believes working in groups is a good way to foster creativity and exploration. “It brings out the best in each other,” she said.