Catholic schools emphasize science, technology, engineering and math

STEM Technology at Blessed Sacrament School

Computer coding, 3-D design and printing at Belleville Catholic grade school.
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Computer coding, 3-D design and printing at Belleville Catholic grade school.

STEM learning — Science, Technology, Engineering and Math — is far from copying complicated formulas from a chalkboard. Students have to be able to take the classroom concepts and apply it to their future real world, educators say, and that takes practice. The kind of practice that comes only in a STEM lab.

“There’s certain skills (still necessary) — you have to know three times three is nine — but when you leave, do you know how to apply those same skills?” said Principal Skip Birdsong, of St. Teresa. “We all know someone who’s really book smart, but ... that’s what’s missing, they don’t know how to apply what’s in those books.”

St. Teresa, Blessed Sacrament and St. Clare Catholic schools are pumping up their STEM programs and facilities in order to better serve their students’ futures. Southern Illinois University Edwardsville provides the assist, giving schools across the state access to its 3D printers, robotics kits and more.

SIUE’s Colin Wilson, the Resource Center’s manager, says a big part of its mission is to make it “easy for schools to do new STEM.”

Kids have to learn to think and adjust and adapt. They have to learn how to think, not just remember facts anymore.

Skip Birdsong, principal of St. Teresa

“This part of Illinois, we do have Boeing, we do have a lot of technology companies in the area, growing (STEM learning) will only help the community and institutions in general,” he said.

St. Teresa in Belleville got its STEM lab running this year, after several years of planning and fund-raising.

“Those skills that you and I learned, memorizing facts, quite honestly isn’t going to be enough anymore,” Birdsong said.

He said today’s students might have 10 to 14 jobs by the time they’re 35.

“Kids have to learn to think and adjust and adapt. They have to learn how to think, not just remember facts anymore,” he said.

A STEM focus forces teachers from different departments to work together on projects, helping students make the links that will help them later in life.

The lab at St. Teresa opened in January and was built for $288,000, said Lisa Elbe, of St. Teresa. Costs do not include the equipment, but teachers have consolidated their science equipment into the lab.

“It allows the students to be in an environment where they will be in high school and college; it’ll be a familiar space for them. The kids can go in and spread out and have all the resources right at their fingertips,” Elbe said.

The first grade built a mockup of the Great Wall of China; other grades have used flame tests to determine what chemical is burning by judging the color.

One of Birdsong’s favorites to watch this year was the kindergarten class experimenting with building styles the three little pigs could use to combat the wolf’s hot air, which came courtesy of a hair dryer.

“The boys of course were building towers, because that’s what boys do. And finally one of them said, ‘Guys we have to build it shorter, so it won’t fall over when the wind hits it.’”

Birdsong said the kindergarten teachers might use the lab as much as anyone else, because “hands-on is so beneficial.”

Teacher Peggy Tribout, who teaches science to students in grades fifth through eighth, said she could not have done the flame test before the lab.

“In a classroom, everything is just too close together,” she said.

Tribout looks forward to expanding the program and expects to have a grow cart for plants next year “instead of just on windowsills.”


STEM education blurs the lines between science and math, and that’s a good thing, teachers say.

“Science, computer and math teachers (at Blessed Sacrament) all work together, which emulates what they’ll be doing in the real world,” said science teacher Connie Yordy.

Part of that collaboration is looking ahead for their students.

“We had talked about how computers changed the world for us,” Yordy said. “3D printing will change it for them.”

Blessed Sacrament’s eighth-graders used a computer program this semester to create objects that could be printed using SIUE’s 3D printer. It was a great experiment, teachers and students said, because not everything worked out as planned.

“The field goal looked great on there (the program),” said eigth-grade teacher Peggy Butler. “But it printed in two pieces. They really have to spin it in all directions to see that it’s connected” and even then, sometimes what appeared to be one piece were actually two.

The exercise took “a lot of math and art,” Butler said.

Yordy said teachers at Blessed Sacrament have been teaching STEM “a long time. We just never called it that.”

“Math is science; science is math; and it’s all needed in technology,” she said.

How it works

At Blessed Sacrament, the school’s computer lab is a busy place.

Renee Long’s third-grade students are learning to code computer programs.

There’s a range of activities that get the kids to learn to give a computer directions, from navigating a zombie to eat a flower to the more advanced levels of tracing shapes and changing colors. Most of the third-grader’s screens look almost as if they were playing games, but half the screen is taken up by “block coding.” Students chose from “block” commands, such as “move forward” or “turn right” to put in order to make the object move properly.

First-graders are using word-based programs; second-graders have moved onto Power Point presentations that Principal Claire Hatch called “better than adults.”

Fourth-graders this year integrated social studies with technology time, making videos of themselves as presidents. Fifth-graders took a foray into stop-motion movies, and sixth-graders stepped up their Power Point game by making business-style presentations.

Seventh-graders move from block to real coding; by eighth grade they’re creating websites and editing film.

SIUE’s Wilson said block coding is useful because the “graphical interface is used to make it look less intimidating.”

For instance, he said that to start a motor on a robot, a coding command might be “start: interface motor” with a bunch of symbols. Instead, block coding simply says “start motor.”

Long said she’s been at Blessed Sacrament for 16 years, and there is a significant difference in the comfort level the students have with technology before class even begins.

“We show them (the basics of Power Point or coding), and they just go,” she said.

The program the third-graders use allows them to work at their own pace and also help one another out, Long said. Simpler levels must be mastered before they can move to more advanced ones, and she says they often lean over to ask another student why the zombie won’t move the right way or to offer a new command.

Math is science, science is math, and it’s all needed in technology.

Connie Yordy, Blessed Sacrament science teacher

“Yes! Yes!” whispered Griffin Leahy, 9, when his zombie started moving in the right direction outlined in his coding.

Griffin couldn’t quite get that his right was the zombie’s left, but once he figured that out, his zombie was well on its way to eating the flower.

Classmate Natalie Moody, 9, was on a more advanced level, trying to trace a pair of glasses using the commands provided. Instead of number of boxes, as the zombie version had, her level had the number of pixels in the glasses, so she had to calculate how far across the frames were and put the commands in the correct order.

“I like it a lot,” she said. “You get to have fun creating and getting ready to make something new. In eighth grade, we’ll create a website; it’s only in five years.”

St. Clare Catholic School in O’Fallon is slowly expanding its STEM learning, Principal Melissa Faust said. The school has had STEM days for the third and fourth grades this year, and the sixth and seventh grades have taken a STEM field trip to SIUE.

“It’s just such a great way for the kids to explore science and math together,” she said.

STEM doesn’t detract from other learning areas, Faust said.

“We still do the same allotted time for all subject areas. (STEM) is just a way of incorporating science and math in those lessons, not adding another section for it.”