STEM Innovation from Roots to Robots at St. Monica Academy

Students at St. Monica Academy build upon a strong environmental curriculum with hands-on robotics and coding. With this strong foundation, students build leadership skills and confidence.

High on the wishlist for parents who want to prepare their children for a successful future: a rigorous curriculum and plenty of focus on the whole child. At St. Monica Academy, students from age 3 through grade eight engage in a faith-based education that offers a strong foundation, especially in highly sought-after STEM subjects.

In fact, at St. Monica Academy, the addition of the arts and religion transforms the science, technology, engineering and math of STEM into STREAM. “When I make my way out of the junior high school world where I teach, what I see amazes me,” says Karen Ronchi, Junior High Science teacher at St. Monica Academy. “Kindergartners create paper models of the earth revolving around the sun and the moon revolving around the earth. A kindergarten student even put two and two together to say that this must be how eclipses work. That blew my mind!”

From elementary students studying chemistry when they create slime to preschoolers digging into basic statistics by representing different colored apples on bar graphs, students at St. Monica Academy enjoy innovative approaches to learning STEM concepts.

And the school is ramping up STEM programming quickly. “We engaged a new science series this year that is all about creating labs where students get more exposure to science, technology, engineering and math topics. It’s really making them think more deeply, rather than simply getting an answer to write in a notebook,” explains Ronchi, who, after a career in finance-sector IT, earned a master’s degree in teaching.

“The concept of developing logical thinking skills is always in the back of my mind and it’s what I foster in everything I teach,” she says.

Innovative STEM learning

Through an innovative environmental curriculum with several outdoor gardens, plus grow labs and hydroponic gardens located in classrooms, students have engaged in project-based learning since the Student Environmental Education and Development Studies (SEEDS) was launched at St. Monica Academy in 2007.

As technology advances, educators at St. Monica Academy provide new ways for students to learn STEM skills. The school invested in Lego Mindstorms EV 3 robots for middle school students to learn programming and problem solving. Second and third grade students practice robot-based learning with Lego WeDo 2.0. Soon even the youngest students at St. Monica Academy will program Ozobots, tiny spheres that can draw with markers, sense different colors and move according to programmed directions.

Plans are in place for a dedicated STEM learning lab in the school where students can collaborate, develop prototypes and test their work. “There’s a lot of enthusiasm for this, which is great to see,” says Ronchi. And, because students at St. Monica Academy are tech natives, they can readily see the applications of programming in the technology they use in their lives, like phones, games, tablets and more.

Sharing their gifts

Junior high school students at St. Monica Academy have opportunities to share their work and participate competitively — and they’re building leadership skills and confidence in the process, says Ronchi.

“Our seventh and eighth graders are involved in the Science Fair, and this gives them the opportunity to speak up for themselves and think on their feet. This is a really huge thing,” she says. Eight students advanced to state-level competitions this year and six sixth graders achieved top honors in the Illinois EPA Poster, Poetry and Prose competition.

From fabric biodegradability to eco-friendly detergent research to inclusive community environmental decision-making, students at St. Monica Academy are elevating STREAM topics through age-appropriate research and innovation.

“Here, students are demonstrating the skill of taking something that starts out overwhelming and breaking it up into smaller pieces,” says Ronchi. “They’re learning they can do anything they put their minds to.”

Learn more about St. Monica Academy. Visit school.stmonicachicago.com.

Claire Charlton
Claire Charlton
An enthusiastic storyteller, Claire Charlton focuses on delivering top client service as a content editor for Chicago Parent. In her 20+ years of experience, she has written extensively on a variety of topics and is keen on new tech and podcast hosting. Claire has two grown kids and loves to read, run, camp, cycle and travel.

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