STEAM curriculum broadens the horizons for students

Gone are the days where students learn the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic solely through lectures and rote memorization.

Schools across the country, including many independent schools around the Chicagoland area, are finding innovative ways to incorporate STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) programs into their school activities, both inside the classroom and away from it.

At Nazareth Academy in La Grange Park, for example, students can participate in a variety of honor societies and clubs, as well as explore their interests in drama, arts and music.

In one innovative program, students in the AP Physics class and EPICS group are learning through hands-on experience and helping others at the same time.

The school’s physics teacher, Roberta Zasadzinski, attended a week-long EPICS (Engineering Projects in Community Service) workshop and now offers the program at the Catholic, co-ed high school.

This year, the students also are partnering with the MidAmerica Service Dog Foundation and making tennis ball throwers that can attach to wheelchairs of service dog owners. That way, dog owners with limited mobility can still play catch with their dogs.

“Our mission is to educate the whole person, and we have four pillars as part of our mission: scholarship, service, spirit and unity,” says Principal Deborah Tracy. “Having a project that can support several of those pillars is amazing. Having a female lead this project, as well, helps us show our young women that girls can be attracted to science, math, engineering and technology. EPICS really draws in a lot of things we’re about.”

Although GEMS World Academy schools have been operating around the world for more than 50 years, the 2014-2015 school year is the first one for the school’s Chicago campus.

Head of School Geoff Jones believes his school has a unique approach to the STEAM curriculum due to the interaction his Chicago students have with students at other campuses around the world.

Students at the school, which serves children in prekindergarten through sixth grade, have already been regularly Skyping with students in Switzerland, he says. They are planning interactions with students in places including Nairobi, Kenya and Dubai, he says.

The school also plans to use the city of Chicago as its campus, using its downtown location to take advantage of the international businesses, museums and cultural centers.

All students will learn Spanish, and study history, culture and the arts through interactions with people.

“You can hear Spanish spoken (here) every day,” he says. “We need to shift the focus from learning the language to communicating and learning how to make authentic communications to people. You do that through learning and understanding their culture and history, what their value structure is and how that’s developed.”

Students also will focus on learning how systems work and how they impact people.

For example, Jones says, teaching about how water moves through pies, pumping stations and reservoirs can lead to discussions about politics, social justice and has other implications.

“We focus on having our students prepared globally, taking a role in leadership and working and thinking about the larger world,” he says. “We are developing an inquiry-based model of learning and developing knowledge and understanding.”

Although there is no formal STEAM curriculum at Woodlands Academy of the Sacred Heart in Lake Forest, the disciplines of science, technology and math are a large part of the science curriculum. Teachers develop lessons that combine teaching essential core content with specific science and engineering practices, says Cheryl Breckinridge, science department chair at the academy.

“When a student has completed her science education, she will be able to use her understanding of scientific concepts to explore and investigate the natural world, engage in scientific argumentation and answer meaningful problems that confront society today,” she says. “Many students (also) participate in our competitive Robotics club, where they design, build and program a robot to solve specific problems.”

Rocco Gargiulo, math department chair at Woodlands Academy, says instructors use real-world examples to teach students how to analyze and interpret data.

“Our students leave Woodlands Academy of the Sacred Heart prepared to tackle the challenges they will face in college and in life,” Gargiulo says. “Not only do they know math and science, but our education empowers the students to be able to speak and to write about these academic topics eloquently.”

Part of Making the Grade, a special advertising education guide.

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