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Mary of Nazareth School launches innovative lab to encourage creative problem solving and hands-on learning

Originally published at: Mark Zimmermann, Catholic Standard

The highly regarded STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) program has branched out and built up STEAM in recent years as it expanded at some schools to include the arts in the mix.

But now at Mary of Nazareth School in Darnestown, it’s full STREAM ahead, with the addition of religion into the cross-curricular program, and the renovation of a former kindergarten classroom into a lab devoted to creative problem solving and hands-on learning for kindergarten students through eighth graders.

“It’s an opportunity for students to gain 21st century skills… It’s all about hands-on construction and innovation,” said Michael Friel, the principal of Mary of Nazareth School. Work on the STREAM initiative began two years ago as part of the school’s strategic planning.

With the help of $27,000 raised by parents at the school’s spring gala and with expertise provided by the KID Museum in Bethesda, a standard classroom at the school has been transformed into a “maker space” – a lab for hands-on activities with tables at flexible learning stations that can be moved away depending on the nature of the project, or elevated or lowered for older or younger students.

“The whole community came together,” said Bill Ryan, the Archdiocese of Washington’s superintendent of  schools, who visited the lab Aug. 27 as students and parents got a preview of the program before the first day of school.

“Maker education” utilizes innovative problem solving, collaboration, and experimentation. Students are encouraged to use the engineering design process, a series of steps that include defining a problem, researching it, brainstorming, building a prototype, testing and modifying a possible solution, and communicating the results.

The materials and resources in the new STREAM lab at Mary of Nazareth School include five Chrome tablets, a 3-D printer, an LCD projector, materials for circuitry, electronics, robotics and coding, a digital camera and video production equipment and a green screen.

“They really built an extraordinary space, and this community will greatly benefit,” said Claire Cocciole, the director of community partnerships for the KID Museum in Bethesda, which is a regional hub for the Expanding Maker Education Across the Nation initiative by Google, Maker Ed and the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.

Mary of Nazareth School was selected as one of five 2018 Making Spaces schools in Maryland, and they participated in group workshops and received school mentoring, starter materials for maker activities and access to maker learning resources.

“They (the school) came up with a vision for what they wanted (their) maker space to be,” Cocciole said, noting that educational approach is “expanding the notion of what learning is.”

Younger children she said, can find low-tech solutions to problems with things as simple as building straws, while older students can utilize high-tech items like the 3-D printer. And as they develop problem-solving skills through hands-on learning, “it makes our young kids creators and not consumers of products,” she said.

Nick Humphries, the STREAM lab coordinator at Mary of Nazareth School, watched as teams of students tried out activities, including using kits to build small self-driving cars and doing computer coding, while a plastic frog was taking shape in the 3-D printer.

“There really is no limit to what can be created,” he said, praising the students’ imaginations. The active learning space allows them to move around and its resources help them follow their ideas, Humphries said. “…They can do a deep dive on any given subject.”

For example, he said students can construct bridges and catapults and then test them in the outdoor space adjoining the lab, or use the digital camera, video production equipment and green screen for a Mary of Nazareth News Network. Parents and members of the community can volunteer their expertise for different projects. The lab coordinator said that students will be able to work together with classmates and showcase things they are good at, succeed at things they thought they were bad at, and, like the noted inventor Thomas Edison, learn from their failures.

William Koutsos, a Mary of Nazareth eighth grader who was working on making a small self-driving car with his classmate Carlos Abreu, said, “You can’t hone your skills and do better without trial and error. It’s integral to learning.”

Abreu said he thought the school’s new STREAM lab is “pretty cool. It gives kids the opportunity to build what they want and have fun with it.”

Eighth graders Kate Nonnenkamp and Meghan Stone were working with a kit with electronic components to do coding for a computer game where the players try to score soccer goals.

Stone, who said she loved theater, was excited about using the lab’s green screen and utilizing sound and lighting effects. Nonnenkamp, who said she liked editing and making movies, added, “I also love coding.” She hoped to try a project where “you can make a guitar and code it so it plays.”

Breana Alcantara, a Mary of Nazareth eighth grader, was also working with classmate Maria Ayoub to build a self-driving car, and the duo designed a ramp for the car to climb. Alcantara, who hopes to be a doctor someday, said she looks forward to learning more about technology in the STREAM program. Ayoub, who likes working with software, said she hoped to gain a better understanding of the different aspects of the program, especially engineering.

The lab and its cross-curriculum approach can help “tear down those barriers between subjects,” said Humphries, who teaches math. For example, under the STREAM model, a music teacher could encourage students to build a stringed instrument, and use engineering, science and math skills in its construction and to measure its acoustics, based on the width of the strings.

With the STREAM model at Mary of Nazareth School, religion is interwoven into the program, reflecting the school’s Catholic identity. On display in the lab is a reproduction of a Vatican stamp depicting Father Gregor Mendel, the 19th century Augustinian friar known as the father of modern science and genetics. A summertime STREAM camp at Mary of Nazareth School studied the topic of water in science, literature and the Bible.

Friel, the school’s principal, noted that “religion is something we integrate into everything we do.” He said students can use Catholic virtues of respect for other people and their ideas as they work on projects together, and for example, be inspired by biblical stories to build a miniature ark or a scale model of a home in Nazareth from Jesus’s time.

Reflecting on the school’s new STREAM lab and how lessons in religion could be part of that effort, Marion Strishock, a middle school religion teacher at Mary of Nazareth, said, “God created everything and gave us talents to use our math and engineering, and a lot can be used to explain social justice issues, like water conservation and stewardship of the environment.”

Mary of Nazareth School, founded in 1994, marks its 25th anniversary next year. In 2011, it was recognized as a National Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education. The regional school is sponsored by seven upper Montgomery County Catholic parishes: Our Lady of the Visitation in Darnestown, Mother Seton in Germantown, Our Lady of the Presentation in Poolesville, St. John Neumann in Gaithersburg, St. Mary in Barnesville, St. Paul in Damascus and St. Rose of Lima in Gaithersburg.

Robert Antonetti, an attorney who chairs the curriculum committee on the board of directors for the school, was among parents visiting the school on the day when the STREAM program was being previewed there. He said it was great to see the program take shape after its preliminary planning. Antonetti and his wife Jacqueline have three children attending Mary of Nazareth School: Isabella, a seventh grader; Emma, a fifth grader; and Robert, a fourth grader.

Watching the pairs of students tackling various problems in the Mary of Nazareth STREAM lab, Antonetti said, “The excitement about learning is something I wanted to see… The potential here seems limitless. Hopefully, it can be a model for other Catholic schools.”

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