Why adding religion to STEAM concept works for Bloomingdale school
First there was STEM.
The idea was to make science, technology, engineering and math seem cool, especially to groups who are underrepresented in those professional fields -- namely girls and minorities.
Then there was STEAM.
The idea was to add the arts to science, technology, engineering and math -- because artistic and creative thought is what separates successful and outstanding engineers, scientists and mathematicians from mediocre ones.
Then there was STREAM.
The idea was based in faith.
Starting this school year at St. Isidore Parish School in Bloomingdale, educators have been incorporating religion into a curriculum based on the STEAM fields to keep Catholic teachings at the core of a new interdisciplinary, project-based learning.
Lest it all seem like a sea of acronyms that mean the same old thing -- school -- allow educators to explain.
It's all about the integration, they say.
"The disciplines are stronger together than apart," said Babette Alina, head of government relations at Rhode Island School of Design, which has taken the lead in the STEAM movement to incorporate arts in STEM education.
While science, math, art and religion always have been key subjects at St. Isidore, it was this year Principal Cyndi Collins gave teachers the freedom to truly marry them together in a way that helps students make and see practical connections.
"It's created to get kids interested in all of these areas," Collins said.
Often the integration comes through a new way of thinking, a problem-solving approach. That's how Wheeling High School, one of the suburban pioneers, has done it since becoming a STEM school in 2007.
"We take an overall approach to our education that's based in the scientific method," Principal Jerry Cook said. "It's inquiry-based education, where we get kids to question problems and see how they can solve issues."
So even in an English class (yes, at a STEM school, they still have English classes), students are conducting independent research on global or social issues, then writing their ideas for solutions, Cook said.
The approach was the same at St. Isidore this year as the school's 238 students in preschool through eighth grade all worked on projects that incorporated science, technology, engineering, math, art and religion.
"The really important thing was pulling their faith into it and helping students see that their faith isn't just lived in their religion class or at Mass on Sundays," Collins said. "We want them to learn how to learn and be hungry for knowledge. And, in our case, we want them to be hungry to include their faith in their everyday life."
The students presented their projects during a STREAM night in April that was part science fair, part talent show.
Fifth-grader David Callender, for example, showed off how he built his own Rubik's cube and can solve it in 30 seconds (science and math). And all of the school's preschoolers worked together to learn about rainbows -- why they form (science), what colors are in them (art) and who to thank (religion).
"They'd say 'We thank God for the sunshine and the rain that makes rainbows," Collins said. "That's the faith connection."
Having the preschoolers involved is a key element that successful STEM schools practice, said Mary Biniewicz, STEM coordinator for the DuPage Regional Office of Education.
"The importance of the STEM education is really to catch kids early enough so that their minds are open to the possibilities," Biniewicz said.
If kids decide early on "science isn't for me," they'll stick with that impression, Biniewicz said. And that could limit their futures in a highly technical workforce. Teaching techniques using STEM labs, talking about the applications of math in music or assigning a teacher to focus on STEM help reach even the kids who don't want to be doctors or engineers and pique their interest.
"These are approaches that reach kids of all levels, interests and capabilities, which is really important in the STEM world," Biniewicz said. "STEM careers are available at all levels of education."
At St. Isidore, Collins said she thinks the STREAM concept is here to stay. Some students finished presenting this year's STREAM project and already started talking about their ideas for next year. Educators among the school's staff of 30 are working together more and feeling their enthusiasm reflected in their students.
"We thought it was something different and unique and something to engage kids," Collins said. "There are so many ways to teach kids to explore."