Mackenzie Fort and Timothy Polishchuk document observations made with a microscope at O’Hara.
Mackenzie Fort and Timothy Polishchuk document observations made with a microscope at O’Hara.
A focus on science, technology, engineering and math isn’t new. It dates back to Sputnik and the Cold War. But schools have been adopting the STEM educational method for more than a decade and it’s now widely practiced. So what have the schools in the Archdiocese of Portland been doing in this area?

STEM in action

Clint Larson is a middle school science teacher at O’Hara School in Eugene. He spends his mornings teaching science classes and in the afternoons works with students from preschool to fifth grade, incorporating a STEM activity into what the class is learning. For example, while the kids are reading “Hoot” Larson comes into their classrooms and introduces engineering via construction of owl traps. In kindergarten, students will recreate the water cycle during their study of that subject. The pre-K students are learning to type and code.

The school began immersing the younger students in science four years ago, and Larson’s official title transitioned last year to STEM coordinator.

The students not only are being exposed to science, technology, engineering and math — they’re enjoying it.

“STEM is a class favorite,” says Heidi Kendall, first-grade teacher at O’Hara. “Students are so motivated and curious when a problem is presented.”

The school’s STEM program evolved rapidly since Larson began teaching science. And now he sees even the pre-kindergarten students on a regular basis.

The key, says Larson, is presenting students with problem-solving scenarios and letting them develop a strategy for solving that problem.

Stacey Kemp is the STEM coordinator at St. Matthew School in Hillsboro. She also sees problem-solving as essential to her field of teaching.

“When we do give them problems to try to figure out, they’re going to fail. And that’s good. It’s good to fail,” says Kemp. Failure allows students to accept that an idea doesn’t work, move on and try a new tactic.

Like Larson, she teaches middle school science and also works with younger students. Third- and fourth-graders come to Kemp’s science lab once a week and fifth-graders come in daily.

Experiments are spread across disciplines, linking social studies and language arts to science and math lessons. For example, students studying the Oregon Trail might build a wagon.

Kemp has seen children grasp concepts better. She says that is a success.

Adding arts and religion

“The benefits of STEM education are undisputed,” says Pam Bernards, director of professional development at the National Catholic Educational Association. “It sets the stage for student problem-solving and includes hands-on exploration, demonstration, and experimentation. It moves away from teacher-centered instruction to inquiry-based learning.”

The association takes STEM a step further to STREAM, which includes the study of arts and religion in the acronym.

“STREAM incorporates all of the basic elements of STEM while incorporating authentic Catholic teaching as an intrinsic and key element in a standards-based, exploratory and inquiry-based learning environment,” says Bernards.

The NCEA launched its STREAM initiative in 2014, and attendance in its STREAM conferences has grown by 69 percent since that time.

The Archdiocese of Portland doesn’t have a central STEM program or curriculum. However, Jeannie Ray-Timoney, associate superintendent for the archdiocese, says any of the archdiocesan schools could demonstrate work being done based upon this idea. Marist High School in Eugene, for instance, doesn’t operate like a STEM program but has a rigorous curriculum, including high levels of science and math, which most students take.

The importance of science, technology, engineering and math at the schools likely will bloom further now that the archdiocese has adopted the Next Generation Science Standards. The standards encourage discovering connections across science and engineering — explaining what scientists do to investigate the natural world and what engineers do to design and build. They also promote disciplinary core ideas — laying forth the key ideas in science that have broad importance across disciplines.

STEM infusion

Since 2010, La Salle Prep in Milwaukie has labored to bring STEM learning to every student.

“Key objectives were to help all La Salle students develop applied creativity and innovation skills within the context of hands-on science, math, and engineering and technology design,” says Alanna O’Brien, vice principal for curriculum and professional development at La Salle.

The program has evolved since its inception. Now all freshmen are required to take project-based physics as a first-year science course. Four levels of computer science courses are also available for students to take throughout high school. And, students have the opportunity to participate in hands-on engineering mentorship programs.

“Our STEM program has become infused in the fabric of the school across required curriculum, Advanced Placement courses, elective courses, co-curricular activities, as well as our new Makerspace,” O’Brien explains.

The Makerspace, a dedicated area in the school slated to be created incrementally over the next three years, will allow students and staff to use equipment for laser cutting, 3-D printing, woodworking, jewelry making, sewing and crafting.

STEM has been successful for the students, says O’Brien. Hundreds are able to participate in STEM electives annually and a number of graduating seniors each year have completed a STEM capstone project and graduated with STEM Lasallian Scholar distinction. O’Brien adds that many STEM students have gone on to receive STEM scholarships, even the University of Oregon’s Stamps Scholarship.

This STEM focus for La Salle has affected potential students throughout the geographic area.

Just down the road at Christ the King Catholic School, Molly Drenner teaches middle school science. Four of her students in the past four years went on to receive STEM scholarships at La Salle. Drenner taught five of the seven valedictorians La Salle honored in last year’s graduating class.