Detroit Catholic schools explore STEM immersion at Notre Dame-sponsored workshop

Students from Madison Heights Bishop Foley High School's “Foley Freeze” FIRST Robotics team compete at a Detroit District competition in this 2013 file photo. On May 10, teachers and administrators from 15 Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Detroit gathered for a workshop to learn more about how to become STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) focused schools. (Courtesy of Bishop Foley High School)

Focus on science, math and technology another option as local schools explore transformation under 'Unleash the Gospel'

DETROIT — Just what does it actually mean to be a “STEM school?”

Just about every school teaches science and math, and many have a robotics club or a computer coding class. But does that make them “STEM (which stands for science, technology, engineering and math) schools”?

Matt Kloser, associate professor at the University of Notre Dame and director of the university’s Center for STEM Education, spoke with educators from across the Archdiocese of Detroit at a workshop May 10 at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.

“When we talk about STEM education, do we understand what we mean, why we do what we do, and what educational outcomes we’re looking for?” Kloser asked educators.

“We shouldn’t be hanging banners saying, ‘We’re a STEM school’ until we know what that means,” Kloser said. “We can no longer silo our disciplines. Are we still going to have math class? Probably, but with an interdisciplinary approach, looking at the bigger problems of the day and posing questions to those problems.”

Kloser explained that STEM-immersion Catholic schools must take an integrative approach to education, maintaining their Catholic identity while incorporating local industries and environments into the daily curriculum, promoting collaboration across disciplines to create one, coherent lesson plan to get kids to use all facets of science, technology, engineering and math to look at the world.

A stained-glass window inside University of Detroit Jesuit High School's new STEM center emphasizes the relationship of faith with the sciences and math. (Courtesy of University of Detroit Jesuit)

“Some would ask, ‘Why is a STEM focus at a Catholic school important?'” Kloser said. “We are all made in the image and likeness of God, and we are sparked with a natural curiosity. To create a common good, to make the world a more equitable and just place, we can do it through STEM education, and that is a motivating message to parents, students and leaders.”

Administrators and teachers from 15 Metro Detroit Catholic schools attended the workshop to learn how to expand their current STEM programs and incorporate newer STEM principles into the classroom.

Kevin Kijewski, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of Detroit, said the schools who attended are looking to explore whether a STEM-focused education fits their school's mission and vision. 

“'Unleashing Our Catholic Schools,’ our brand-new mission in the Archdiocese of Detroit, charges our schools to be academically excellent, and STEM education, just like classical education or dual-language immersion, is one of several value propositions that our schools can pick,” Kijewski said.

Kijewski said STEM-immersed schools aren’t abandoning subjects in the liberal arts, such as reading, writing and history, but rather are researching how their curriculum can prepare students for the jobs of tomorrow while maintaining a focus on Christ.

“Every school is a little different in their approach, but it all leads to the same pathway, toward Christ and a knowledge of the truth,” Kijewski said. “We don’t want to have a competition between Catholic schools, but we want all our schools to have the compelling value proposition that Jesus Christ is the center of what we do, and through STEM-focused courses, we can communicate that value to our students.”

Kloser told teachers STEM-related classes can enhance the missionary outlook of the school, taking lessons learned in the classroom and applying them to the wider community.

For instance, local issues discussed at the workshop included analyzing the water quality as affected by runoff into the Clinton River, the impact of PFAS-tainted soil on former industrial sites, and the effect of the Marathon gas refinery in southwest Detroit on local air quality.

Teachers brainstorm ways STEM education can impact students' futures during an exercise May 10 at a University of Notre Dame-sponsored workshop at Sacred Heart Major Seminary. (Dan Meloy | Detroit Catholic) 

Kloser said having a STEM-focused education is about more than just “having a robotics club or a 3D printer and calling that a STEM program, but developing a pedagogy that combines various disciplines to offer a more complete education.”

“We want to see teachers draw on rich themes from their local community to observe, analyze and solve local problems and have students develop various skills,” Kloser said.

Kloser added that in a STEM-focused curriculum, non-STEM courses such as religion, history, literature and art aren’t relegated, but are brought into discussions about how science and technology have an impact in the world.

Amanda Beach, who teaches sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade science and history at St. Clare of Montefalco School in Grosse Pointe Park, said the workshop was a chance to analyze where the school stands with STEM education.

“I realized we do a lot of STEM-related things already, but we just didn’t have a name for them yet,” Beach said. “I’ve been behind the big push for STEM, because that is what I learned in college, and is what I was taught to teach. But I want to get even more involved in it.”

As both a science and a history teacher — in addition to teaching seventh-grade religion — Beach stressed being a STEM school doesn’t mean abandoning the liberal arts in education, but rather, integrating the courses when applicable.

“In my science classes, we are always combining art with the sciences, or collaborating with the music teacher to do a project on how different instruments make different sounds and using mathematics to chart the sound. For me, it’s about combining the resources we already have and encouraging more overlap.”

“I’m coming from an interesting perspective, when talking about ‘left brain’ versus ‘right brain.’ I’m very artistic, even when doing things like math and science,” Beach said. “In my science classes, we are always combining art with the sciences, or collaborating with the music teacher to do a project on how different instruments make different sounds and using mathematics to chart the sound. For me, it’s about combining the resources we already have and encouraging more overlap.

“A lot of times, my kids come up to me in science class and they will tell me something they learned in English class, or how something they learned about the Industrial Revolution in history is something we’re talking about in science,” Beach continued. “So that inter-disciplinary approach isn’t new; it just could be more organized and further expanded upon. We need to provide a way to educate the whole child.”

Kijewski said while the 15 schools gathered at the workshop were there to explore whether STEM might be a good fit, it might not be long before the Archdiocese of Detroit sees its first STEM-immersed school.

“We’re proposing a changing methodology to guide schools into transitioning into STEM schools, but leaving it up to the school to decide how they do that,” Kijewski said. “The archbishop is big believer in doing this well, because we want to unleash the potential of our Catholic schools so our students can be ready to unleash the Gospel.”