By Michca Ballard-Fortin
STEM: an acronym for an educational program designed to prepare students for college and graduate study in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The original baseline of STEM studies aims to engage a student’s inquiring mind, foster logical reasoning, and develop collaboration and team-building skills. Once thought to be an advanced or progressive course of study, curriculums adapted around the STEM modality have proven to be necessary in any academic programming that strives to be exceptional. Students who are exposed to science and math in an engaging environment learn valuable lessons and skills for their future in any fields.
An example of STEM in action is quite literally on display in the classrooms at Bishop Ludden Jr./Sr. High School in Syracuse. Started as a Keystone Senior Project in the Fall of 2015, Bishop Ludden has captured student interest with an aquaponics project. The project was created to fulfill a graduation requirement and has led to a long-term initiative that is now being monitored and cared for by the next group of students.
Faculty advisors Karen McDonald, science, and Maxine Babcock, library, encouraged and supported three students as they built an aquaponics aquarium. The students applied for a grant for the startup money, built the aquarium and worked together to figure out the chemistry, learning how to monitor and maintain the fish and fauna inside. The students were recognized by local media for the creativity and skills they used to complete and maintain the fish in the project. Admittedly, the fish smell was overwhelming in some locations, but the aquarium has found a permanent home in a well-ventilated part of the school that is close to water and gives a new group of high school students a project to maintain.
In addition to being a great Senior Keystone Project, aquaponics has become the catalyst for students taking chances on other new STEM ideas. Students in the high school already had the Physics Club, Chemistry Club and the Science Olympiad, and with the buzz about aquaponics, Principal Brenda Reichert encouraged the faculty to continue to foster ideas from the students.
Armed with a financial sponsorship referral, Reichert went to her teachers and offered to support a robotics team. Babcock enlisted the support of science teacher Jennifer Andrews, new to the faculty, to build a first Bishop Ludden Robotics Team for the First Lego League program. The team was comprised of mostly middle school students who met once a week with Andrews and Babcock and FLL advisor Andrew Leary, an outside parent volunteer and member of the CNY Science & Robotics Association who has stepped up and sponsored the school’s FLL Robot Kit. They went on to build a robot and compete in a FLL competition. Not only was the group successful in working as a team to guide a robot on a mission, the advisors noticed that both boys and girls in many grade levels were showing interest in the other STEM extracurricular activities offered periodically.
This growing list of STEM extracurricular offerings is only possible because of the dedication of seasoned faculty like Dr. William Burnett, science, and Babcock, in addition to newer faculty like Andrews and Kyle Tierney, mathematics. Faculty connections and professional networks have offered Bishop Ludden student groups the opportunity to partner with East Syracuse-Minoa’s Chemistry Club to take on the Museum of Science and Technology Rocket Technological Association Central New York challenge this year and coordinate next summer’s Robotics Summer Camp to be bigger than before.
Participation in STEM Club adds to college resume building and demonstrates students overall commitment to their studies. The advisors hope that students with varied interests get involved in STEM Club activities, noting that is takes may different skills and interests — like journalism, social media, blogging, data monitoring — to work on a science team.
Michca Ballard-Fortin is the proud parent of two students in the Diocesan Catholic Schools.