Saint Alexis School Bolsters STREAM Curriculum

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It’s all the rage to claim that students in a particular school will be presented with a curriculum that supports a STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – model. Sciences and math are crucial components to education. But they are not the only important aspects of a well-rounded curriculum model. At Saint Alexis School in Wexford the integration of STREAM – science, technology, reading and religion, engineering, art and math – encompasses all areas of education needed to succeed in high school and beyond.

The STREAM model is not new for private and especially Catholic elementary schools,” Saint Alexis principal Jim Correll explains. “We have been incorporating all of these elements since our inception more than 50 years ago. But we’re more vocal about it now because it’s important for parents and prospective families to understand that we offer the traditional STEM fields of study and more. We haven’t lost sight of the importance of developing excellent readers, writers and communicators, exploring the artistic sides of our students and sharing the importance of our faith.”
Just in the past two to three years, Saint Alexis School faculty have continued to refine offerings within the science and math departments and have created several extra-curricular programs to bridge the gap between the primary and middle school programs. For example, the after-school robotics program is open to students from kindergarten through eighth grade. The upper grades are working with robotics and mechanics, and the younger students have been presented with tasks to create specific items from Lego parts including the traditional bricks, wheels, windows, etc. Eighth-grade students help monitor the younger students’ progress on a weekly basis, which provides not only a way to foster a relationship among the older and younger students but also gives the younger students an opportunity to learn from their more experienced counterparts.
Another refinement in the science program is the addition of fifth-grade students preparing and executing an independent, fully researched science fair project. The fifth graders, as well as sixth- through eighth-grade students, create their questions, collect background information, form hypotheses and perform and analyze a testable experiment. The younger students are held to the same criteria as their older middle school colleagues and are judged as part of the science fair on their standard tri-fold board presentation and individual interviews with the judges. Several sixth- through eighth-grade projects are then selected to continue to the Pittsburgh Regional Science and Engineering Fair where their work competes against more than 1,000 other middle and high school students.
The science fairs and robotics programs along with the school’s participation in the National Fluid Power Association Hydraulic Challenge and Future City competitions are just a few examples of how the traditional STEM model works at Saint Alexis. For those students who prefer a different challenge and are more reading, religion and arts focused, Saint Alexis also participates in the annual English Festival, and the school’s Forensics team competes in the Southwestern Pennsylvania Forensics League. The school annually sends a participant to the Diocesan Spelling Bee, and the eighth-grade students routinely submit entries into the Roberto Clemente writing contest sponsored by the Pittsburgh Pirates. In 2014, a Saint Alexis student wrote the winning entry. The concentration on creative writing doesn’t begin in middle school. Elementary language arts teachers begin submitting their third- and fourth-grade writing projects to programs and contests both locally and nationally.
Making the STREAM model work for as long as it has at Saint Alexis would be impossible without the commitment of the administration and faculty. Support for education on all fronts cannot be accomplished without the combined decades of teaching experience at the school. The faculty boasts three Pittsburgh diocesan Golden Apple teachers – Mrs. Kim Van Kooten in kindergarten, Mrs. Mary Smolter in middle school math and social studies, and the most-recent addition, the 2015 Golden Apple awardee Mrs. Nicole Maxwell in middle school language arts. The faculty works together with middle school science and math teachers coordinating programs with kindergarten and other primary grades. In addition to working across grade levels, cross-curricular units are established in the middle school in the areas of social studies and language arts with units on The Holocaust and the Medieval era among others.
“It’s a balance of traditional and innovative,” Principal Correll says. “Our teachers are constantly looking for new ways to present material to the students. Learning about the Holocaust is one thing, but to experience it in more depth is another, which is why we now take our eighth-grade students to The Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., to complete the interdisciplinary unit. It’s an emotional, thought-provoking finish to an intense subject.”
The difference between a public school touting a STREAM curriculum and a Catholic school is one of the “Rs” in the acronym. Religion does play a significant role in the daily life of a Saint Alexis School student. Established not just as a private school option more than five decades ago, Saint Alexis adheres firmly to its Catholic tradition. Students, faculty and staff pray together several times a day beginning with morning announcements and ending with a final prayer before the first child is dismissed from the building. Students as young as first grade lead and participate in the weekly Mass. By having exceptionally young students fulfill roles as readers and gift bearers during Mass, the children learn not only the importance of participation but also these roles build confidence at a young age. When they are reading in front of their peers, parents and other parishioners at the age of seven, they are learning that that they are able to accomplish anything.
STEM and STREAM curriculum models vary by school districts and individual schools. But Saint Alexis School has maintained its commitment to the STREAM philosophy since its founding. Along the way, teachers and administrators have tweaked and modified as times have necessitated, but a Saint Alexis Catholic School education delivers excellence in all facets – science, technology, reading, religion, engineering, the arts and math. F