PROVIDENCE — At St. Thomas Regional School in Providence, students in a recent social studies class completed a unit about World War I by presenting what they had learned to fellow middle schoolers. Rather than offer a speech or poster board presentation, students performed an original musical number complete with props and lyrics explaining the causes and effects of the war. Afterward, they discussed what was most difficult and rewarding about the project, with “teamwork” coming up in both categories.
Projects like this are becoming more common at St. Thomas and elsewhere in the Diocese of Providence as more Catholic schools commit to STEAM learning, an educational movement that calls for the integration of the arts in the student’s learning experience alongside traditional STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). The method calls for an applied, hands-on teaching style that uses creative projects to help students engage with material across academic subjects.
Tom Pilecki, a national educational consultant and advocate for arts-integrated learning, and author of the book, “From STEM to STEAM,” recently visited St. Thomas to offer feedback on the school’s efforts. Pilecki sat down with St. Thomas Principal Mary DiMuccio to discuss the methods and advantages of STEAM learning in a Catholic school.
“What’s happening here is they’re using the creative process of art,” said Pilecki. “The arts enlivens their own creativity.”
Pilecki visited classrooms around the school to see how St. Thomas students were using arts-based learning to understand grade-level material. In addition to the World War I project performed by eighth graders under the direction of middle school teacher and Vice Principal Tracy Colagiovanni, Pilecki saw storybooks written, illustrated and constructed by seventh graders in literature/language arts class and “Dr. Seuss creatures” that kindergarteners made from craft materials.
“The play is a great example [of STEAM learning],” said Pilecki. “They’re writing that, researching it. It’s also getting the teachers to find their creativity. That’s why we use the arts.”
As demand for STEAM education grows, many educators are seeking out ways to better integrate project-based learning into the curriculum. Last year, the Diocese of Providence partnered with Roger Williams University to provide professional development opportunities to schools looking to create STEAM programs. More than 70 Catholic school educators attended a series of workshops on STEAM teaching methods in June and August, and one school, All Saints Academy in Middletown, was recognized by Roger Williams and the Catholic Schools Office as a “STEAM Academy” for its exemplary work.
“It’s spreading like wildfire and I love it,” said DiMuccio. “To me, it’s a very big deal what we can do here.”
According to Pilecki, Catholic schools are uniquely well-equipped to institute STEAM programs since they do not face the same testing-based curriculum requirements that can restrict new learning opportunities in public schools. A former Catholic school principal, Pilecki pointed out that Catholic educators often work with limited resources and, as a result, already use many of the creative techniques that form the core of STEAM teaching.
“That’s why Catholic schools are the best places to do this stuff,” he said. “From my experience in Catholic schools, I know. You would not be able to do that in a public school.”
Pilecki explained that STEAM is not a curriculum change, but an educational approach that emphasizes an interactive learning environment where arts and technology are seen as partner tools for project-based learning.
“STEAM is not a program,” he said. “It’s more of a mindset. We’ve lived through so many programs that are going to solve the world. STEAM is really finding the creativity in the teachers to find the creativity in the kids to get them to learn.”
For DiMuccio, STEAM presents an opportunity to engage students using the kinds of projects that may have once been reserved for art class or science experiments. The payoff, she says, is in the way students respond.
“You can see the difference in the kids,” she said. “Parents love it. It’s exciting when your kids are excited about something.”
The excitement shows on the St. Thomas website, where the words “We are full S.T.E.A.M. ahead!” indicate a program looking to grow. As St. Thomas continues to update its approach, DiMuccio hopes the school will become known for its hands-on learning environment and excellence in the arts and STEM subjects.
“I would like to see the arts piece become such a big part of what we do that people come here looking for it,” said DiMuccio.
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