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School's STEM Program Changes How Students, Teachers Look at Learning

Written by Eric Prister on Friday, 20 February 2015.

At St. Luke Catholic School in Palm Springs, Fla., STEM isn’t just a catchy acronym for the students work in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. STEM has become a new way of thinking, of teaching, and of learning.screen shot 2015 02 20 at 10.34.10 am

“When a student says they don’t understand, as a teacher you want to go in and point them in the right direction,” Principal Sue Sandelier said. “With [a STEM-based approach], you don’t do that; you question them and lead them to where they can figure it out. As teachers and as professionals, we’re really reflecting on how to integrate that as a faculty, and we’re supporting each other.”

Sandelier said it’s amazing how far they have come in such a short time, since it was less than two years ago that someone from the Diocese of Palm Beach approached leaders from St. Luke and Cardinal Newman High School about incorporating STEM practices into their curriculum. 

“During that time, we were talking with the high school [leaders] and they said, ‘We’d like to learn a little bit more about STEM and how we can move forward with that for our students,’” she said. “And I said, ‘I think that would be a great thing and great possibility.’ I didn’t realize the ground we’d be breaking with STEM.”

The superintendent of the diocese, Gary Gelo, put Sandelier in touch with Dr. Matt Kloser, the director of the University of Notre Dame’s Center for STEM Education. Kloser traveled to Palm Springs and hosted a visioning session with the local community, sharing with parents, teachers, and school leaders the importance and power of a well-rounded STEM education.

“From there, we really jumped into the deep end,” Sandelier said. “We have not stopped paddling since. Doing a lot of research in STEM, we began to quickly realize that we needed to make sure teachers were on board, that teachers felt comfortable in doing it, and how we could explore different programs to bring STEM into our classrooms.”

After a successful trial run with the first unit of the Engineering in Elementary curriculum, developed by the Museum of Science in Boston, St. Luke’s faculty decided to fully incorporate STEM into their curriculum. They adopted Project Lead the Way in grades K-5 and Carolina Curriculum’s Science and Technology Concepts program for the middle school.

“We’re having a lot of success with . . . solid C/B students who now seem to embrace that idea of looking for exploration, and they see a purpose to their learning,” Diann Bacchus, St. Luke’s middle school science teacher, said. Bacchus also serves as the STEM coordinator for the whole school. “I just completed my first entirely STEM-based unit, and the assessments for my sixth and eighth graders really showed that they were able to take it to the next level, and understand that I’m not just telling them what to learn, they’re exploring and telling me, and I’m more of their guide.”

St. Luke also hosted a summer robotics camp hosted by the Notre Dame STEM Center, and Bacchus said her students still talk about the concepts they learned at the camp and incorporate them into their work. Bacchus also started a STEM club and is taking twenty students to compete at a local engineering competition.

“The kids are clamoring to be a part of this,” she said. “I think a lot of that comes back to the camps we did because the kids see that it’s learning, but it’s learning in a fun way. They did more with the camp than I ever thought they would do with it, and still talk about it.”

Sandelier said that everyone in the St. Luke community—teachers, students, and parents—has embraced the incorporation of STEM into the curriculum, and that the results have been overwhelmingly positive. 

“The first grade teacher was doing the kindergarten Project Lead the Way program with her students, and they had designed a paintbrush that they were then going to use after Christmas,” Sandelier said. “When they came back from break, the teacher had set up an art center. One little girl came over to her and said, ‘I’m going to be an engineer and redo my paint brush, because it didn’t work the first time, so I want to do it again.’ That was unsolicited; it was just her thought process where the program and her teacher had led her.”

To learn more about about Notre Dame’s efforts to improve STEM education, please visit, or apply to become a Trustey Family STEM Teaching Fellow by clicking the button below.

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