C-STEM curriculum transforms St. Joe’s in Waconia

“When you drive into town, you see the steeple that’s been here for 160 years,” said Bruce Richards, principal at St. Joseph Catholic School in Waconia. “St. Joseph’s in this community helps point people to heaven. And every day we need to take a closer step to heaven and not go alone. We are not meant to be on this journey by ourselves.”

Richards started his own journey to Waconia nearly three years ago, prompted by a phone call from his brother, a Catholic priest.

“He called me on the feast of St. Joseph the Worker, and he said, ‘Bruce, after my homily today, I sat down, and I thought of you. You need to say a novena to St. Joseph,’” Richards said.

Richards started the novena, a nine-day prayer, and on the second day he learned about an opening for a principal at St. Joe’s. Two interviews later, on the ninth day of his novena, Richards was offered the job.
“And the really cool piece is, my brother’s name is Father Joe. I was saying the novena to St. Joseph, and I’m working here at St. Joe’s,” Richards said.

Upon becoming principal at St. Joe’s, Richards knew the school needed a renewal to attract new families, increase enrollment and maintain relevance in a 21st-century world. After considering several transformational instructional models, he chose an ambitious avenue: science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education. Adding a “C” for Catholic to the name of its new curriculum, St. Joseph started down the path to becoming a C-STEM school.

“Our mission is to inspire all learners to become the person God intends. We do that by integrating Catholic prayers, virtues and service with 21st-century learning,” Richards said. “That really started our STEM journey. Before we had even adopted the STEM model, we had rewritten our mission statement, and we didn’t know what that 21st-century model was going to be. So when we came across STEM, it was a really natural fit.”

Funded by a grant from the GHR Foundation and scholarships from St. Catherine University in St. Paul, St. Joseph’s entire teaching staff completed a 15-month STEM certification program at St. Kate’s.

“It transformed how we instruct,” Richards said. “And I think what teachers will say is they’re no longer the sage on the stage, they’re the guide on the side. They’re the facilitator of learning. They help kids to discover.”

C-STEM is an inquiry-based instructional model that encourages student-directed, project-based learning.

“It’s not just reading from a book,” eighth-grader Natalie Meath said. “You’re actually learning it hands-on.”

Planting the seeds

Subsidized by a matching grant from the Schulze Family Foundation, St. Joseph’s SmartLab offers students opportunities to learn skills and systems including mechanics, robotics, multimedia, circuitry and computer graphics. They complete most of their projects using computers named after scientists who became Catholic saints.

Amy Gallus, C-STEM curriculum specialist, said the students’ reaction to C-STEM has been overwhelmingly positive.

“We do more experiments and stuff in science, so it’s more fun,” eighth-grader Anthony Sazama said.

Classrooms are coming alive, energized by critical thinking, creativity, communication, collaboration — and even failure.

“It’s engaging. Kids are active. Kids are doing things,” Richards said. “Sometimes they’re doing things and struggling and failing right in front of us. And we embrace that failure and say that’s an opportunity to learn.”

Through C-STEM, students interact with the Catholic faith in a new way. During a project on water pasteurization, Gallus challenged students to consider the needs of others, explaining that one in six people worldwide do not have access to fresh water.

“They’re getting an experience at their level that’s planting the seeds,” Gallus said. “And I hope that we’re planting the seeds that are going to come to fruition when they’re the adults making decisions in the world.”

C-STEM permeates the entire culture of St. Joe’s, extending beyond the walls of the SmartLab. Teachers in specialist areas are all STEM-certified and incorporate aspects of C-STEM into their classrooms. In Mollie Olsen’s fifth-grade art class, students brought STEM into the classroom, creating art robots that could draw.

“I knew what the robot needed to look like to work, and it was amazing because they made them so different, and they worked,” Olsen said. “That was super cool to see the enthusiasm.”

Parents pleased with C-STEM

Olsen said the “C” in C-STEM makes a difference in her classroom. Students create religious art including manger scenes inspired by Vincent Van Gogh and three kings in the style of Henry Matisse.

“The faith piece, it’s big,” Olsen said.

Father Bennet Tran, pastor of St. Joseph Church, said the value of a St. Joe’s education includes faith, in addition to excellent academics and the ability to personalize learning to each student.

“The purpose of Catholic education is to help form disciples of Jesus Christ,” Father Tran said. “We have the ability to integrate our faith into every aspect of what we do. Faith is not confined to a particular time or a particular subject. Faith is not a hat that you put on and take off.”

Richards recognizes that the faith journey is not always an easy one, but he hopes that St. Joe’s helps students navigate its complexities.

“You are the sum of the choices that you make throughout your life. And when you make mistakes, it’s our job to help you learn from those mistakes. And you know what? We’re going to make them. We’re human,” Richards said he tells students. “There’s a compass, though, that we can put inside you that helps you learn, and that compass is the cardinal virtues — not the cardinal directions — of faith, hope and love.”

Richards said that faith-based education, community and STEM are three of the main reasons why families send their children to St. Joe’s.

“I think the STEM piece is really attractive to some folks now,” he said. “We’ve grown 8 percent in one year, and the change is STEM. In the last 10 years, there hasn’t been one year of growth except for this one year, which is the year between our first year of STEM and our second year of STEM.”

Shortly after launching C-STEM in the fall of 2014, St. Joe’s administered a survey to school parents to measure C-STEM’s effectiveness. In the fall of 2015 — one year later — parents completed the same survey. In 2014, 62 percent of parents agreed that C-STEM had enhanced their child’s education. That number increased to 96 percent in 2015.

“I know what we’re doing here is great. We just need to reach more people so that we can share that,” Richards said.

He also invited families to consider Catholic education for their children so they can “experience the genius of Catholicism,” a line he took from Catholic speaker and author Matthew Kelly.

“Look again. Look again at Catholic education. And I don’t mean St. Joe’s,” Richards said. “I mean Catholic education.”

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