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Catholic Schools Add 'R' for Religion to Turn STEAM to STREAM

For Roman Catholic schools seeking to differentiate themselves from the pack, STREAM's the word.

This is the second year of a National Catholic Educational Association initiative to promote science, technology, religion, engineering, arts, and math — that's STREAM — in Catholic schools. 

STEM — short for science, technology, engineering, and math — has been a buzzword and a policy focus for nearly a decade, part of an effort from educators, policymakers, and businesses to bring attention to a set of subjects where U.S. students' test scores lagged behind some international peers'. STEM often embraces its creative side to become STEAM, as schools and educators emphasize the potential for interdisciplinary connections between arts and the STEM subjects.

For some Catholic educators, however, even STEAM wasn't interdisciplinary enough.

"We realized no initiative could fully meet the needs of our constituency unless the R was put in," said Heather Gossart, director of special projects, including the STREAM initiative, for the National Catholic Education Association. The NCEA represents 6,568 Catholic schools enrolling 1.9 million students around the country.

"STEM evolved into STEAM, and we thought, this is actually wonderful. But in our Catholic schools, faith is always the foundation of everything we do," said Gossart. "The R is for religion."

Thus, religion joined arts and the original STEM subjects, and STREAM was born. 

The NCEA's description of the 10 characteristics of a STREAM school begins by saying that schools should "integrate Catholic identity into every aspect of the curriculum." The characteristics also include a commitment to innovation and inclusiveness. 

ncea_stream.pngGossart says that some schools have had elements of the STREAM curriculum in place for several years. The NCEA held its first symposium about STREAM education in 2014. The association does not provide specific lessons or standards for STREAM. But at the symposium, teachers and principals learn from experts and share successful examples of lessons that integrate all components of STREAM. 

Gossart gave an example of a unit about monarch butterflies that tied together learning about migratory paths and the obstacles that the insects face, tracking those migratory paths, creating a collage, and tying it all to a papal encyclical focused on protecting and preserving the world. She said such student-centered, interdisciplinary projects are, anecdotally, boosting students' engagement and parents' satisfaction.

Gossart estimates that approximately half of all Catholic schools are now using some components of STREAM education.

As the 2015-16 school year begins, schools in Michigan, New Jersey, New York, and Indiana made news with their new STREAM initiatives.

In Michigan, one school's principal, Dayna Jayson of St. Patrick Catholic School in White Lake, tells The Oakland Press that "STREAM is not a new curriculum...but a framework for creative instruction." 

In New Jersey, the Cranberry Eagle reports that at Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic High School, students will take four years of theology courses and be required to take art electives. 

And in Indiana, Fox 59 reports that that Our Lady of Grace Catholic School in Noblesville plans to incorporate "a values-based foundation into the STEM curriculum." Indiana is home to a school voucher program that has allowed thousands of students to attend Catholic schools on publicly funded scholarships.

Gossart says Catholic schools are showing that "not only can we hold our own and more in terms of academic rigor, but it's all done in a safe and values-based system." Catholic schools have seen enrollment decline dramatically in recent decades, but Gossart said much of that decline is due to finances, not academic concerns.

The focus on science in Catholic schools meshes with broader trends in the church. While teaching certain scientific concepts, such as evolution and climate change, in schools has drawn fire from some religious groups (and state legislatures), Pope Francis has been a strong public advocate for science. Earlier this year, he made international news by saying that climate change is partly caused by human activity.  

"The Holy Father has spoken about protecting our environment and our moral responsibility to be stewards of this world," Gossart said. "If he was teaching in a classroom, we'd want him to wear a STREAM shirt. He's preaching the interrelationship and interdependency we all have."

There have been other pushes to turn the STEM acronym from a branch to a body of water via the addition of another subject: reading (or sometimes writing, written as wRiting)

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