Local professionals help enrich learning at St. Agnes

From left, Valeria Martinez-Mena and Jordan Ortiz, fifth-graders at St. Agnes School in Roeland Park, participate in a healthy living course led by teacher Josie Milligan. The course is part of the school’s STREAM program, which gives students hands-on learning experiences in a variety of subjects. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JOE MCSORLEY

by Moira Cullings
moira.cullings@theleaven.org

ROELAND PARK — Wednesday mornings at St. Agnes School here look more like a miniature workplace than an elementary school.

Students across the middle school hallway are sewing, building, acting and learning more about the subjects they’re passionate about.

Thanks to the school’s STREAM program — STREAM stands for science, technology, reading, engineering, arts and math — its students can now translate what they learn in the traditional classroom into real-world skills — whether it be designing a bobsled or learning about local government.

The space in which some of this new learning can now take place is called a makerspace — in St. Agnes’ case, an entire room newly dedicated to hands-on learning.

“I want to broaden [students’] experiences of what opportunities are available for them and [encourage them] to continue to dream and search for what God has planned for them,” said principal Jane Sullivan.

“They are our future,” she continued, “and we want them to be strong and faith-filled leaders for our community.”

The new makerspace doesn’t look or feel like the traditional schoolroom. And that’s on purpose.

“It is designed to be a space to look and feel different than the regular classroom,” said Sullivan.

And the space is an addition to the STREAM program, which is offered throughout the year for fifth- through eighth-grade students.

St. Agnes has already had success with this type of learning, which brings in parent volunteers and local professionals each week to implement a project pertaining to one of the STREAM courses.

“That’s one of the things that’s great about this program,” said Jo Greene, a chemical engineer at Bayer’s Crop Science division who helped with an engineering session at the school.

“The kids have chosen to be in here,” she said. “They’re all very engaged; they’re wanting to learn.”

The students receive a brochure at the beginning of the semester and have five to eight classes to choose from. They rank their choices and are guaranteed to get into one of their top three.

“They get to choose their passion and their love,” said Gena Schleimer, a seventh- and eighth-grade science teacher and STREAM coordinator.

“The kids need to know the ‘why,’” she said. “When we grew up, we were just given skills and didn’t really learn the ‘why’ until we got to college.”

This type of learning gives students a much better sense of what kind of jobs are out there, said Schleimer.

“It’s giving them that leg up to help them make a really good, thoughtful decision for future careers,” she said.

Each session tends to last five or 10 weeks and includes an introduction, a project and a final presentation.

Current sessions include a baby- sitting certification course, an acting class led by the Kansas City Repertory Theatre, and a youth ambassador course that brings students together with city employees of Roeland Park.

“To get the professionals to come in is huge,” said Sullivan. “That’s what I love about it.”

Teachers like Shannon Reel, who teaches fifth grade, are also involved. Reel’s current course teaches students how to make bobsleds.

“Our theme for the session is Olympics because with the Olympics coming up, the kids are very excited,” said Reel.

The students are able to work together to come up with ideas on how to make their bobsled as fast as possible.

“We talked about how designers don’t just sit in a box and think to themselves,” said Reel. “You have to talk and look and see what other people are doing.”

Working together and implementing the skills taught in the traditional classroom is what the program is all about, said Schleimer.

“Our engagement in our core classrooms has gone up a tremendous amount,” she said.

Between the students’ eagerness and the steady influx of volunteers, Sullivan is confident the advantages of the STREAM program and makerspace will serve the students both now and in the future.

“I think it helps the students to see and be introduced to setting goals for themselves,” said Sullivan.

“I want them to fall in love with learning and help them to have the tools to take on any challenge,” she added.

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