St. John the Baptist Catholic School

STREAM Academies enhance learning in Alden, New York, school

By Victoria R. LaFave

In their first year of STREAM education, students at St. John the Baptist School (SJB) in Alden, New York, have grown their own vegetable gardens, built robots and model roller coasters, and whipped up homemade macaroni and cheese.

With STREAM (Science, Technology, Religion, Engineering, Arts, and Math) education, students at SJB learn in a dynamic environment through in-depth study, hands-on learning, and problem solving.

The school began its STREAM-implementation process by having teachers undergo training and choose “academies,” and purchased accompanying materials from the Diocese of Buffalo, New York. Academies encompass an entire theme and include all the curriculum resources to go with it.

For example, academies students completed last school year included robotics, kitchen chemistry, and a self-created composting and gardening academy.

To help pay for costs associated with STREAM, the Diocese of Buffalo awarded grant funds to SJB. The school also allocated some of its own funds, and it received another local grant to help pay for technology, such as Chromebooks, and associated costs.

“Our teachers utilize STREAM Academies to approach areas across these subjects in a hands-on way that makes learning that much more fun and enriching,” explained SJB Principal Jonna Johnson. “We allocate specific STREAM time Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, when students learn together across grades on projects reinforcing STREAM concepts. The result is teachers and students working in concert to encourage deeper learning.”


Photo credit: courtesy of St. John the Baptist Catholic School

Students in third through fifth grades worked together to build and plant a community garden. These classes also launched a composting campaign with a compost bin built and donated by Alden High School students. Students then wrote donation letters to the community, requesting grant funds.

An after-school garden club was formed, with parents and parishioners building garden beds on Earth Day. All classes were invited to help plant the garden, and families signed up to tend it on weekends and during breaks. The garden, aptly named “The Rock Garden,” is planted on the site of the former parish convent known as “The Rock,” which was destroyed in a tragic fire.

A statue of St. Joseph, rescued from the fire and refurbished, sits at the garden’s forefront. Teachers connected the study of gardening to the pervasive problem of world hunger, the importance of clean drinking water, and sustainable food production.

During the dry summer months, students and their families watered and tended the garden. Their goal is to continue the after-school gardening club through this school year and plant new crops in the spring.


Photo credit: courtesy of St. John the Baptist Catholic School

Students also enjoyed learning with hands-on technology-related activities. The school offered an academy called “Game On,” in which students developed their own video games. SJB students in third through eighth grades all have their own school-provided Chromebooks; students in sixth grade used them to create the video games. Third-graders developed board games and shared their creations with school families, displaying them at the school’s annual Exhibition Night. At this event, students also learned a lesson in altruism. For 25 cents, people could play the students’ homemade board games. Students donated the money raised through board game play — $400 — to the local Red Cross and local Oishei Children’s Hospital.

To expand on their study of games, third- and sixth-graders took a field trip to the National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York.

According to Johnson, the school’s goal is to get students out into the community to experience the things they learn in a real-world environment. “In utilizing the STREAM initiative, our big push has been to develop our community partnerships and have our students go out into the community through field trips,” Johnson said. “Students take at least two field trips per year. It’s neat because students from several grades travel together.”

Religion and the arts

Students combined religion and the arts by studying social justice issues and finding ways to express their ideas artistically.

Under the religion theme, SJB’s religion teacher had students create pro-life projects. Students used their creativity to make posters, paint pictures, and design T-shirts and videos to explore the pro-life issue. Through their artwork, students expressed themselves, solved problems, and promoted social justice.


Photo credit: courtesy of St. John the Baptist Catholic School

To teach students engineering, the school invested in robotics and Roller Coaster U. The robotics kit came with instructional lessons, two full robots for students to assemble, and the training course. Students designed and built one of the robots during the 2017-18 school year; this year, the school offered robotics again so that more students could have the chance to put together a robot.

The roller-coaster kit gave students all the resources they needed to create their own roller-coaster track, including PVC tubing, cardboard, duct tape, marbles, and even foam pool “noodles” to make the roller coaster’s loops. In the roller-coaster building academy, students learned about stability, height, gravity, and other physics concepts that apply to roller-coaster construction.

According to Johnson, students had fun while building their robots and roller coasters and learned from their mistakes at the same time.

“Robotics and Roller Coaster U were both popular since students were actually able to build and design working robots and roller coasters,” Johnson explained. “But there was a lot of trial and error that went into building them. Students really had to work at it, evaluate their mistakes, and come up with an end product that would work.”

Students in first and second grades worked together on hands-on projects, which also included a storytelling and reading component. Teachers read aloud familiar stories, such as Little Red Riding Hood, and had students complete tasks, such as designing a trap to catch the Big Bad Wolf. Every group was given the same set of materials, and the students’ goal was to catch a stuffed wolf. If the trap did not work, students evaluated their mistakes and reworked their projects.

“Students worked in teams, collaborated, and learned to utilize everyone’s ideas,” Johnson said. “The first- and second-graders learned a lot of good problem-solving and social skills.”


Photo credit: courtesy of St. John the Baptist Catholic School

To learn about math concepts in the kitchen, students participated in “Kitchen Chem,” taught by the school’s science teacher, and in the process, they learned about healthy food choices, following directions, and making food to share. Students created new recipes, cooked, and applied their math skills by measuring and adding ingredients in the kitchen.

The best part? Students shared their finished products. The seventh-graders made homemade macaroni and cheese and pumpkin pie, donating their creations to the younger kids’ classes to enjoy for their Thanksgiving feast — but not before letting their principal try a sample.

“The macaroni and cheese, pumpkin pie, and lemon bars were awesome!” Johnson recalled. “Sampling the treats was my favorite part.”

Kindergarteners worked on LEGO U, building animal habitats and light boxes using LEGO blocks. “Students could create any sort of box that would hold an electric tea light,” Johnson explained. “Each box had to be open enough to let some light shine out. The range of shapes and colors was fantastic! No two boxes were the same, and it really reinforced the idea that we are all unique. During Lent, after discussing how Jesus is the light of the world, students used these containers as a reminder of how they are the light of the world.”

2018-2019 school year STREAM Academy

This school year, SJB’s STREAM Academy challenges students to expand their knowledge with more active learning in a new Life Cycle Academy, where students are learning about live animals, including tadpoles, crayfish, and butterflies. Students actually see a life cycle develop.

Judging by students’ excitement about the STREAM projects, Principal Johnson says the program is a success. The opportunity for hands-on learning provides students with valuable and memorable learning experiences.

“Sometimes it can be difficult to judge the success of a new program,” Johnson explained. “However, with STREAM, it has been easy. Teachers are actively collaborating to plan and design lessons, parents volunteer to come and help, and students do not want to stop working! Often I have to remind classes to get ready to go home!”

St. John the Baptist School

St. John the Baptist Catholic School, which at press time had 140 students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, is one of 40 Catholic schools in the Diocese of Buffalo, New York.

Contact information:
Phone: (716) 937-9483
Fax: (703) 978-7438
Address: 2028 Sandridge Road
Alden, NY 14004

Victoria R. LaFave writes for Today’s Catholic Teacher and for Holy Name Catholic School in Escanaba, Michigan. She has had several of her stories published in Chicken Soup for the Soul books.

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