Science, Technology, Engineering and Math education have a lasting impact on students’ lives. To make sure all students are given their best chance to succeed, St. Bernard High School offers the only single-gender STEM program within a Catholic co-educational setting in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Heather Carmody, STEM Coordinator and STEM Department Chair at St. Bernard High School, spoke with us about their STEM program and how it enhances the student experience and helps foster a love of science and mathematics in students.
Tell me about your school.
Our school was built in 1957, so we are in our 60th Anniversary year. We are located in Los Angeles, right in the middle of Silicon Beach, an up-and-coming tech hub. There are quite a few tech startups in Southern California, and many are located in our corner of the city near LAX and Silicon Beach. For STEM especially, we try to reach out to some of the professionals in the aerospace industry and computer coding tech companies to get them involved with our school in various ways. We have about 270 students, and our student body is a very ethnically and socio-economically diverse group from all areas of Los Angeles.
We have a very nice community at St. Bernard High School, and the students get along well with each other. Some students are in classes with mixed grade levels; for example, I teach Chemistry, and I have some classes with sophomores, juniors and seniors. It just depends on where they are with their academic progress and in what order they choose to take their upper division science courses. For example, students have the freedom to choose to take Marine Biology before Chemistry, or to take Geometry over the summer so that they can take Chemistry as a sophomore. Students can follow the traditional structure or can take some of their classes in a different order. Because of this and because of their participation in athletics, students get to know kids in other grades, rather than just hanging out with students in their own grade levels.
How do you involve the surrounding technology community in your STEM program?
We host STEM events throughout the year; our biggest event is our annual STEM Summit. The Aerospace Corporation is one of our main sponsors and helps us put on the event by sending some of their engineers to work with our students. With the help of the engineers, our high school students complete engineering projects and act as leaders for groups of middle school students completing the same projects. For the past couple of years, the students have built bridges out of balsa wood and have then load-tested their creations. We’ve held our STEM Summit event for the past three years, and every year it grows. Last year, we had about 40 of our high school students and about 80 middle schoolers participate in the event. This year we are looking to coordinate some other events to get our kids even more involved in STEM.
We often bring in professionals from STEM industries to work with our students, and we have hosted science speakers on our campus, including Heal the Bay, The Aerospace Corporation and cybersecurity experts from Ernst & Young. Each year at our STEM Summit event, we are honored to work with General Kevin P. Chilton, a NASA astronaut who is one of our St. Bernard High School alumni. General Chilton flew two missions as pilot on the Space Shuttle Endeavour, and a third mission as Commander of the Space Shuttle Atlantis.
What sort of classes are in your STEM program?
Our science courses include Biology, Physical Science, Chemistry, Physics, Marine Biology, AP Biology, AP Environmental Science and AP Chemistry. Our mathematics courses include Algebra 1, Geometry, Algebra 2, Trigonometry/Pre-Calculus, Probability and Statistics and AP Calculus. We try to offer as many upper-level STEM classes as possible to give students the opportunity and incentive to keep moving forward in their STEM education — rather than just stopping at the required number of classes. We have many students who have been motivated to continue on to the higher-level STEM courses, and we were able to offer all three AP sciences this year because there was so much demand for these upper division courses.
Why is a single-gender STEM program useful?
Our goal is to close the gender gap in STEM and to keep inspiring the girls, and the boys, to be more interested in pursuing STEM majors and careers in the future. Our single-gender program helps to eliminate distractions for the students. Boys and girls work and learn in different ways, and a variety of instructional strategies allow us to meet their learning needs. We try to build their confidence, help them develop their interest in STEM and teach them how to be independent life-long learners. The students still have the co-educational experience in their other classes, so it is really the best of both worlds. It has worked out well for us over the past four years.
Do you have a 1:1 program?
We are gradually building our 1:1 program. Last year, we began a 1:1 iPad® program with our freshmen, and this year we have expanded the program to include the freshman and sophomores. Eventually, the goal is to have a 1:1 program across the board.
Do you use more digital course materials or more textbooks?
Most classes still use traditional textbooks, but we do have some students, especially those who have the 1:1 iPads, who are opting for eBooks. As we continue to build the 1:1 program, it will be easier for our students to effectively use eBooks for their courses.
How do you incorporate technology into the classroom?
We have Apple TVs® and projectors in every classroom, and the faculty members have iPads so that we can project PowerPoints, videos and various other lesson materials. In addition to the one-to-one iPad program for freshmen and sophomores, we also have Chromebooks™ and iPads that can be used in class by the students who are not part of the one-to-one program. Our teachers find creative ways to enhance instruction using technology. For example, in our freshman biology courses, before the students do real dissections, they often complete a virtual dissection on the iPads to become familiar with some of the tools and techniques that will be used. In my Chemistry courses, I have had my students use an app to build atoms as they were learning about protons, neutrons and electrons. We often use the Google Drive, Google Docs and Google Slides apps, and almost every teacher uses either Google Classroom or Schoology as their learning management system. I have been using Schoology in my classes this year. It allows me to post lesson resources and materials and even online quizzes and assignments for my students.
How do you help encourage students to try STEM classes?
We have a lot of students who haven’t necessarily considered being involved in anything STEM-related, but then after they get involved, they discover that they really do enjoy it. When students have the opportunity to participate in STEM projects and events, they start to see how interesting it really can be, and how applicable STEM is in the world. Because of this, we try to offer various STEM programs for our students throughout the year.
For the STEM Summit event, we invited students to participate based on nominations from teachers. A couple of kids who were nominated came to talk to me about the engineering project because they had never participated in anything like it before. They were worried that they wouldn’t be any good at designing and building a structure. I told them to try it anyway, and that they might surprise themselves in the process. Sure enough, some of those same students who had doubted their own abilities ended up creating some of the best designs in the group. This experience really helped to build their confidence, and since then, they have continued to participate and thrive in our school’s STEM programs.
It is so important for students to have the opportunity to participate in STEM projects in high school. It gives students the opportunity to determine if they are interested in pursuing STEM majors and careers in the future. Even for students who are not planning to pursue STEM careers, the problem-solving and critical thinking skills they develop through their participation in STEM will help prepare them for whatever career path they choose.