STREAM encourages teamwork

Elliot Farabaugh uses Lego blocks in class as part of his STREAM courses. / Photo for the Mirror by Matthew Callan

Cristopher Diaz, a seventh-grader at Holy Trinity Catholic Middle School, thought he’d learn more about science and math when he heard he’d be taking a STREAM class, but the first year’s biggest takeaway turned out to be something he didn’t expect.

Diaz thought the STREAM course, which at Holy Trinity stands for Science, Technology, Religion, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics, would have Lego toys because the teachers had said that.

Legos are used to teach students how pieces go together to create a whole thing. Assembling the toys also helps show the kids how to solve problems, said Don Gibboney, Holy Trinity’s current STREAM teacher. Meltem DiLeo started the program three years ago.

“Nothing is set up, I don’t give them a set of instructions,” Gibboney said. “They’re just given a challenge and they have to work through it.”

But the biggest takeaway for Diaz didn’t come from the nifty things he and his classmates got to work with, or the freedom they had, not tied to the usual desks. The STREAM room bears little resemblance to the traditional classroom.

Instead, it has all kinds of gadgets and gizmos most at mid-project stage, plus computers and other machines mostly donated by corporations or bought by grants.

Yet, despite all the different things he saw or worked on that first year, Diaz still recalls the intangible life lesson that still guides him today.

“To me, the thing that I remember, the biggest thing that I learned from that first year, is that you need teamwork to make something work,” he said. “If you do things in a team, it will be easier to complete.”

The teamwork concept has served Diaz and his classmates well.

All Holy Trinity school’s students, from the kindergartners to the eighth-graders, take the STREAM course on a regular basis. Teachers in other subjects weave the basic ideas into their lesson plans, too.

But some middle school students like Diaz are really into the STREAM concept and decide to take it as an elective course.

Those students have participated in several competitions testing their skills against other schools that have STEM and variations of the STEM curriculum. The Holy Trinity team took first place in two categories in an IEEE Ford Robotics challenge organized by Penn State University last year and participated in an Altoona Area School District Robotics competition in 2018 taking second place.

Last month, Holy Trinity Middle School students took part in their second First Lego League competition at Altoona Area Junior High School and took fourth place in the robotics division.

One of the projects they displayed at the competition is part of an ongoing schoolwide salute to the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. It’s a gear-powered workout bar that allows astronauts to exercise in space, the students said. According to re­searchers, humans lose one-half percent to 1 percent of their muscle and bone density every week that they’re in space, so they need to work out.

NASA has developed work out gear so that astronauts can exercise in space, said Nicholas McCloskey, a sixth-grader at Holy Trinity who helped make the workout bar.

“But it takes up the whole room and it’s really heavy,” McCloskey said.

In contrast, the students’ workout bar that cycles through a series of exercises is lightweight and compact.

But even if they didn’t win with their workout bar, the students are still enthusiastic about it and think NASA should have a look. Besides, they’re ready to tackle more challenges.

“Some of the missions weren’t so great,” said fifth-grader Evan Burke. “But we learn from our mistakes.”

Although Elaine Spencer, the school’s principal, said both the school board and the parents have really supported the STREAM program, others might think that the students are getting too much math and science and not enough of the fine arts.

With regular art and music classes plus field trips to musical performances, the students have plenty of access to the arts, Spencer said. She also agreed with Gibboney that art and creativity work well with the STEM model.

Gibboney said his students have found beauty in the 3-D designs they make using computer programs.

“I like how you don’t have to stay on a strict path, you can go down more creative paths if you want and explore new ways to do things,” said fifth-grader Kaitlyn Link.

Although many of the Holy Trinity Middle School students who are taking the STREAM elective course see themselves as an engineer someday, they have other interests, with several playing sports and musical instruments.

Sixth-grader Nicholas McCloskey said he’d like to be an architectural engineer. His appreciation of the architectural beauty and design of structures demonstrates the STREAM connection between art and engineering, Gibboney said.

“I like to look at bridges, how they’re supported, how they look, how they’re designed,” he said.

Several area universities such as Penn State Altoona and Saint Francis Uni­ver­si­ty have helped Holy Trinity with its STREAM endeavor such as by sending people to talk to the students about their professions, Spencer said.

“They have really been a big part of this program,” she said.