O’Connor Catholic College

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O’Connor Catholic College has been heavily involved in STEM education for many years and is the only inland based school in the prestigious Universtiy of Sydney’s stem academy.  Pastoral Academic Care Coordinator and STEM teacher Mr Jon Hawthorne tells Focus the benefits of this programme and preparing students for the future.

Can you explain what STEM stands for?

The acronym STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, and it involves a cross-curriculum approach to the teaching of these subjects. True STEM education involves an interdisciplinary approach, where the focus is on finding solutions to real-world problems. It involves PBL (problem-based learning) to engage students and give them skills to live, work and learn in a rapidly changing 21st Century.

What is happening in STEM education at O’Connor?

O’Connor has been heavily involved in STEM education for over four years after the Catholic Schools Office in Armidale sent three teachers, Daniel Fittler, Regina Menz (current Principal but then CSO Consultant) and myself to a STEM Education conference in Newcastle. We immediately saw the benefits that a study in STEM could add to a student’s learning. As a result, we implemented the iSTEM elective course into our Stage 5 (Years 9 and 10) curriculum. Since then, the profile of STEM has increased in our school, where we now offer specific STEM-related learning in Years 7, 8, 9 and 10 and Engineering Studies in Years 11 and 12. In Year 7, we run a technology course called “Futuretech” which utilises Sphero robots to introduce coding skills on SMART devices such as iPads. In Year 8 we are running a cross-curricula, collaborative learning project in conjunction with the University of Sydney called upSTEM (unlimited potential STEM). This exciting project is run through University of Sydney’s STEM Academy.

Could you tell us more about the University of Sydney’s STEM Academy?

The aim of the University of Sydney’s STEM Academy is to inspire and enthuse secondary teachers of STEM subjects, enriching and reinvigorating their classroom practice and through this, to improve student engagement so that more continue to study these areas in Years 11-12 and beyond. Only ten schools were selected from the North Coast from Kempsey to Tweed Heads, and O’Connor is the only inland based school in the Academy.

Who from O’Connor is involved in the STEM Academy?

It involves three teachers from our school Stephen Chapman (Maths Coordinator), Daniel Fittler (Science/Physics Teacher) and myself from the Technology/Engineering background.

We have been involved in residential programs last year and this year and we have been asked to implement a cross-curricula project within the school and feedback our results in a presentation to the Academy. It will also involve ongoing engagement with the Academy and the University.

What sort of PBL (problem-based learning) projects will the students be involved in during the upSTEM program?

Students will basically work in groups of two or three on three different projects. The first involves building and testing spacecraft prototypes that can utilise the wind for maximum benefit and also look at designs that are aerodynamic. The second project looks at building a small prototype of a catapult that can launch a food package to a stranded community. The final major project is designing and constructing a prototype of a solar-powered ambulance that could be used to reduce child mortality rates in developing countries.

There seems to be a lot of prototyping; what does this mean?

In the “STEM” world there is a saying that we need to teach future students to “fail more to succeed more”. It took James Dyson 5,127 prototypes to design his first vacuum cleaner. A prototype is basically a model of something that can be tested, redesigned, tested, redesigned, and so on. We are trying to encourage students to test and redesign their prototypes using mathematical and scientific data. For example, in the first spaceship design project, students put their prototypes in wind tunnels and measure the results. They then base their design changes on real data. Learning how to collect and process data in the future will be an important skill.

Any final comments?

At O’Connor we are a community founded on faith and focused on learning. We see STEM as an excellent way to encourage creative and critical thinking in a fun and authentic way. The project-based learning approach gives students the opportunity to solve real-world problems integrating learning from a range of different subject areas. At O’Connor we are committed to developing the skills needed to help students become creative, confident and informed individuals ready to make a difference in our world.

Thanks Jon.

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