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(TNS) — Where one woman leads, another will follow.
Our Sisters' School, a tuition-free, all-girls middle school serving grades 5 through 8, has been engraining the importance of a well-rounded STEAM education in students for the past few years.
STEAM curriculum focuses on science, technology, engineering, arts and math instruction. Traditionally, it was known as STEM learning, but arts has recently been introduced to the mix. OSS has welcomed the new curriculum with open arms to help break the glass ceiling in male-dominated fields.
"We're talking about 10-year-olds," said Tobey Eugenio, creativity director and art/STEAM teacher. "They haven't yet formed the opinion that they can't do this."
Since arriving at OSS in 2015, Eugenio has been a part of a vision to open the curriculum to more than just academics. Before, the school didn't know what a STEAM curriculum entailed, as they only had a "crafts and snacks" class. There was no budget for food or resources, no supplies and STEM was just transitioning to STEAM. The "Maker Space" was created where students could design and build creatively.
Head of School Sarah Herman said that instead of creating ants on a log with celery and peanut butter with raisins, students were allowed to use any materials collected organically and have fun imaginatively bringing their ideas to life.
Once a robotics club was introduced to students interested in coding, the program began to build momentum. Herman said the kids couldn't get enough. Through grants, the school acquired iPads, and by the time they had enough for every student, Herman said they couldn't take them out of their hands, but in the best way possible. The first graduates of the STEAM curriculum were able to complete projects for their humanities classes using technology to create videos on their Chromebooks.
"They had confidence and the ability to be more creative," Herman said. "They were able to respond more powerfully to high school level of expectations."
So much so, that when a group of students competed at the high school level in Greater Boston for a team building and leadership event, all 20 students not only engaged in conversation, but presented with confidence, Eugenio said. They competed against co-ed high school students and found innovative ways to solve problems.
"When we saw that, we knew we were onto something," Herman said. "It's the perfect marriage of knowing it's something our kids are interested in and setting them up for success in high school and college. It's worth investing in."
With grants from organizations like the Women's Foundation of Boston, OSS has been able to incorporate more STEAM-related activities and lessons. In the fall, the school was able to build a greenhouse and outdoor classroom. Recently, the school was awarded a grant of $175,386 over three years for a new science teacher to increase science instruction, as well as enhance the existing greenspace.
"Working together [with WFOB]...it's been so awesome to be able to dream," Eugenio said.
Beyond robotics, the girls have obtained knowledge through "tools rather than toys" with the laser printer and cutter, tablets, bristle bots and more. They have become incredibly well-versed in programs like Arduino, Python, CNC router and coding software. Eugenio is a part of a team of four teachers and volunteers who are helping break stereotypes for these young girls.
"It's important to teach them at younger ages and make them much more attainable," Eugenio said.
By the eighth grade, students are familiar with the creative suite, which includes the STEAM classroom, arts classroom, and video/audio lab. Students learn how to make a difference in the world and then implement it into the community.
This year, to emphasize the importance of antiracism, students developed a learning kit using the Cricut maker and spreadsheets. One student created an antiracist book and Black Lives Matter stickers and distributed them throughout the community to promote activism.
Another student used an iPad to create a "We Are Human" poster with a QR code in the corner. Once scanned, the QR code prompted resources to honor all humans. The student brought copies of the poster downtown and asked storefronts to hang it in their windows for passing residents. Eugenio said not only did that student learn how to use and apply STEAM skills to make a cultural difference, but also learned life skills of how to handle acceptance or denial to a request.
"We're not only preparing them for real life, it is real life," Eugenio said. "We're not stuck in a 2-D curriculum. Teach the skills, but teach the process of using those skills."
In addition, OSS has taken their training and brought it to middle school conferences to help others.
"OSS doesn't keep this stuff to ourselves," Eugenio said. "It's important to branch beyond."
In a world that is constantly changing with technology, OSS keeps up with new lessons by bringing in retirees in engineering fields or reaching out to the community for content specific advice.
"When your mission is really important, it's really easy to involve others," Eugenio said. "We keep being open to curriculum and volunteer teachers, there's a high interest."
The WFOB has been heavily involved with the growth of the STEM curriculum at OSS because it's a women-helping-women initiative.
"Thirty percent of college women major in STEM compared to 60 percent of men," said Christina Gordon, WFOB Co-Founder and CEO. "Incorporating it now, it drives them to those majors. Economically empowering women and girls starts with education in middle and high school."
By granting OSS the money to expand its STEAM program to the outdoors, it helped pave the way for young girls to be less afraid of those statistics and feel more confident with their academic capabilities.
"The earlier girls are exposed to STEAM, the more confident they are in the classroom," Gordon said. "Funneling grant money into women and girls has a multiplier effect. Women reinvest money into their families. If you raise an economic status, everything is elevated and improved."
The WFOB only funds women and girls-serving organizations, not co-ed.
When the laser cutter was first introduced, Eugenio said there was some reluctance, but after jumping in, everyone did it with confidence. She said OSS girls are some of the first to volunteer and engage, to not be afraid to raise their hands.
Herman noticed that when an activity requires participants, it's easy for girls to step back and let boys take the lead. In an all-girls school, girls are waiting for other girls to initiate.
"All students are girls," Herman said. "Anytime a problem is solved or a student steps backward or forward, it's always a girl. All-girls mean no matter what, a girl will be building capacity."
Currently, there are opening for the incoming fifth-grade class. Girls as young as 10 years old can participate in STEAM programs to build confidence in all aspects of their lives. Open House is on Saturday, June 26 at 10 a.m.
"Not only do they feel confident, but they feel the desire and commitment to help others," Eugenio said.
For this upcoming summer programming, a former student reached out to help volunteer. "Not only do they feel confident, but they feel the desire and commitment to help others," Eugenio said.
©2021 The Standard-Times, New Bedford, Mass. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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