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Merging faith and STEM at Mater Dei Academy

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Mater Dei Academy was founded eight years ago, merging two neighboring catholic schools, Immaculate Conception and Our Lady of Mount Carmel School.

Joanie Klemens attended Immaculate Conception as a child, and now serves as principal of the new school, emphasizing STEM education in a Catholic context. “We worked to make it feasible to continue Catholic education on the west end of Lake County,” she said. “We’ve been very consistent ever since we started.”

Mater Dei serves students from preschool to eighth grade. They received their STEM designation just last year, and incorporating religion and the arts into an approach they call “STREAM.” Klemens hopes that by merging a Catholic education with an emphasis on problem solving, their students will be ready for high school and beyond.

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“It’s so cross curricular,” Klemens says. “It’s really getting them ready for the real world.”

In a brand-new collaboration space called “The Launch Pad,” Mater Dei is focusing its efforts on pushing PBL and collaboration with community partners. In brand new space, students have access to 3D printers, modular furniture, and shelves full of makerspace equipment. Their first project is a design challenge to construct the strongest model arm, complete with elbow joint, to pick up a weighted cup. They are integrating this into a unit in biology, studying the human anatomy by making their own arm muscles, bones, and tendons.

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Thanks to a partnership with the Cleveland Clinic, a physical therapist visited the class, bringing along a state of the art robotic arm. “They have no problem sending people over,” Klemens said, though the students will be generating their own arms with the lower-tech materials on hand.

Klemens emphasizes the central thesis of their approach to STEM education: “We expect you to fail – First Attempt at Learning,” both in and out of The Launch Pad. They offer students the ability to retake tests to prove that they can master the material, even if it takes a few extra attempts. She also emphasizes collaboration, across the entire school, from participating in Mass to putting on the yearly musical.

How is this all fit into a Catholic education specifically? Klemens says that Mater Dei is a place to teach a faith: “whatever your parents are teaching at home, it’s reflected here at school.” In addition to weekly mass, students also have religion class. She sees the school as a family where students can support each other and are free to make mistakes while being rooted in their faith.

When they leave for high school, whether they graduate, or move out of town, Klemens aims to foster confident, collaborative students who can work with any kind of team.

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“Wherever they go, no matter what age, we want them to be able to jump right in.”

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