By Michael Gresham
The Texas Catholic
Animated conversations created a buzz throughout the classroom in early December as groups of fourth graders crowded around circuit-boards in Santa Clara of Assisi Catholic Academy’s new STEM lab.
“It makes science more fun,” said Sidney Arpero, a Santa Clara fourth grader. “We get to learn a lot of new things and to do a lot of new things. It’s really made me like science.”
For the students, the day’s lesson focused on understanding how a circuit works. Done correctly, a light bulb came on the board. The same outcome could be said for the students.
“You can definitely see that light bulb click in their minds when they realize what they are doing,” said Carolina Soto, who serves as the STEM lab teacher. “It’s all about them getting some hands-on, real-world experience on how what they are learning applies outside the classroom.”
A grant from the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund Assistance to Private Schools program, better known as Texas GAPS, made it possible for Santa Clara of Assisi Catholic Academy to open the STEM lab in August 2023.
“This lab supports our students in hands-on experiments and projects in science, technology, engineering, and math,” said Lora Watson, principal of Santa Clara of Assisi Catholic Academy. “Our plan is to expand to STREAM, which will include religion and art in the curriculum. Students are genuinely excited and actively engaged in building projects and learning about careers in science, math, and engineering.”
Watson said the addition of the new lab only adds to the mission of the school, allowing faculty and staff to “support the full growth of each person in a bilingual community of academic excellence and Catholic values.”
“We are supporting a bilingual community because we are the only dual-language academy in the Dallas diocese,” Watson said. “The STEM lab is rooted in strong Catholic values by following the words of Saint Clare of Assisi, ‘Love God. Serve God.’ In turn, academic excellence is expected daily through rigorous classroom engagement and student outcomes.”
Watson said the Santa Clara of Assisi Catholic Academy staff and community are “very proud and blessed” to have a state-of-the-art STEM lab on campus.
“Visitors and donors are always given tours of the lab and observe students collaboratively creating projects with the technical equipment and devices,” she said. “Our goal is to attract more families and grow the academy by offering STEM nights and scheduling school tours.”
Answering the call
According to Watson, several candidates were interviewed for the STEM lab teacher position, but the school could not find the right fit until Father Paolo Capra, pastor of Santa Clara of Assisi Catholic Parish, recruited Soto.
“Carolina turned out to be the perfect candidate for the STEM lab because of her strong Catholic faith and expertise in the math and science fields,” said Watson, noting that Soto has a bachelor of science degree with a concentration in molecular biology from the University of Dallas and will graduate in May 2024 with a master’s degree of science in biomedical engineering from the University of Texas at Arlington. “She is truly committed to delivering rigorous levels of instruction and making it an exciting educational adventure for all students.”
Soto, who said she is discerning a vocation in family medicine, spoke with Father Capra following her graduation from UD.
“He had heard that I graduated and came up to me. I told him I’d been praying a lot about what my next step would be,” Soto recalled. “I was going to World Youth Day in Portugal. Father Paolo told me to go on the trip and discern if this is what the Lord is calling me to do.
“Being here, I see this is where the Lord wants me now,” she said. “This just came at a perfect time.”
Soto, who grew up in Oak Cliff, knows what benefit a STEM lab provides for students in the area.
“Kids are passionate about science but a lot of times they don’t have the resources to learn about science,” she said. “These students are getting exposed to these ideas at such an early age.”
Soto said she now has students telling her, “I want to be an electrician. I want to be a software engineer.”
“I would never have imagined those kinds of careers at their age,” Soto said. “I have my first graders coding…and they love it. It’s all just amazing.”
A full-time college student, Soto currently comes to the school each Monday, facilitating 45-minute classes for first through eighth grades. In addition to her work with students, Soto also plans to host professional learning community meetings for diocesan STEM lab teachers and facilitators to share instructional strategies.
While the fourth-grade class focused on circuitry in December, lab lessons are quite diverse, ranging from mechanical and electrical processes to art and structural design.
“For their project, I asked our eighth graders to prepare a community space,” Soto explained. “Specifically, I wanted them to keep in mind what things they needed in a community space. It involves not only design but aesthetic planning, as well as structural integrity. It becomes more intricate. The lessons are about creativity, teamwork and collaboration, and problem-solving. All things they’ll use in the real world.”
At the end of the day, Soto said, it truly is all about seeing those metaphorical light bulbs turn on in the students’ minds.
“They now realize that science is around them all the time in their everyday lives,” Soto said.