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Partnerships help school with hands-on learning

St. Francis of Assisi School kindergarten teacher Erika Zambo turned to a student and said, "I like your bones." To another student, she asked, "Can I have your bones?"

The students took part in "The Structure and Function of the Human Body," one of 24 interdisciplinary modules of Project Lead the Way-Launch that bring learning to life. The program empowers students to adopt a design-thinking mindset through activities, projects and problems that build upon each other.

Each Project Lead the Way-Launch module for kindergarten through fifth grade engages students in cross-disciplinary activities that spark a lifelong love of learning and build knowledge and skills in areas such as computer science, engineering and biomedical science. The modules help students to develop skills such as problem solving, critical and creative thinking, communication, collaboration and perseverance.

In the classroom, Zambo drew several life-size figures on paper taped to the floor. Teams of four or five students drew various essential parts of the body. They traced the parts from a plastic model, starting with the brain and including the trachea, bronchial tube, lungs, heart, muscles, arteries, veins and more.

As class began, Zambo quizzed students. They told her that the body inhales oxygen and exhales carbon dioxide, that the veins carry the blood and that oxygen travels through the blood, which is pumped through the body. We have 206 bones, 106 of which are in the fingers, they said.

Meanwhile, third-graders at the school assembled gliders that they earlier had designed on an iPad. They used paper clips for balance. What makes a plane fly, they said, is thrust and lift from flaps on the wings.

Their teacher, Chris Cuneo, said, "They're so knowledgeable about it. This has opened up a new world for them. They figure these things on their own."

When asked whether they'd rather do Project Lead the Way or be off school on a snow day, the students shouted "Project Lead the Way" without hesitation.

St. Francis is among three Catholic elementary schools in Missouri using Project Lead the Way-Launch in the 2016-17 school year. It's a version for primary grades of the popular hands-on middle school and high school curriculum in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

Mike Herries, the school's Project Lead the Way lead teacher and the STREAM (Science, Technology, Religion, Engineering, Arts and Math) coordinator, works with each classroom teacher. This year the school focuses on environmental sustainability through partnerships with the Missouri Botanical Gardens establishing St. Francis as an Earthways Sustainability Network school, a pilot project with four other schools and funded by a grant from the St. Louis County Department of Health. St. Francis is the only Catholic school and only one in south St. Louis County in the pilot program. It's a nice fit, considering the school is named for St. Francis, patron saint of ecology, and Pope Francis' encyclical on the environment is a year old.

The school's recycling efforts went into overdrive thanks to the project. It started with a schoolwide waste audit in September. All the waste generated on one day — from the classrooms to the cafeteria — was sorted by the Green Team of fourth- and fifth-graders with help from Earthways. The audit revealed an inordinate amount of plastic bags, which now are being recycled through a partnership with TREX Recycling. As of December, the school collected 45 pounds of the plastic film waste.

The fourth- and fifth-graders have latched onto the recycling and repurposing, said Lisa Jacob, a fourth-grade teacher. Having St. Francis as patron of the earth helps in their motivation. "It makes sense to them," Jacob said. "It was a good visual example when they went through the trash and saw what is thrown out during the day."

A related project at the school is the Green Schools Quest, a program of the U.S. Green Building Council. It re-educates staff and students on the topic with help of a mentor, Richard Schuessler.

A school community garden is being built with the help of the parish community in partnership with Gateway Greening. Green Means Grow is a winter gardening project using hydroponic plant systems, a program with the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center. Tomatoes, flowers and herbs are growing in the classrooms.

Andrew Wood, a fifth-grader who is part of the Genius Hour, said the after-school enrichment program "catches me up with math. If I get a job later on that involves math, I can be good at it." Last year he researched and did a poster answering why Saturn and Uranus have rings and how the rings are formed. This year he is researching volcanoes.

"I don't care what they have a passion for, just that they research it ... and we make ourselves available for whatever they need," said Herries, a geologist and engineer who became a teacher after coming to St. Louis when he and his family lost their home in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. A student last year wanted to know how a video controller works, so they started by learning how a circuit works. "The main thing is to see their passion and how they present that," Herries said.

The school's principal, Gregory Sturgill, said the projects have the support of the pastor, the community and various organizations as well as the students' desire "to make a difference in the world they live in. All these pieces just fell into place, and people were excited to help out. We're teaching these kids to do jobs and tasks that haven't even been invented yet. It all starts with how they look at problems, coming up with solutions and working together." 

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