St. Joseph Teacher Uses STEM Lab to “Make Learning Fun”

Teacher Melissa Thomas leads the STEM lab for kindergarten through eighth-grade students at St. Joseph Catholic School in Freeburg. The program is in its third year since receiving a generous $150,000 grant from the Harold Zaring Charitable Foundation (David Wilhelm photo).

Melissa Thomas is never worried about the motivational level of her students.

Indeed, they’re wired for sound upon arriving in her STEM lab, in its third year of existence at St. Joseph Catholic School in Freeburg since receiving a $150,000 grant from the Harold Zaring Charitable Foundation in 2021.

“I like how our teacher makes learning fun,” said fifth-grader Maddie Longsdale, who already is looking ahead despite being just 10 years old. “When I’m in STEM, I like to ask myself the question: ‘What can I do to advance my future?’ I’m not really sure (what I’ll be), but I’m into makeup and skin care right now, so maybe an esthetician.”

STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.  Thomas, who formerly worked at the St. Louis Science Center, has always been passionate about discovering unique ways to learn, making STEM a match made in heaven.

STEM lab provides kindergarten through eighth-grade students with valuable skills that prepare them for higher learning and successful careers. It fosters creative, critical thinking and helps them excel at problem-solving in individual and group settings.

“I think the value is the kids are learning independence,” Thomas said. “They’re learning it’s OK to take risks. to brainstorm an idea, make a plan, try it out. When it doesn’t work, that’s OK because it’s part of the learning (process). Then it’s deciding, ‘What can I change? What can I do differently? How will I try this again?’”

It’s nearly impossible to wrap your arms around all the activities unfolding in STEM lab. One of the most popular is stop motion, an animated film-making exercise that combines a series of still photographs in which an object, a puppet, for example, is manipulated toward a glass container, for example. In the end, the puppet appears to have leaped into the container.

But in reality, there are no limitations on what can be done with the puppet. Imagination is at the forefront of the exercise.

“I liked doing stop motion videos last year,” said fifth-grader Elin Row. “It took a lot of patience and the results were really good.

“STEM is really fun. You get to learn a lot of stuff.”

Seventh- and eighth-graders recently participated in a physical science project in the lab that was held in conjunction with regular science course work.

“When we did Newton’s laws of motion, they had a STEM project at the same time that was to create a toy that showed an energy transformation,” Thomas said. “So, put something up high and then have gravity move it down. It caused something else. Does it go over something that makes noise that creates sound energy? Does it hit something at the bottom that creates sound energy? Does it twist and turn to create more gravitational energy? It’s nice to be able to have a space like this to blend our science curriculum.”

The STEM lab is in a large room that was redesigned when news of the grant was announced. Thomas said there were many factors to consider since she essentially had a blank canvas with which to work.

It wasn’t an easy project, considering her vision was to make it the best STEM lab students could experience.

“We knew we wanted to start at kindergarten and go all the way through eighth grade,” Thomas said. “We knew we wanted 3D printers, we knew we wanted some video production (capability) and hands-on engineering and design kind things for the younger kids. We started brainstorming what focus we wanted for each grade of students, then filled in the detail from there.”

Kris Hill, the interim principal at St. Joseph, said Thomas deserves credit for sharing her enthusiasm for STEM and creating a place that is so welcoming to students.

“She’s very gifted,” Hill said. “STEM has been the buzzword for the last ‘X’ amount of years. You have to depend on somebody in the building who has the interest, the skills and a love for it. When I did an observation with Melissa in the fall, I was amazed at her enthusiasm and encouragement. She has a vast amount of knowledge. To be blessed with all the materials she has to work with … it’s amazing. What a gift (the grant was).”

Hill and Thomas credited parishioner Dan Sliment, a member of the Harold Zaring Foundation Board, for helping secure the grant.

Even Father Von Deeke of St. Joseph Catholic Church has been involved in STEM. Thomas said Fr. Von has a passion for aviation, and parishioner Ron Becherer sells model rocket supplies.

“Mr. Becherer said, ‘If you could coordinate for him to join your STEM class and build model rockets with your seventh- and eighth-graders, I’ll give you everything you need.’ And he did,” Thomas said. “Fr. Von came in for two class periods. He hadn’t built (a model rocket) in several years. He was like a kid in a candy store. He had so much fun. It was good for our kids because they only knew him in a Mass setting. Mr. Becherer wanted the kids to spend some time with him and see him in a different way.”

Fr. Von and Becherer also attended when the students launched their model rockets at Freeburg Park.

Students also have tapped into their brain power by learning how to play chess in STEM this year. St. Joseph has a chess team for the first time since before the COVID-19 pandemic.

“They’re crazy about it,” Thomas said. “They’ve been enjoying learning that.”

Open House: People interested in visiting the STEM lab at St. Joseph are invited to an open house that will be held from 6 to 7:30 p.m. on Jan. 30.