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Making STEM Less Scary

3 years ago

Mary Antoni wants to make one thing clear: she doesn’t think STEM is superior to other subjects.

“Science is not more important than English. Technology is not more important than religion,” she says. “But what STEM is, is empty. People aren’t going into it because they fear it, and lack the tools to succeed in it. That’s why we’re promoting STEM tools and opportunities.”

Antoni is STEM coordinator at Lansdale Catholic High School in Lansdale, PA. She says initiatives supporting STEM — which stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics — offer practical solutions to two issues.

One, the country needs more STEM workers. Two, it gives students access to interesting , lucrative careers. Many of Antoni’s students end up at companies to which she bridged connections.

That’s why she’s always on the lookout for networking opportunities. For her, it’s not enough to emphasize STEM for a few lessons and call it a day.

“If we can’t prepare our students for the next step into college, we are not fulfilling our goal as an education institution,” Antoni says. “So we give them a taste of the career world.”

Her results are getting noticed. The Da Vinci Science Center recently honored Antoni with its Hall of Fame Educator Excellence Award. Judges were impressed by her methods of bringing science to life in her community — methods that are, like STEM itself, both simple and creative.

A Curriculum from the Future

Data mining. Data science. Computer forensic science. New technologies have created a growing market of jobs and opportunities.

Antoni keeps the school’s courses up to date by helping school administrators decide where the curriculum goes next. She researches emerging markets and interviews industry recruiters, college representatives, and successful STEM graduates to learn how to help students understand new technologies — and themselves.

Process of Illumination

Antoni likes to tell her students, “You come in as a Disney kid, and you leave as a voting adult.”

She helps ease students’ transitions into adulthood by giving them a taste of the job market. Antoni’s STEM lecture series lets them meet and network with four or five STEM professionals each year. Some students also take part in a STEM shadow program.

Antoni reminds her students to stay positive and flexible. “Even if you find out what you don’t want to do,” she tells them, “that’s still a good learning experience.”

Learning How to Lose

It was an article about STEM dropout rates that made Antoni realize she wanted to see students fail better. According to the article, many STEM students fail because they never learned to work through obstacles, picking themselves back up.

“It’s now a requirement in our STEM department that every student has to enter one contest a year,” Antoni says. “It allows them to solely produce a project, then compete on a higher level.”

These contests also provide opportunities for collaborations between classes, departments, and schools. Antoni even helped bring LaSalle University’s Open Mind Competition in house, where she says she hopes to get more AOPS schools involved.

Embracing the Challenge

Antoni received $1,000 as part of her award, part of which she plans to use to promote the school’s STEM honors program.

The rigorous program gives motivated students a strong foundation for a future in STEM — including courses in all four STEM disciplines, AP or dual enrollment courses for college credit at partner universities, and opportunities to intern at nearby companies like Merck & Co., GlaxoSmithKline, and Lockheed Martin.

A Thank You… and a To Be Continued

If Antoni seems personally attached to STEM, it’s because she is. A former organic chemical salesperson, bench chemist, and chemical marketer, she says she’s grateful to Lansdale Catholic president Jim Casey and principal Rita McGovern for the chance to share her experience with students.

At the Hall of Fame gala, she described how bringing STEM to life is like magic. “Nothing brings me more happiness than the smiles on first graders’ faces when they do an experiment,” she elaborates in an interview, “and then seeing the looks on 12th graders’ faces when they do the same experiment — but now they understand it, and can use it for the betterment of the world.”

Back at the gala, Antoni didn’t dwell too long on her accomplishments. She was busy networking on behalf of her students. By the end of the night, she’d secured yet another win: a new STEM lecture speaker for next year.