Buffalo duo help schools paddle through STREAM

by PATRICK J. BUECHI
Wed, Aug 2nd 2017 03:00 pm
Staff Reporter
Jean Comer, STREAM coordinator for Catholic Schools, gives a presentation at the STREAM Conference at Loyola University. (Photo courtesy of Department of Catholic Schools)
Jean Comer, STREAM coordinator for Catholic Schools, gives a presentation at the STREAM Conference at Loyola University. (Photo courtesy of Department of Catholic Schools)

The Buffalo Diocese' STREAM program has proven to be a model of education for the nation. Representatives from Buffalo led a two-day conference to teach other educators how to make the tech program work in their schools. Jean Comer, diocesan STREAM coordinator, and Shelly Reidy, diocesan professional development coordinator, traveled to Chicago's Loyola University to explain and demonstrate how to deliver the principles of STREAM education to the classrooms, school or diocese.

The National Catholic Education Association has named Buffalo a top three diocese of STREAM education. Comer and Reidy have been in contact with several schools asking for advice on how to sustain their programs. The conference was designed to meet with all those schools at one time.
"The birth of this is from having been contacted constantly for a year or two, and spending a large amount of time answering questions on the phone," said Comer. "And it's the same questions," added Reidy.

The STREAM presentation took place June 27-28, with about 40 teachers and principals coming from as far away as Los Angeles and Venice, Fla. The NCEA introduced STREAM in 2014, hoping it would catch on nationally. Unfortunately, many schools had trouble getting it off the ground. "Almost every STEM program that's failed is because they threw money at it and tried to do everything all at once. So, you learn a lot from failure," Comer said.

STEM education, a focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics, received a big push in 2001. The NCEA included religion and arts in the curriculum. The NCEA works with Catholic educators to support ongoing faith formation and the teaching mission of the Catholic Church. They reach 1.9 million students in Catholic education.

"STEM is the exposure and emphasis of science, technology, engineering and mathematics to prepare kids for their future," explained Comer. "That's the push everywhere. It hasn't gone away since 2000. NCEA came up with the hybrid vision of having STREAM education. 'We're going to expose kids to STEM, but we're not going to abandon the integration of religion in all that we do, nor are we going to abandon any of our creative arts programing.' A lot of schools ditched the arts programing to focus on STEM. That's found to be quite a failure."

"The companies are saying the kids are losing their innovative creative piece," added Reidy.

"You have to have a vision for the tech people to work towards. Every company has a research and development wing that's always thinking about the future. The way you develop those innovative skills is through the creative arts," Comer said, adding that the Catholic schools never abandoned the arts.

Comer explained that when the NCEA came out with a vision for STREAM education in 2014, they had no explanation of how to do it, "no roadmap" she called it, for schools to achieve that vision. She, with the help of the diocesan Department of Catholic Schools, developed a very particular, rigorous two-year plan for schools. "That was the missing piece. People were looking 'Where do I start? What do I do?' That's what we were able to provide," she said.

Comer and Reidy have become the dynamic duo of technological education, working closely and often finishing each other's sentences. Together, they have worked with over 20 schools in the Diocese of Buffalo with varying demographics - size, talent, funding - that provided a wealth of information to share no matter who contacts them. The experience helped the Buffalo team design that much-needed roadmap.

"We designed and executed," Comer said. "A two-year plan that takes it piece by piece," added Reidy. "And direct schools how to roll out STREAM education in their building," Comer concluded.  "Because you have to get buy-in from your faculty, buy-in from parents. That, sometimes, is your most difficult piece. With this plan, it takes away the faculty from being overwhelmed. It's like, 'OK, now we're going to feed you this piece. We'll do that for a while. Now we'll feed you this piece and do that for a while," Reidy said. "We've been able to figure out the formula that they built up."

A key component of Buffalo's success has been partnerships with local institutions, such as the Buffalo Museum of Science, the Buffalo Zoo, and Shea's Performing Arts Center.

"We've been very blessed in the diocese to have partnerships with over 17 organizations to bring learning into the four walls of the Catholic school classroom," Comer said. "We've been able to share with these people across the country how to go out there and make this happen in their diocesan schools."

Comer explained the importance of partnership to a school in Venice, Fla. A year and a half ago, they partnered with a local aquarium and added sharks into their curriculum. The partnerships work for the mutual benefit of both the schools and the institutions, many of which have education goal in their mission statement.

"When Common Core came out, schools were so freaked out about training everybody and getting to it and teaching for the test, that one of the first things they gave up were their field trips," Comer said. "When I hit our partners in 2014, they were so open to partnerships because of the traffic in all of these cultural institutions was pretty quiet. So, they welcome the future interest of the kids. One of the principles of our program is connecting community to learning. I think they are all seeing the benefits. Every partnership we have had comes back every single year."

Now in its fourth year in Buffalo diocesan schools, STREAM continues to grow. Now 90 percent of schools participate either as a STREAM school incorporating it into their curriculum, or offering STREAM Academy clubs after school.   

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