Full STEAM Ahead: NDP Program Prepares Students for In-Demand Careers

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Notre Dame Preparatory Offers an Innovative, Interdisciplinary Program that Prepares Students for In-Demand Careers

Dissecting animals is one of the most anticipated activities in every high school biology class. At Notre Dame Preparatory School (NDP), that experiential laboratory assignment looks a little different than at most schools. As each biology student hovers over her specimen—in this instance, a rat—and slices into it, an NDP art student stands nearby, closely observing. She may ask her lab partner questions as she draws a representation of the subject’s vital organs on display. The moment presents an opportunity for the two students from different classes to engage in a dialogue from which they can both learn. This collaborative, interdisciplinary learning experience exemplifies NDP’s STEAM program.

Not to be confused with STEM, which stands for Science-Technology-Engineering-Math, STEAM incorporates art into the mix. At NDP, students and faculty have embraced this curious and relatively new acronym, which represents a blended curriculum that allows students to develop an interest in seemingly divergent subjects like art and science that they soon learn can, in fact, be rather complementary.

Transformational education

When NDP first opened its doors in 1873, the School Sisters of Notre Dame—the international order of nuns who founded the all-girls’ Catholic school—were acting on a desire to transform the world through women’s education. Although their actual academic pursuits may differ from those of their forebears, today’s NDP STEAM students continue in the pioneering spirit of the School Sisters of Notre Dame on which the school was founded. If they could peer into NDP today, the school’s founders likely would be satisfied to know that their original mission remains alive and well, as illustrated by programs like STEAM.

Mary Agnes Sheridan, recently named NDP’s STEAM director, serves as an excellent role model for the program’s students. As she discusses the learning opportunities that the STEAM program presents for students, her enthusiasm is palpable. “At NDP, it’s women supporting young women doing the STEAM,” says Sheridan, a career mathematician and nationally honored educator who relishes her new role of introducing young women to the countless enticing ways in which they can learn and apply STEAM-related skills.

A curriculum that doesn’t end in the classroom

In NDP’s Upper Level STEAM program, students can elect to earn a certificate in one of four career “pathways”: architecture & design, medical careers, engineering & manufacturing, or computer science. Or, they can choose to work toward a general STEAM certificate that touches on each of the four aforementioned subject areas. Either elective pathway takes place as the student simultaneously pursues a general liberal arts, college preparatory curriculum. To date, 124 NDP students have earned STEAM certificates, with attendance in the program growing annually.

NDP engineering class

In addition to taking elective courses in specialized subjects like architecture, computer science or engineering that normally may not be offered as part of a high school curriculum, STEAM students have opportunities to use their burgeoning skills in area competitions (think cybersecurity or robotics). Also, STEAM students can take advantage of internships with one or more of NDP’s dozen-plus business partner organizations in the Baltimore Metropolitan area, which include Johns Hopkins, Northrop Grumman, and the National Aquarium in Baltimore.

“It’s those real world experiences that they’re exposed to—in forensic labs, in operating rooms—that contribute to students’ desire to know more, and do more,” says NDP’s STEAM Director Ms. Sheridan.

Each Middle Level student is exposed to the enticing opportunities made possible in NDP’s Upper Level STEAM program with curriculum opportunities in computer coding, digital design, engineering, physical computing, robotics and much more. Technologically advanced resources support this pursuit. In the Middle Level, this means students have access to state-of-the-art tools, including computers with 3D scanning capabilities, 3D printers, workbenches with real tools and work spaces that allow them to test their creative vision.

Building confidence

For many NDP students, tapping into this creative vision in the classroom sparks a desire to take that interest to the next level. Such was the case with alum and engineering faculty member Nicole Acaso, class of 2010, who attended NDP before it began formally offering its STEAM program. Nonetheless, Ms. Acaso’s immersion in challenging math- and science-oriented classes during high school informed her decision to study mechanical engineering at the University of Notre Dame in college. After pursuing a career in engineering for a few years, she felt a tug to return to her alma mater to inspire other young women to follow their own career goals.

Ms. Acaso acknowledges that a lack of confidence can sometimes stymie the progress of intelligent young women interested in pursuing careers in traditionally male-dominated fields, like science and engineering. She experienced it in college first-hand and wants to prepare her students to sit confidently among male classmates in college. In her own college class of 80 or so mechanical engineering students, Ms. Acaso says she noticed that the eight female students rarely spoke up. They were brilliant, she explains, but lacked confidence.

“We are developing these [STEAM] competencies in our NDP students so that when they sit down in that engineering class in college, they know exactly what they’re talking about,” says Ms. Acaso. 

NDP already has built the curriculum to support its students’ attainment of STEAM competencies. In January 2020, the school will open the doors to its gleaming new Innovation Wing, a two-story building whose state-of-the-art features will match the school’s progressive STEAM curriculum, and include amenities such as a two-story fabrication lab, a digital media lab, a medical suite, art gallery space to display students’ work, and much more. Here, students will be able to access the tools to begin to explore and expand on STEAM subjects that pique their interest. What happens within these walls may serve as the foundation to higher education and professional careers that NDP’s STEAM students will eventually pursue.

“So much of what we’re doing is uncharted territory,” says STEAM director Ms. Sheridan. “We’re rooted in tradition but contemporary in our education. That’s always been part of the School Sisters of Notre Dame’s tradition: to provide an education to meet the needs of the time.”

Learn more about Notre Dame Preparatory School at its Open House on Saturday, October 12, 2019 from 8:30 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. Please visit notredameprep.com for more information.

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