Andrew Mentock
Freelance Writer
January 23, 2018 // Schools

Unique programs engage, challenge students

Andrew Mentock
Freelance Writer

Throughout the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, its Catholic schools are working to develop within students skills invaluable to the workforce, by offering unique and innovative programs.

Efforts of note include the many robotics clubs popping up at diocesan grade schools, as well as a curriculum of art and music programs offered at St. Joseph School in Decatur. Both help students advance in areas such as creativity, problem-solving and science.

Robotics teams are one way to bring science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) into schools in a fun, engaging way, feels Superintendent of Catholic Schools Marsha Jordan.

Robotics clubs have only existed at the schools in the diocese for a few years: They take a lot to get off of the ground, but are also very rewarding.

Painting to music is part of the art curriculum for third graders at St. Joseph School.

“I think that having a robotics program is important because it gives kids an opportunity to be a part of a team that is not athletic in nature,” said Sara Brewer, a teacher at Queen of Angels School, Fort Wayne, which recently started a robotics club. “It also gives students the opportunity to work collectively toward one goal with each student helping. The students who participate gain problem-solving skills, STEM experience and experience working as a group — which requires cooperation, communication skills, perseverance and compromise.”

In order to start the robotic club, Brewer applied for a grant in the spring of 2017 through the Statewide Robotics Initiative offered by TechPoint Foundation for Youth. To do this, she simply had to fill out a questionnaire. Once she was awarded the grant, she attended a training in Fort Wayne and picked up the supplies. All that was left to do was find students who wanted to join and for Brewer to learn a little bit about robotics, so she could teach it.

Surprisingly, learning about robotics is easier than it seems, she offered.

Middle school students participate in a general music class at St. Joseph School in Decatur. St. Joseph’s music program has proven to be highly successful, producing several musicians who have garnered recognition.

“I’m not a person who is knowledgeable in robotics, but I was given the opportunity to offer this experience to my students, and we have learned together,” said Brewer. “TechPoint Foundation for Youth has been a great resource that helped me along the way. Any teacher who wants to offer this to their students shouldn’t be intimidated by their lack of knowledge. There are people and resources that allow you to grow as the year goes on.”

Other elementary schools in the area that have robotics clubs include St. Jude and St. Anthony de Padua in South Bend.

Students participate in music class at St. Joseph School in Decatur. St. Joseph’s music and art programs have proven to be highly successful.

Robotics can lead the students to some amazing opportunities and experiences, they say. For instance, if a robotics team is successful, it can take students all over the country. That’s what it’s doing for Mishawaka Catholic School, which recently finished second in a statewide competition.

“We are now among only 1.6 percent of teams worldwide heading to an international competition, and it means the world to our team,” said Deanna McCool, one of the Mishawaka Catholic faculty members involved with the school’s robotics club. “Not only will they compete in Arkansas, but they have a chance to compete in San Jose with the septic system solution. We were shocked, honored and thrilled.”

Now all the school needs to do is raise the money needed to go on the trip.

“Our tremendous and unexpected success means our students now need to raise about $20,000 to get to both competitions,” said McCool. Companies that would like to donate can reach out to Deanna at [email protected] for an official sponsorship letter.

The Mishawaka Catholic School robotics team recently won a state-level robotics competition with a solution they invented for septic systems.

Unlike robotics, art and music programs have existed for decades. What makes these programs at St. Joseph School in Decatur stand out are the teachers who provide outstanding experiences to their students. The curriculum and the staff have helped produce some of the most talented artists and musicians in the area.

“The thing that makes it work is teamwork,” said Sharon Emenhiser, music instructor at St. Joseph. “Students encourage each other and help one another to achieve. Students are allowed to share ideas based on what they find interesting, and everyone is encouraged and expected to participate. We have fun working together.

“I do keep a positively disciplined classroom and try to use humor to keep things running smoothly,” she added. “I see almost 300 students each week from K-8, so I get to know them very well over the years.”

The Mishawaka Catholic School robotics team recently won a state-level robotics competition with a solution they invented for septic systems.

Emenhiser also puts in the time to incorporate technology.

“I just created an ELearning lesson that specifically deals with how listening to music strengthens the brain, and how playing an instrument allows both sides of the brain to interact,” said Emenhiser. “The neurons are extremely numerous when playing an instrument or interacting with music, and during that time, the entire brain is in use. It seriously makes for stronger brain function, not to mention being creative and having fun.” The students are also learning keyboarding, bells and a variety of difficult but engaging activities and pieces of music.

It helps that St. Joseph School is highly supportive of its art and music programs.

“My school has always been very supportive of our art program, making it possible for us to purchase equipment such as a kiln, that allows for a wide range of exploration with materials,” said Jana Bloom, the art teacher. “We also have an after-school Art Club for middle school students. During the first semester, they work on a community service project, and during the second semester they will try some new things that I might not be able to offer to a whole class because of the larger numbers of students.”

Across the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, the combination of new and continuing programs contributes strength to the Catholic schools system, and to its success — and encourages parents and parishioners alike to share their faith in Catholic education.

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