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St. Paul VI students put the ‘E’ in STEM

First slide

The first class of St. Paul VI Catholic High School engineers took their seats at the hexagonal tables at the beginning of the school year, unsure of what was in store for them. For the first time in the Fairfax school’s history, a class devoted to engineering is being offered, one that students and faculty have been waiting for.


When you walk into Room 132, the first thing you might notice is that it’s different than most classrooms. In place of neat rows of desks there are group tables. The students who learn here don’t do so at an individual desk: they learn together, since, as their teacher explained, problem solving is best done collaboratively.


And, though it took a team of people to bring the class to life, it all began with Lisa Whiting. After sitting on a strategic planning committee two years ago, Whiting and colleague Austin Walter realized that, in order to have an academic program that is competitive with other local schools, Paul VI would need an engineering component added to the curriculum. And so, they brainstormed for a year, finally deciding on Intro to Engineering Design, a course offered through Project Lead the Way.


Whiting was the perfect choice to teach the class. After earning a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, she went on to work for 15 years as a materials engineer, even patenting a new protective steel coating for the U.S. Army. She says the experience definitely helps her bring engineering to life in the classroom, and hopes that the teachers brought in to teach future classes will have engineering backgrounds as well.


“We’re not creating a STEM program; we’re simply adding engineering,” said Elba Campagna, Paul VI’s dean of academics. She said it would be important to have a course that combined the science, technology and math classes already offered into a hands-on critical-thinking based class.


Students spend some classes working on “instant challenges,” problems they must brainstorm and then build solutions for. The first instant challenge involved building cable cars to go 30 feet powered only by a balloon, while another involved the use of specific materials to create an airborne vehicle. This hands-on component adds a unique twist to the class, especially for students who learn by kinetic learning.


The students and teacher enjoy going to class every day. “I’m having a blast,” said Whiting. “I love being able to come full circle from studying, to working and now teaching engineering.” The school is hoping to expand the program over the next few years at the new campus, adding equipment and a wider array of similar courses.




© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018