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By James Baumann

RIVERSIDE—As the world population has surpassed eight billion, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is exploring alternative farming concepts, including the idea to grow food in space. The agency is collaborating with young scientists on the project through their Growing Beyond Earth program. One of the approximately 300 schools that has partnered with NASA via this program is our Diocese’s very own Our Lady of Perpetual Help (OLPH) School in Riverside.

OLPH’s sixth through eighth graders attend interactive training sessions with NASA scientists on the importance of sustainable food production before stepping into more hands-on work: planting, watering and harvesting plants for observation and providing the data to NASA.

The teacher of this intensive STEM course is Lynn Castaneda, who has completed the University of Notre Dame’s STEM Teaching Fellow program.

“Teaching STEM is not as simple as knowing science, technology, engineering and mathematics concepts. Instead, an educator must understand how to create lessons that integrate underlying STEM concepts into real-world activities that are appropriate and effective for a specific age group,” explained Castaneda.

OLPH’s involvement in Growing Beyond Earth is just one way the school has made it a priority to emphasize STEM education. “STEM is important in early childhood education and elementary levels because it channels a child’s sense of exploration,” said Castaneda.

“Integrated STEM lessons teach collaboration, critical thinking and problem-solving, which are among the most essential skills that a student can learn. Teaching STEM early in life helps children make connections between everyday life and the STEM disciplines. It also builds the foundations for future academic success because the skills learned are important to other subjects,” Castaneda added.

And on top of all that, STEM is simply an extremely important part of our modern world, as OLPH sixth-grader Chau Lai pointed out. “STEM activities will benefit everyone in the future because almost everything relates to science, technology, engineering or math,” said Lai.

The Catholic faith plays a part in OLPH’s STEM education as well; the religious component contributes to a commitment to ethical behavior, as students are taught that they can utilize their STEM knowledge to make a positive change in the world. The Growing Beyond Earth program fits within this ethos of responsible citizenship, as the students’ real-world, or out-of-this-world, research has the potential to make a tangible positive impact for humanity.

“Through programs like Growing Beyond Earth, we can utilize real-world applications to promote deeper learning and encourage our students to become involved in their community. We want our students to understand their responsibility to their community and to realize that with skills in the STEM disciplines, they can make a positive difference and be a force for good,” said Castaneda.

For OLPH eighth grader Gabrielle Valencia, the connection between STEM learning and the faith are very clear.

“I think that STEM and the Growing Beyond Earth program tie in with my faith because at a young age and growing up in a Catholic private school, we’re taught to help others,” she said. “Being able to learn while collecting data for NASA is a gift, and hopefully, in the future, we will see the research we collected in our everyday lives.”

“Our school teaches that we should be globally aware and responsible citizens. Helping NASA with its agricultural programs can help those starving and give people nutritious food. Learning STEM helps me live a life of holiness, along with giving back to the community and those around me,” she added.

James Baumann is a freelance writer as well as the Marketing and Communications Manager for Saint Jeanne de Lestonnac School, Temecula.