A studio where ‘students are talking and doing trial-and-error’

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, September 14, 2022

A studio where ‘students are talking and doing trial-and-error’

St. Symphorosa School welcomed guests and donors to view its new STEM Studio on Aug. 30, 2022. The STEM Studio will offer students the opportunity to develop their 21st-century skills of creativity, critical thinking, collaboration and communication through science, technology, engineering and math with hands-on activities. The school raised nearly $60,000 in donations for the studio from private donors and foundations. (Chicago Catholic/Karen Callaway)
Kathy Berry, principal at St. Symphorosa School, welcomes guests and donors in the school’s new STEM Studio on Aug. 30, 2022. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Tom Gallagher, 1966 Alum, retired CEO and current University of Notre Dame professor, talks about the new lab as St. Symphorosa School. Gallagher will be teaching the students in the lab. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Chris Garza, assistant principal at St. Symphorosa School, Father Robert Regan, pastor of Two Holy Martyrs Parish, and Ken Hilliard, director of operations at Two Holy Martyrs Parish, work on a “Lego Team Challenge.” (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Greg Richmond, superintendent of Schools for the Archdiocese of Chicago, works on a “Lego Team Challenge.” (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Christina Jones from the St. Symphorosa Parent Association, Rebecca Lindsay-Ryan from Big Shoulders and Laura Shilati from Northwestern University, work on a “Lego Team Challenge.” (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Father Robert Regan blesses the new STEM lab. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Tom Gallagher talks with Christina Jones from the St. Symphorosa Parent Association during a meet and greet. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

Students at St. Symphorosa School can tackle new challenges this year by putting their heads together and figuring out how to make things work.

That’s the goal of the school’s new STEM studio, a room designed and furnished to spark collaboration and creative problem solving.

To foster that, the room includes a variety of seating spaces — from couches to tables to chairs that students have to balance on to keep wiggly bodies occupied — along with boards that can be connected to computers. Two days a week, a facilitator will guide students through completing Lego-based projects; the rest of the time, teachers can bring their classes to use the room for science, technology, engineering and math project-based work.

“They must be collaborating or doing critical thinking or being creative or communicating,” Principal Kathy Berry said. “They know something different happens here. We want this studio to be a place where students are talking and doing trial-and-error. … The room allows for movement and flexibility. Whatever the students are working on, and however they feel most comfortable doing that work, they can do that.”

The school, 6125 S. Austin Ave., is a ministry of Two Holy Martyrs Parish. It formally opened the studio at its back-to-school night Aug. 30 after at least five years of planning.

Berry said she started thinking about creating such a space within a couple of years of her arrival at the school, but the school had to raise the money before the project could move forward. As soon as the money was available, in the spring of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools. When they reopened in the fall, students had to stay socially distanced and pretty much the only furniture in classrooms were desks.

Then, when restrictions eased last year, global supply chain issues meant that needed components did not arrive until school was ending for the summer, Berry said.

Tom Gallagher, who graduated from St. Symphorosa in 1966 and went on to lead several companies and participates in various youth mentoring efforts, donated money for the studio and, more important, will donate his time to serve as the STEM studio facilitator two days a week for the current school year.

He will work with the older students in the first trimester, the intermediate students in the second trimester and the early childhood students in the last trimester.

Gallagher, who teaches sustainability courses at the University of Notre Dame,  acknowledged being a little nervous about teaching elementary students, but said the teachers at St. Symphorosa have assured him that they will help.

“It will be a learning for me, too,” he said. “The teachers there are so great. They are phenomenally committed people.”

Gallagher said he wanted to give back to the community where he grew up, and when he saw a notice about the need for a STEM facilitator on Facebook, he got in touch.

“I thought, that’s something I can do, and it will feel really good to help the school and the church and the neighborhood,” he said. “If I’m going to give back to the school that really set me on my path education-wise, that really feels good.”

Gallagher also wants to encourage all schools to foster the skills students will develop in the STEM studio.

“I really think there are three reasons for a STEM program,” he said. “Number one, expanding your brain at an early age, learning to see problems from different perspectives, is really beneficial. Collaboration is number two. Third, seeing some of these things done in a more fun way than traditionally, it can lead students to different career paths they might not have thought about otherwise.”

Berry said the most important thing for her is that students learn to enjoy the process of working together to solve problems.

When she envisions students working in the room, she said, “I see students in all kinds of configurations: sitting on the floor, in chairs, kneeling, standing, and they’re hovering over something, whether it’s a robot they are trying to program or a car they’re trying to make go. What they’re talking about is how to solve it, how to fix it. It’s really student-led, with the teacher as a resource.”


  • catholic schools

Related Articles