Today the school has become the first all-girl school in the nation to receive STEM certification. The school’s principal, Amy Elstone, also believes Mercy Academy is the first STEM school in Kentucky.
Mercy received this certification from AdvancED, a national non-profit accrediting organization, in January. And the four-month process to earn it was rigorous, Elstone said.
The school built a website, where 3,600 documents detailing their STEM program were uploaded for AdvancED’s representatives to review. And Mercy’s students, teachers, business partners and administrators were interviewed by Dr. Vicki Denmark, the vice president of education innovation for AdvancED. Representatives of the organization also observed the classrooms at Mercy, Elstone said.
Elstone said AdvancED representatives referred to Mercy’s STEM program as “authentic.”
“We wanted it to feel genuine,” said Elstone. “It wasn’t something put together quickly for certification, but truly a part of what we do here.”
Mercy’s STEM program — which has always been part of the school’s curriculum in some form — is “cross curricular,” Elstone explained. STEM is not confined to math and science classes, but integrated into other subjects, too. For example, in a religion class students might discuss the moral implications of science.
“There are moral implications to consider with every aspect of STEM,” said Elstone. “We wouldn’t be doing our jobs if students aren’t discussing those implications.”
Amy Edgerton, a Mercy senior who aspires to become an anesthesiologist, said the STEM program has helped her understand how things work in the real world.
“The hands-on application will help me succeed in medical school,” said Edgerton. “It’ll give me a leg up on the others who have not had a STEM curriculum.”
Noting that people often assume that men are more likely to choose STEM careers, Edgerton added, “It’s good that Mercy has created a program to help women get their foot in the door in STEM fields.”
Amanda Greenwell, a senior, said the STEM program has opened her eyes to career options. Greenwell wants to study civil engineering with an environmental focus. She said she feels her studies at Mercy are preparing her for such a future.
“I’m used to doing a lot of homework, thinking critically and applying what I’m learning to getting tasks done,” she said. “This makes you more confident.”
Greenwell said she was surprised to find, during her visits to college campuses, that 80 percent of students in most engineering programs are male.
Elstone said that for women to find the confidence to go into these fields, “someone has to believe in them and give them the opportunity. That’s what a STEM program does in an all-girl school.”
Christie Rieth, who teaches chemistry at Mercy, said that STEM curriculum helps the students learn to think critically, which is invaluable, whether they end up choosing careers in science or not.
Rieth, who worked as a chemical engineer before becoming a teacher, said the STEM program raises awareness about the types of science careers available.
“Girls who are good at science and math usually think they’ll be doctors,” said Rieth. “STEM shows them they can do other things, such as engineering or environmental law.”
Rieth said she’s anxious to see how many more girls will choose careers in engineering thanks to STEM programs.
Mercy’s freshman classes are introduced to the STEM concept during a technology class, where they learn to code and build a robot. Students also learn about career options and opportunities for further STEM learning, which will be available to them later at Mercy.
When they become juniors and seniors, STEM classes are electives.
What’s most exciting about the program, Elstone said, is that the students are learning STEM to make the world a better place.
“They want to use drones to deliver food to war-torn countries or use 3D printers for prosthetics to help kids born with disabilities,” said Elstone. “I think that’s what the Sisters of Mercy would hope we’d do.”
Mercy Academy is sponsored by the Sisters of Mercy.