Mount Carmel sparks creativity, collaboration in girls

The idea behind the new Phyllis M. Taylor Maker Lab at Mount Carmel Academy is to plant a seed so young, high school women can become the thinkers, collaborators and leaders of tomorrow.

The all-girls’ high school developed the lab following the concept of  STREAM (Science Technology Religion Engineering Arts and Mathematics). However, Mount Carmel changed the name to “RE-STEAM” to highlight the importance of religion in the educational equation. 

“We don’t want just STEAM,” said Jeanne Rachuba, director of the lab and director of admissions. “The Catholic identity and belief systems we have here are our compass, and every question should be answered with that in mind. We took the ‘R’ out of ‘STREAM’ to make the ‘R’ a highlight. What sets us apart  (from others with 3-D labs) is our Catholic identity.”

The lab works in conjunction with Mount Carmel’s project-based learning “through doing” – called the “Cubs Create Design Cycle” – across all subjects.  This engineering design cycle is modeled after one at Stanford University and the Buck Institute in Atlanta that changes the way education is approached.

The model shifts from a knowledge-based curriculum to a problem-solving curriculum. It encourages students to problem-solve and not just answer questions about information they are taught, said Geoffrey Philabaum, MCA’s director of academic innovation. 

“To just teach (students)  information is obsolete,” Philabaum said. “The skill of 21st century thinkers and learners is to encounter something they have never seen and be creative and confident in approaching a solution. Because we are going into the unknown, people (sometimes) rush into it and don’t think of the complications. MCA created a structured system so teachers and students could approach a problem in many different ways.

Using the  “Design Thinking” model, students first ask questions and then research, imagine, plan creatively and evaluate their idea after feedback from teachers and peers. They have the opportunity to improve and revise their design idea before it is evaluated.

“If you enjoy something, you are much more likely to understand it,” Philabaum said. “You can approach something that might, at first, seem impossible … and come up with something.” 

Design Challenge
The entire school tested this concept through a “Design Cycle Challenge” after the Christmas break. 

Mount Carmel’s 1,200 students were divided into 142 teams based on homerooms in each grade. They were charged – by a fictitious company – to create a self-propelled, Mardi Gras toy. The best project from a grade level was selected, and then the entire grade had a chance to collaborate to improve on the design, based on the best design elements from each homeroom’s project.

The final project from each grade went up against all other grades for the overall best project of the school. 

The exercise taught many skills that students will be able transfer to the real world: how to collaborate; how to use competition as a motivator for improvement; learning that it’s OK to fail and using feedback to improve; and making female students better presenters and more confident verbalizers in explaining how they came up with their final product.

“That’s how corporations all over the world work,” said  Betsy Stangel, coordinator of teaching and learning. “Design thinking is part of corporate structure. This will help students transfer the skills they are learning in school to the real world. There are jobs we don’t even know will exist and tasks that they will have to perform. They have to learn how to think in that way.”

The ninth grade had the winning toy design – a self-propelled Mardi Gras float – in the schoolwide challenge.

“When that ninth grade won, everybody cheered,” Philabaum said.
“An unexpected consequence,” Stangel said, “was that students got to know each other in a different way during the collaboration. They talked to people on a different level to understand each others’ strengths. One person doesn’t have to do everything. Everybody has talents. … I was very pleased.”

Grant made it possible
A $200,000 grant from the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation made the Phyllis M. Taylor Maker Lab possible. Taylor was on hand with Archbishop Gregory Aymond for the blessing and dedication of the lab on Dec. 12.

Mount Carmel teachers had visited a MakerBot lab in place at the Patrick Taylor High School and customized MCA’s labs to include 16 MakerBot Replicator 3D printers of varying sizes and an engraver and laser cutter to provide “a creative, hands-on space where students from all academic mediums are encouraged to collaborate, innovate and create,” Rachuba said. A Mount Carmel student designed the animated logo for the Phyllis M. Taylor Maker Lab.

Teachers across the curriculum have done small-scale projects using the lab since October. Student laptops are connected to the 3-D printers in the lab through the school’s Wi-Fi.

“We are all kind of learning together and asking teachers what they want,” Rachuba said. A more formal training with teachers is planned in coming weeks.

Rachuba said she is already taking the Design Cycle and the lab to heights outside the classroom by a collaboration planned in the fall with Team Gleason, a foundation that helps those with the neuromuscular disease ALS. Students will work to create and manufacture a cheaper part that helps connect a speaking device to a wheelchair for ALS patients. The new 3-D scanners will make it possible.

Rachuba said this combines the service aspect of helping the community, with learning more about ALS.

“That’s why this project is so big for me,” Rachuba said. “ALS reps will come in and talk to the girls to help them understand that what they just made will help someone get into the bed easier tonight with their family. That’s our future. That’s our goal.

“In addition to giving them the skills in the STEAM field that is male-dominated, our young girls can become leaders when it comes to being in a lab. They not only know what this technology is, but in addition to their coursework, they will know the cycle of design and problem solving. They are not going to be quieted by some loud man.”

“At the end of the day we want them to come together for a common goal,” Philabaum said. “Our common goal as educators and administrators is to prepare these young women for what comes next.”

Christine Bordelon can be reached at

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