The corner room at St. Joseph’s Academy has been many things through the decades, going back to when the sisters washed laundry in it for themselves and for orphans who lived upstairs.
With the start of the school year, the all-girls Catholic academy in Baton Rouge has redubbed the room the STEM Lab.
A laboratory it is, but one without beakers, graduated cylinders or the smell of chemicals. The dress code is Catholic schoolgirl plaid skirts and red tops, not white lab coats.
And it’s not a traditional desks-in-a-row classroom, though classes occur here all day.
Instead, it’s stools and workbenches covered with electronic parts and laptops surrounded by an array of 3-D printers. Homemade, rudimentary robots are parked on the floor.
The science and technology focus is not new. In the past two decades, the high school has pressed its girls to surmount stereotypes about what women can do as adults, especially in nontraditional fields like technology, engineering and science.
“Since I came here, I haven’t had any idea of any career being gender-based,” said Ashley Chastain, an 11th-grader.
On Friday, she gave up her lunch hour to hang out in the STEM Lab, where she has become a regular. STEM is an acronym for science, technology, engineering and math.
Square sheets that look like baking trays emerge from a 3-D printer with newly created plastic jewelry. Chastain is creating rings designed to resemble small castles that she plans to showcase at an upcoming fair at the public library.
“I feel like we have everything in our grasp,” Chastain said. “If we don’t have it, the school will be able to obtain it.”
Claire Luikart is a 2006 graduate of the private girls school. In college, she ended up writing her senior thesis on robots. She said the school has had an enduring influence on her and her peers.
“Among my classmates, there are so many that have gone into tech fields,” she said.
One of her friends, for instance, is now helping to bring technology to the western Africa country of Ghana.
“She ran a hackathon in her middle of nowhere place in Ghana,” Luikart said.
Luikart, by contrast, returned to St. Joseph’s Academy after college and joined the staff. Now, she is director of the STEM Lab. While the school has made headway, she still regularly confronts tech-shy teenagers. Consequently, she sees much of her job as “breaking down the intimidation factor.”
STEM is a popular buzzword in education these days. When Luikart first heard it years ago, it struck her as “kind of silly,” but she’s gotten used to it.
“I think we’ve taken it beyond just a buzzword and learned how to make it work,” Luikart said.
Though just a month old, the STEM Lab is already giving birth to a wide variety of creations.
Anna Deshotels, a senior, is tinkering with a prosthetic hand that she’s developing to help children born without hands. She got the idea from a recent article she read in Popular Science magazine. She designed it on her laptop — all students at the school have had their own laptops since 1998 — and printed it out on a 3-D printer. She then used fishing line as cables connecting the forearm to the prosthetic fingers, aiding movement.
“It still has some kinks,” she said. “Some of the fingers don’t close.”
The lab is a natural for Deshotels. She’s planning to become a mechanical engineer like her father. She’s even helping her dad re-create a missing newel for a staircase he’s refurbishing.
Sitting next to Deshotels is MacKenzie Byrog, who is already at work on her science fair project even though it’s not due until January. The ninth-grader wants to create better armor for military police and rescue dogs, typically German shepherds. She has family members in the military but also loves dogs and recently trained her own dog to hunt.
Her new armor calls for the dogs to wear a shoe with a removable computer chip that will track their whereabouts.
“I can say from experience that dogs don’t like shoes,” Luikart offered as constructive criticism.
“You can make them,” a confident Byrog insisted.
If Luikart is not present, her assistant, Eric Ristroph, a 2007 Catholic High graduate, is on hand to help the girls. As he learns what can be done in the lab, he tries to spread the word.
“I want to get people in here,” Ristroph said.
The lab is open throughout the school day and often well after school. The students who come and go are either there for scheduled classes such as “computer architecture,” or they are working on science fair projects, building a robot for the school’s fledgling robotics team, or laboring on any number of other school, club or personal projects.
Kathryn Nastasi, an 11th-grader, has already spent a year developing a video game and is part of a nine-member team that meets daily. Team Echo has overtaken part of a mirror in the lab. The mirror displays drawings of some of the characters in the game, including the protagonist, Echo, a sound wave, and the villain, which is a constantly changing speck of light.
Nastasi has been learning a programming language called Unity to create the code that will give birth to the game, which involved spending a week at a summer camp at LSU.
“Learning the Unity (code) engine was a challenge,” Nastasi said.
Across the lab, Mi’Yona Solomon, an 11th-grader, is designing a phone app to help young women who have suffered sexual abuse.
“This is for teenage girls who are too afraid to speak up,” Solomon said.
On Friday, though, Solomon was trying to finish a toolbox she’s been working on for weeks. It’s meant to carry the small screws, styluses and accessories she needs to have on hand to repair broken laptops that come in when she’s working at the student-run help desk at St. Joseph’s.
Her prototype had problems. The latch closed the box just fine. The holes inside, though, were wrong for the screws she needs to store. She’s redesigning some of the holes from rectangular to round.
She’s calling the new box “Tom Latch” after Tom Lash, a representative from Fujitsu, the company that supplies the laptops for St. Joseph’s Academy. But she said she needs to finish the new box soon.
“It’s got to be perfect,” she said with urgency. “He’ll be here on Wednesday.”
Luikart is cultivating a trial-and-error ethos in the lab. Failure is OK, but failing to try is not an option.
“Our No. 1 rule is we’re not allowed to give up on anything,” Chastain said. “That is the quickest way to an F.”