Empowering STEM education

Notre Dame is a leader in academic technology at the primary and secondary levels and its initiatives to encourage and include more girls and women into technology also are important, according to a very busy IT technician on campus.

A U.S. representative from Michigan last week won passage of a piece of legislation that would support efforts to get school-aged children — specifically very young students and girl students — more involved in science, math and technology. The U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 1665, the Building Blocks of STEM Act, a bipartisan bill led by Rep. Haley Stevens, who represents the Rochester Hills area and is chairwoman of the House Science Subcommittee on Research and Technology.

The bill instructs the National Science Foundation (NSF) to more equitably allocate funding for research with a focus on early childhood. The bill also directs NSF to support research on the factors that discourage or encourage girls to engage in STEM activities, especially computer science.

It's a bill that appears to be sorely needed.

According to the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT), high school girls in the U.S. comprise 56% of all Advanced Placement (AP) test-takers and 46% of all AP Calculus test-takers, but only 19% of all AP Computer Science test-takers. NCWIT also says that 57% of all women in college earn undergraduate degrees, but only 18% get undergraduate computer and information sciences degrees.

Further, just 34 states and the District of Columbia allow computer science to count as a math or science graduation requirement, and the number of high schools offering AP Computer Science is down 35% since 2005. 

Count Pontiac Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy as a school that's working hard to change those data points, and a member of NDPMA's IT department wants everyone to know. 

A leader in technology

"Society is making great strides with regards to women and girls in math, science, and the technology fields, but we've still got a ways to go," said Eleanor McCaskey, who is a 20-year veteran information technology technician currently employed in the school's Information and Academic Technology department. "Luckily, in my case, I have worked with many talented women over the years in tech, from technicians to server administrators. There are so many opportunities for girls out there and NDPMA is by far a leader in tech and science opportunities for students and for its employees."

Besides McCaskey, Notre Dame's IT group includes Melissa York, who serves as a technology integration specialist, and its faculty includes Katrina Palushaj, who teaches computer science as part of a high school curriculum that includes Advanced Computer Aided Design (CATIA V6), AP Computer Science Principles and new this year, Engineering for Social Good, which will feature the pedagogy of Project Invent, an organization founded to empower high school students to invent technologies that make a difference in their communities. Louise Palardy, who is Notre Dame’s STEM specialist and manager of the school’s robotics center, will be teaching the class to both middle- and high-school students. 

In addition, McCaskey said that the IT group's student tech-support function has encourages participation by high school girls. It is also worth noting that a majority of the science and math teachers in the school's middle and high schools are women. 

Busy summer

McCaskey, York and the rest of the IT group, which also includes network administrator Jason Borngesser and Eden Konja, who leads the department as director of information and academic technology, have been working furiously over summer to get all things tech ready for the influx of faculty, staff an students.

"During the summer, the IT department is quite busy," she said. "All of the tablets turned in at the end of the school year need to be physically cleaned, re-imaged, and setup for the incoming students. Also, we received new iPads for the lower school, and they needed to be configured. Then the old iPads are cleaned and factory reset. Jason also has been busy working on replacing all our server switches to increase network speed, including those serving our new science, art and technology wing."

Notre Dame's tech services department also is gearing up for this year's round of Student Technology Boot Camps as well as the annual Parent Technology Information Meeting, which will be held during the month of August. More information can be found here: http://www.ndpma.org/technology-camp/

Love at first semester

McCaskey, who is married to longtime NDP math teacher Mark McCaskey, got her start at Notre Dame in 2012 after working 13 years in an IT position with Computer Sciences Corporation in Sterling Heights. She was brought into Notre Dame primarily to handle all of the extra work involved with becoming an all-1:1 school.

She actually met Mark during her first semester of college, at Mansfield University, located in Mansfield, Pennsylvania, not far from where she grew up. 

"In one of my first math classes in college back in 1976, the professor had us programming problems using Fortran and then BASIC," she recalled. "Along with my math classes, I took a few accounting classes that used COBOL. Since I enjoyed programming, I also took an assembler class in college. Mark and I actually shared one calculus book that we used for a total of eight semesters in college!"

Eleanor and Mark were married in June of 1978 and their first son, Tim, was born the next summer (Tim taught physics at NDP from 2006-09). She and Mark both graduated with math degrees in December 1980, Eleanor with a BA, and Mark with a BSE, who then began to teach in northern Pennsylvania. 

After college, Eleanor was a stay-at-home mom to Tim and three more children (Christina, Mathew and Sarah) for a number of years until Mark was offered a job with EDS in Warren, Mich., which meant a move for the whole family to a home in Shelby Township. Eventually Mark left EDS because he wanted to teach again and he landed a job at Notre Dame. 

"We knew Fr. Leon from St. Mary of the Hills in Rochester Hills and Mark inquired about a teaching position at NDP," Eleanor said. "He started teaching math here in August 1997 and the rest, as they say, is history."

Women as role models

Each year, the National Center for Women and Information Technology hands out a "Pioneer in Tech" award to women who are role models and whose legacies continue to inspire generations of young women to pursue computing and make history in their own right.

If you ask Eleanor McCaskey, there are plenty of women on the NDP campus also worthy of such an honor. 

"Between Mrs. Palushaj, Melissa York, Louise Palardy and all of the other women teachers of math and science, we have a bunch," she said. "But we also cannot forget all the men on staff here who also inspire our kids, both girls and boys, in tech, including my boss, Eden Konja, who has started a very vibrant CyberPatriot club

"I also want to give a shoutout to our Melissa York, who is spearheading a Girls Who Code club in both the middle and high schools. Plus all of the outstanding robotics clubs and teams at Notre Dame. It truly is an amazing place, especially when it comes to tech and STEM education!"

Comments or questions? mkelly@ndpma.org.

Follow Notre Dame on Twitter at @NDPMA.
About Notre Dame 
Notre Dame is a private, Catholic, independent, coeducational day school located in Oakland County. Notre Dame Preparatory School enrolls students in grades nine through twelve and has been named Michigan's best 50 Catholic high school three of the last four years (Niche.com). Notre Dame's lower and middle schools enroll students in pre-kindergarten through grade eight. All Notre Dame schools have been authorized by International Baccalaureate as "World Schools" and the entire institution is conducted by the Marist Fathers and Brothers. It is accredited by the Independent Schools Association of the Central States and the North Central Association Commission on Accreditation and School Improvement. For more on Notre Dame, visit the school's home page at www.ndpma.org