Visitation sisters inspire new building for science, tech

| Christina Capecchi for The Catholic Spirit | January 30, 2013 | 0 Comments
A robust science education is a crucial component of Visitation’s curriculum, as demonstrated by eighth-grader Joie Phelps, left, senior Claire Wendlandt and fifth-grader Abraham Yosef. Photo by Andy King

A robust science education is a crucial component of Visitation’s curriculum, as demonstrated by eighth-grader Joie Phelps, left, senior Claire Wendlandt and fifth-grader Abraham Yosef. Photo by Andy King

The science and technology building nearing completion at Visitation School in Mendota Heights is inspired by its cloistered nuns, administrators say.

The sisters who have operated the school since 1873 have always pioneered new fields of learning for women, and this year they have prayed and advocated for the construction of a new building for the study of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

After a blessing ceremony with the sisters, construction began this past fall and was completed for a Jan. 24 grand opening, the feast of St. Francis de Sales, co-founder of the Visitation Order.

The STEM center includes a machine shop, large and small assembly areas for Upper School engineering classes and Middle and Lower School LEGO robotics, plus a practice area for the school’s award-winning FIRST Robotics team, which had been renting warehouse space in downtown St. Paul. It will provide building space for messy experiments and various tools — band saws, half-ton metal shears, drill presses, soldering irons.

The STEM center is the first phase of an ambitious two-phase $10.5 million construction endeavor called VHM, for Visitation Heart & Mind.

Phase II, the Heart, will include a new school entrance, additional classrooms and study areas.

The VHM project flowed from a strategic plan developed by the school’s trustees and a master site assessment that identified a STEM center as a priority. That goal has been repeatedly reinforced by research confirming the pressing need to strengthen the STEM instruction received by American students, particularly girls.

The U.S. Department of Commerce has emphasized an increasing need for STEM literacy in order to stay globally competitive, pointing out that women hold only 24 percent of STEM jobs in the U.S. workforce.

Most importantly, says Mother Superior Sister Mary Denise Villaume, a 1956 graduate of Visitation, the project is in keeping with the school’s mission and commitment to educating students “not for school but for life.”

“Prayer has been at the center of our planning,” Sister Mary Denise said. “Visitation has a well earned reputation for a strong humanities program. That will continue, and the new building will enhance our STEM curriculum and allow us to grow to continue to meet the needs of 21st-century graduates.”

Students, for their part, seem excited to settle into the STEM center.

“I’m lucky enough to be part of this project and to see the good it will do for incoming students,” said junior Kate Azar, who serves as electrical lead for the school’s robotics team. She noted that 100 percent of Visitation graduates who were on the robotics team have gone on to take STEM classes in college and many are now majoring in engineering.

The school’s concerted outreach to alumnae excelling in STEM fields also has spurred students, Azar said.

The rigorous study of science is informed by Catholic roots, said Dawn Nichols, head of school.

“The STEM center we are building will not simply train our students in science, technology, engineering and math, because science and the practice of other professions without a moral grounding can be a dangerous thing,” she said. “We at Visitation know that individuals trained to participate in the highest levels of science and technology need to be grounded in faith. They need to have an understanding of the importance of ethics and a moral compass that leads them to a respectful and grace-filled application of their training.”

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Category: Catholic Schools Week