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Donors help make new STEAM lab possible for Atlantic City school

By Mary Beth Peabody - September 23, 2021

STEAM is rising in Atlantic City. Before the end of the current school year, Our Lady Star of the Sea Regional School will open its new Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math lab, featuring state-of-the-art technology and resources to support project-based learning.

Collaborative and individual workstations, Smart televisions, numerous desktop computers and tablets, 3-D pens, printers and a laser cutter, traditional science and math tools, virtual reality materials, robotics and rocketry, are among the resources that have been ordered for the new lab.

Principal Carol Spina says the renovated space, which previously housed the school’s computer lab, will bring exciting opportunities for STEAM learning to elementary and middle school students in Atlantic City – an effort made possible by the generosity of donors and partners.

A major force behind the STEAM lab is former state Sen. Bill Gormley, an Atlantic City native and Our Lady Star of the Sea alumnus who has been actively involved in academic and enrichment activities as well as fundraising efforts at the school for the last 10 years.

“Sen. Gormley had this wonderful idea that he wanted to bring a STEAM lab to Our Lady Star of the Sea,” said Spina, who was greeted by Gormley’s enthusiasm and generosity when she came to the school as principal in 2019. “Brainstorming began right away with Atlantic County Institute of Technology (ACIT) and SOSH [architects] to plan and create a design.”

Although construction of the new lab was delayed due to COVID-19 restrictions, STEAM project-based learning has been an integral part of the OLSS curriculum for many years. In the last year, students helped create a 15-bed community garden, which is being renovated and expanded to include outdoor learning space and Stations of the Cross. They worked with students from Stockton University to connect physical movement with math, and they learned how to build LEGO robots.

Eighth-grade student Christian Wilson has seen an increase in technology-based learning during his years at OLSS, and he is eager for more. “I look forward to learning more coding. I want to learn JavaScript, and I also really want to build robots,” he said, noting that there are many rewarding career opportunities for software developers and engineers.

In the new STEAM lab, students will find the technology Gormley sees as a crucial investment to “make sure the next generation isn’t dependent on the service industry,” which has led to financial hardship for many families in the Atlantic City area.

He describes OLSS as a school that “exceeds the model” of charter and public schools. “The courses are as fine as you can get in this country … it’s flourishing and an example to Catholic schools around the country that ‘you can make it,’” he said at a school fundraising event earlier this year. Gormley attributed the school’s success to “sweat equity.” Principal Spina is equally appreciative of his ability to enlist the support of donors, including local businesses, community and parish members, and friends from his other beloved alma mater, the University of Notre Dame.

One of those friends is Jimmy Dunne, a renowned financial services leader who has supported the school for many years. In memory of his niece Erin who died as an infant, Dunne made a significant contribution to OLSS’ first computer lab. The school plans to continue to honor Dunne’s generosity and Erin’s memory by naming the STEAM lab after her. OLSS students recently showed Dunne their appreciation – and STEAM capabilities – with a Fighting Irish robot that moves to the tune of the Notre Dame fight song.

In partnership with Atlantic City Institute of Technology, the OLSS STEAM lab also will be accessible to members of the Chelsea community, the Atlantic City neighborhood where the school is located. Plans include training and workshops to help equip youth and adults with 21st-century skills needed for education, advancement and employment. In addition to consulting about technology and equipment needs for the lab, ACIT is providing curriculum support as well. ACIT students designed the renovation plans for the expanded OLSS community garden, which will be available for public events.

Financial support for the lab has come from many sources, including local businesses; grants from the Sisters of Saint Joseph; Atlantic City Development Corporation, Chelsea Economic Development Corporation and the Boys and Girls Club of Atlantic City; and individual donors. Despite the pandemic, Spina said this year’s gala, held in June when COVID-19 restrictions were beginning to ease, was filled to standing-room-only capacity.

“I was amazed by all the support Our Lady Star of the Sea had and how Sen. Gormley was the main impetus for bringing everyone together. … We’re tying faith with learning, making sure student achievement is growing. We’re addressing the needs of the whole child, the social and emotional learning along with academics,” Spina said. “There’s no other place like this in Atlantic City.”

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