by Marie Elena Giossi
Biodiversity, outer space exploration and recorded music history are just a sampling of the topics local Catholic schoolchildren have spent the last year researching.
Several hundred of the best and brightest students in Brooklyn and Queens had the opportunity to showcase their work at the diocese’s annual Aquinas Expo Days, held on May 14 in Brooklyn and May 21 in Queens.
The Queens expo, hosted by St. Kevin School, Flushing, featured projects from students attending 23 Catholic schools and academies. The Brooklyn event highlighted the work of students from 13 Catholic schools and was held at Holy Angels Catholic Academy, Bay Ridge.
Both expos included Mass and a luncheon, made possible by the diocesan Office of the Superintendent for Catholic Schools Support Services.
The expo is the culmination of the yearlong efforts on the part of each school’s Aquinas Society, an umbrella program of the Brooklyn Diocese that allows academically gifted students the chance to work above the curriculum, explore diverse areas of interest and develop their unique talents.
“All students selected for the Aquinas Society need to have one thing in common: They all need to have the willingness and desire to work above and beyond what the ordinary school curriculum requires,” explained Anthony Biscione, senior deputy superintendent of Catholic schools.
Biscione opened each expo with a prayer penned by St. Thomas Aquinas, for whom the program was named when it was launched almost 25 years ago by the late Msgr. Guy Puglisi, diocesan vicar for education.
Each year, members of each school’s Aquinas Society, under the direction of a teacher-advisor, select an issue to research, create a collaborative project with written, visual and technological aspects and then display their work at the diocesan expo.
Expo displays at St. Kevin School featured cell phones and stethoscopes, PowerPoint presentations and plant life, an erupting volcano and even a student dressed as a Venus flytrap to highlight this endangered species.
Kordian John Voncyga, an eighth grader in the Aquinas Society at Notre Dame Catholic Academy, Ridgewood, was the young man in that plant suit – and he wore it to make a statement.
“A lot of species (including the Venus flytrap) are going extinct, and we should try to save them,” Voncyga said, speaking inside the plant suit. “If we don’t, some plants that we see today – our children and grandchildren will never see them.”
He worked with schoolmates on the project, “Nature’s Believe It or Not: Biodiversity in the Animal and Plant Kingdom,” which was facilitated by teacher-advisor Carol Schefflin.
Schefflin noted that students incorporated science, English language arts, social studies, history, mathematics and religion into their research.
Two questions considered in their research were: Is it God’s plan for animals and plants to become extinct, and what is the responsibility of humanity as stewards of creation?
Nicholas Zecca, an eighth grader at St. Mel School, Flushing, learned that the stewardship of God’s creation is not limited to Earth, as he and classmates worked on “Peaceful Uses of Outer Space Exploration.”
Over the last few months, he has corresponded with NASA and studied orbital defense systems, asteroid deflection and the potential of mining and colonizing the moon.
“There’s nothing else like this in the (regular) curriculum,” Zecca said.
Besides presenting their work to peers and diocesan representatives, every participant received a “Passport to Learning,” inviting them to explore their peers’ projects.
Carl Ballenas, facilitator for the Aquinas Honor Society at Immaculate Conception School (ICS), Jamaica, thought the expo was “a great opportunity to see what other teachers and students are engaged in. It gives you ideas, and you share what you have learned throughout the year.”
“It’s really nice to see everything else that other schools put together,” added Munawar Choudhery, ICS eighth grader.
After visiting other exhibits, Choudhery told visitors about the ICS project, “Creating a Monument for George Washington Johnson.” The Aquinas Honor Society helped to place a proper marker over the Queens’ burial ground of Johnson, a former slave and the first African-American recording music star.
“It’s very interesting to see how each school has taken the themes of the Aquinas Program and have developed topics that are very different from each other,” said Dr. Thomas Piro, St. Kevin School principal, who visited each display at his school.
Piro felt the expo provided “a variety of learning experiences in addition to a wonderful opportunity for students to socialize with each other.”