Step onto the campus of Christ the King Catholic School, and you’ll find STEM everywhere.
The first graders are raising chickens to provide eggs for the school cafeteria. The second graders are turning food scraps into compost to nourish the vegetable gardens that the fifth graders are tending. The sixth graders are testing the water quality at nearby Strawberry Creek, which feeds the St. John’s River. Eighth graders produce annual class-wide projects to make the planet a better place, whether that’s creating boat propellers that don’t injure manatees or finding new ways to reduce plastic waste.
Each day after the final school bell rings, you’ll see students at the school in Jacksonville, Florida, programming LEGO robots, designing rockets, learning about zoo animals and a host of other STEM-related activities.
In the center of it all is Diana Techentien. She’s the school’s STEM coordinator. The students call her Mrs. Tech.
Techentien works with the science teachers to develop and execute lessons and projects for the school, which serves 360 students in grades Pre-K through eight. Her work helped Christ the King make the 2021 list of Green Ribbon Schools, a federal designation recognizing schools that emphasize environmental sustainability. It was the only one of 27 schools and the only Florida school on the list.
This year, the Florida Association of Science Teachers named Techentien one of its four teachers of the year.
“It was a surprise,” Techentien said. “I was invited to apply, and I kind of did it last minute.”
Techentien began teaching science a decade ago, but her interest in the subject goes back longer than that. She studied animal science in college and spent 20 years owning and operating a St. Augustine horse farm. In addition to breeding, raising and training horses, she taught riding lessons.
When life changes caused her to give up the farm, Techentien began searching for a different path.
“I always wanted to make a difference and change the world,” she said. “What better way than to teach kids?”
So, Techentien went back to college and earned an education degree. She joined the faculty as a middle school science teacher at Christ the King. She is now in her third year as the school’s STEM coordinator. In this position, she not only teaches engineering but also mentors her colleagues and helps elementary teachers incorporate science labs into their classrooms.
The STEM program, which is part of an overall program in Catholic schools called STREAM because it incorporates religion and art, has done more than enhance academics. It, along with state education choice scholarships, helped save the school.
When Christ the King school opened in 1954, the surrounding neighborhood was solidly middle income. Over time, demographics changed. Lower income families who moved in couldn’t afford tuition and put their kids in district schools.
“The principal knew we had to do something as the school was on a closure list,” Techentien said.
After researching options, school leaders decided to focus on STREAM. As a result, Christ the King was the first to receive STREAM accreditation from the Florida Catholic Conference.
“It’s just expanded over the years to the point of where we are now,” Techentien said. “It’s integrated into every class at our school. Every class participates in a yearlong project.”
Today, Christ the King isnot only surviving but thriving. And it’s part of a statewide success story. Between 2013 and 2023, Florida was the only state in America in the Top 10 for Catholic school enrollment that did not see declines in enrollment. New York saw a 30.7 percent decline over that span; New Jersey, a 33.3 percent decline. Florida experienced 4.4 percent growth.
The school’s advanced programs have wowed parents who have greater opportunities to choose the best educational fit for their children, thanks to landmark legislation that made all Florida families eligible for K-12 education choice scholarships. (Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog, manages most of these scholarships.)
“You see it during the tours. A lot of times they’re coming from a public school environment and coming here and seeing what these kids do and what they’re exposed to, the rigor, they’re amazed,” Techentien said.
The University of Notre Dame’s Center for STEM Education recently chose Techentien and her science team to join the 2023 cohort of its STEM Teaching Fellowship Program.
What’s happening at Christ the King is just one example of all the STREAM innovation happening across the 39 schools in Diocese of St. Augustine, said schools superintendent Deacon Scott Conway.
“We are producing students with a strong academic and spiritual foundation to be successful in an ever-changing world,” Conway said. “It takes unique teachers with amazing skills like Diana Techentien, who has gone above and beyond, as Catholic school teachers do. She has personally added so much to the program and excels as one of the best science teachers in the state of Florida.”
Amid the accolades, Techentien says the simple things still bring the most joy.
“It’s seeing the expressions on kids’ faces when they do something they didn’t think they could do before,” she said.