The FinTech room looks ready for business. Screens show money moving, clocks give times around the world, a live stock market ticker lets people follow the market in real time. This could be a high-end investment firm – or, as it happens, a Catholic high school in Fort Lauderdale.
Next year when students return to Cardinal Gibbons High School, they’ll get to use the new Phil Smith Family Building. Named for the family of the late businessman and philanthropist Phil Smith, whose donation helped make it possible, the 15,000-square-foot building represents the fruition of more than a half-decade of planning, fundraising and building. In addition to the finance room, the building offers a working television studio, several large rooms designed specifically for the school’s growing music department and spaces where students can work collaboratively on large projects, including those that require hands-on building skills.
The building got its start more than five years ago when the school sent out a survey asking what it needed and listing options ranging from theater space to a parking garage.
“People overwhelmingly selected the STEM building,” Gibbons president Thomas Mahon says, using the acronym that became popular for crucial 21st-century subjects – science, technology, engineering and mathematics. As the building was being planned and constructed, a new acronym with an added letter began gaining in popularity.
“Throw in the “A” for “arts” and you have a STEAM building,” Mahon says.
The result is a building with several rooms that will house the school’s music programs, as well as a full television studio and an engineering and building space where students can create things that don’t just live on paper.
The building is part of the school’s Our Faith, Our Family, Our Future campaign, which began in 2015. In April, the school hosted a ribbon cutting and blessing attended by guests including Archbishop of Miami Thomas Wenski and former Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler, a Gibbons alum who chaired the school’s capital campaign steering committee. AT Franco and Associates, a prominent local architecture firm with Gibbons ties, designed the building.
“We had some money saved up and we had a donor, the Smith family, that made a donation that put us over the top,” Mahon says.
“We ended up with a really, really cutting-edge space that’s really going to help the students. And it’s something that our community said we needed.”
In addition to the FinTech room, TV studio and editing suites, music room and engineering/building spaces, the building also has a “genius room” – a place designed differently than a traditional classroom where students can meet, discuss projects and brainstorm.
“It’s not a lounge, but it’s a place where they can go in and be themselves, and work,” Mahon says. On the other side of large sliding doors is the engineering space, so students can work seamlessly through design and building.
Gibbons educators view the space as versatile – the STEAM building area won’t just be for science.
“Every teacher regardless of their subject, can meet with the STEAM coordinator and find a way to involve the STEAM aspect in their curriculum,” says Gibbons principal Oscar Cedeño. His teaching background is in social studies, and he immediately thought of all the things that, say, a history class could do. Studying ancient Egypt? Make a pyramid. Reading Shakespeare? Build a Globe Theatre.
“STEM is at the root but really, (it’s) creating things. It’s cross-curricular in nature.”
Any teacher with a plan can take students in to create, Mahon says.
“The engineering room is not just designed for rockets and robots,” he says. “It’s designed for any class that wants to go in and get hands on and build something.”
Like most Catholic high schools, Gibbons offers a college preparatory curriculum heavy on AP and college dual-enrollment courses. That will continue, but educators saw the need to make sure the whole student was being served. Much of the idea of “STEAM” instead of just “STEM” was the notion that arts and creativity shouldn’t be lost amid the high-pressure world of college testing and prep. Part of that is practical – in a world now awash in students with perfect GPAs, universities are looking for well-rounded students with interests outside the classroom.
“One thing I’ve definitely noticed since I’ve been an educator is that a lot of these schools – because everyone’s so competitive, jockeying for GPA, taking so many AP and dual-enrollment (classes) – a lot of schools are now saying ‘We’ve got all these people who have high GPAs,’” Cedeño says. “What they’re starting to look at is not just the grade on paper but who is this student all-around.”
Beyond that, a school also needs to build the whole person. Gibbons leaders believe talents and passions will be nurtured in the new building. “What we’re trying to tell our students is that it’s OK to take a deep breath and not take that sixth or seventh AP class,” Mahon says. “Use your God-given talent with your voice and sing.
“It’s not just about those AP, dual-enrollment classes. Those are important, they really are. They’re worthwhile. But take the opportunity to avail yourself of what’s in this building.
“This is for the students. This is for their personal enrichment, this is for their growth. We built this for them.”