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Long Island Catholic high schools seek to enhance programs

Kristina Argenzio, science chairwoman at St. Dominic High

Kristina Argenzio, science chairwoman at St. Dominic High School in Oyster Bay, teaches a group of her students in one of the school's new science labs on Friday, Dec. 9, 2016. Credit: Steve Pfost

St. Anthony’s High School is forging ahead with a $10 million upgrade of its science center, which will have an unusual centerpiece: a virtual-reality cadaver table that will allow students to see the interior of the human body and “operate” on it.

St. Anthony’s will become the only high school in the state with the $75,000 virtual dissection table and one of about 20 across the country that has one, according to the California-based company that makes it.

The South Huntington school’s effort comes as Catholic high schools across Long Island seek to enhance their programs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, known as STEM. The school has collected the money through fundraising efforts targeting current parents and alumni, and is still working toward the $10 million goal.

Students at Holy Trinity High School in Hicksville, for example, have built a small home that uses solar energy. Starting in January, students at Kellenberg Memorial High School in Uniondale will be connecting with doctors, nurses, surgeons and therapists at Nassau University Medical Center, “shadowing” them for a day to learn more about their jobs.

And at St. Dominic High School in Oyster Bay, students are taking advantage of a $7.5 million STEM center that was created in a former convent in 2012 and made possible through a grant by an anonymous donor.

St. Dominic established a partnership with the DNA Learning Center at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, where pioneering research on DNA, molecular biology, genetics and cancer is done. The program allows students regular firsthand contact with scientists, said Rebecca Leahy, a science teacher who directs the school’s STEM program.

Brother Gary Cregan, principal at St. Anthony’s, said he is using colleges — not other high schools — as his model for upgrading STEM education.

He wants St. Anthony’s to compete with and even surpass other Long Island high schools with top science research programs, such as those in Jericho, Manhasset and Great Neck. Two of the school’s students were semifinalists in this year’s Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology.

The multimillion-dollar overhaul of the science facilities involved the rebuilding of all earth science, biology, chemistry and physics labs, including installation of state-of-the-art equipment typically seen in colleges, said Paul Paino, who heads the school’s science research program.

It includes a molecular biology lab where students will do DNA work, said Paino, who formerly headed the science research program at The Wheatley School in Old Westbury, part of the East Williston public school district. He was hired at St. Anthony’s in 2011.

St. Anthony’s now has a “Friar’s Quest” program made up of 200 students who are accelerated in science and groomed to compete in national contests, he said. The students take Advanced Placement biology as freshmen, followed by AP chemistry, AP physics and AP physics II.

“If a kid wants to do serious science in a private school on Long Island, I would say this is the place to be,” Paino said.

Cregan said the 3-D virtual cadaver table is capping off the overall effort.

The firm Anatomage, based in San Jose, said it has sold about 600 around the world, half of them in the United States. In New York, a half-dozen institutions — all colleges — have one, including Suffolk County Community College and Touro College. St. Anthony’s expects its virtual-reality cadaver table to be delivered in January.

The device provides a three-dimensional experience in looking at and cutting into a cadaver. It is about the size of a hospital bed and has a touch-screen surface.

Medical schools and universities are increasingly using them instead of real cadavers, because they can be “operated on” repeatedly, are more cost-efficient and do not need chemicals used in embalming, said Samar Khan, product coordinator at Anatomage.

Dr. Peter Smith, associate professor of biology at Suffolk County Community College, said that school formerly had a laboratory where students would dissect two human cadavers per semester. That was phased out in 2014 after the college purchased one of the tables from Anatomage, which began to be used in instruction in fall 2015.

“I can teach more material more efficiently,” Smith said, explaining that the process of dissecting a real cadaver is meticulous and slow.

Cregan said he got the idea of obtaining one of the tables when St. Anthony’s took a group of students to a medical center in Hicksville to witness the “harvesting” of a corpse’s knee for transplant to a living person.

The doctor who runs the center, Vincent Guarino, voiced the view that within a decade, most training centers will use virtual cadavers instead of real ones.

“As soon as I saw that, I said, ‘Oh, I must have this,’ ” Cregan said.

“I always wanted a ‘wow factor’ and I think this is going to be able to culminate and capstone all the other stuff we would expect a high school to have” in a top 21st-century science program, he said. “A 21st-century lab may inspire, but this is going to take the child who would never consider” focusing on science “and now become obsessed” with it.

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