Adam Eisenstat

STEAM Education: South Fayette Township School District

Pittsburgh Business Times - June 22, 2017

Taking an Interdisciplinary, Hands on Approach

South Fayette Township School District

At South Fayette Township School District, STEAM education starts early. Students begin learning about circuitry, robotics and computer programming in kindergarten.

The traditional articles of learning-through-play, such as Legos and Playdoh, literally are wired, attached to computers and animated through the various processes that are at the heart of STEAM.

“We believe this hands-on approach—applying multiple, overlapping skills to real-world problems—is having a major influence on students’ ability to think,” said Aileen Owens, director of technology and innovation for the district. “Even the quality of their thinking is improved: They’re asking deeper questions and grasping complex ideas more thoroughly because they’re more engaged with their learning.”

South Fayette, which serves 3,000 students, has been integrating this computational thinking into its existing K-12 curriculum over the past six years.

“Computational thinking is the aptitude for problem-solving, the ability to think logically/algorithmically, and it’s more crucial than ever,” said Billie Rondinelli, superintendent of schools for the South Fayette Township School District. “We are one of the first school districts in the country to create a vertically aligned curriculum, which introduces this idea in kindergarten and builds upon it in each successive grade.”

Melissa Unger, who teaches computer programming and electrical circuitry to students in grades K-2, has seen the effects of the district’s approach.

“In contrast to strictly traditional education, STEAM, offers students a far greater opportunity to be creative and take risks, because science and technology require that you make a lot of mistakes in the process of trying to solve problems,” she said. “The biggest change that we’ve seen with the children is how excited they are to learn, and they’re excited to talk about what they’ve learned and how it has shaped their thinking.”

Data gathered from surveys of students in grades 3 - 5 found that a clear majority have positive views of computer programming, using such apps as Scratch, WeDo Robotics, App Inventor, and other block-based languages. Eighty-one percent “like to see ideas come to life, such as programming a robot,” while 71 percent “want to learn more elaborate projects using code” and 74 percent “like the challenge and rewards of block-based code.”

The district has found a variety of funding sources for its STEAM program, including several grants from the Grable Foundation to test its educational model in other districts; and for a STEAM Summer Institute, for teachers to learn computational thinking. A number of smaller grants, too—from the Sprout fund, for example—have helped to expand and diversify the program.

“When we started this, there was no mandate at all—it was practically a new frontier,” says Aileen Owens. “We put ourselves out there and took a new direction. So now, when the Obama administration says it wants to make computational thinking the norm—among other signs of a sea change in education—it’s certainly validating.”