Small, innovative Pennsylvania district embraces coding, computers, STEAM


To find the schools of the future, look no further than South Fayette Township School District in Pennsylvania.

Computer science reigns in the district, a small but fiercely innovative cluster of schools in a suburb outside of Pittsburgh, and serves as the foundation of its curriculum in all grades.

Computational thinking “is the new literacy,” said Aileen Owens, the technology and innovation director for the district, which serves 3,000 students across four schools and is growing.

Owens, a former interior designer, said her job is to “connect the curriculum to the changing landscape of the world” and “predict the jobs” of the future. Since starting in her position in 2010, she has spearheaded several unconventional programs in the district, making schools look more like makerspaces than classrooms.

“Our world is demanding that [students] have a problem-solving process to think logically and think in layers,” Owens said in an interview with EdScoop.

She first discovered that with her son — when he was young, he loved computer science, but had no way to pursue the subject in his early years, she said. He found a programming mentor in high school and is now finishing his doctorate at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

At South Fayette, students in elementary school, starting in kindergarten, are introduced to electrical circuitry and computer programming. Middle school students use coding programs. High schoolers, who have a “student innovation team,” create their own apps and submit them to competitions.

But what has really exploded in the last couple years is the district’s STEAM program, for science, technology, engineering, arts and math. Using $270,000 in grants, the superintendent, Bille Rondinelli, created STEAM labs on each floor of the elementary school and hired a teacher to create a new curriculum that focused less on technology alone and more on a host of diverse subjects.

Rondinelli, who started in her post in 2009, has a list of administrative goals and responsibilities posted on the district’s website, and they include expanding initiatives “such as, but not limited to, digital literacy; innovation/STEAM; curriculum development; and professional learning opportunities.”

“It was her vision to make innovation happen in education,” Owens said of Rondinelli. “Then she hired me to make that happen. Now there is a large team — principals, the Board of Education, the STEAM teachers, technology education teachers — they take it to the next level.”

This team even does gender equity studies on its campus to make sure girls are just as involved with technology as their male peers. Since gender differences are not as noticeable in the younger grades, the faculty have made sure to start the programs earlier.

“We spend a lot of time trying to bring in role models for girls,” Owens said, adding that the district has a series for students and their families to hear female computer programmers, gamers, designers, robotics experts and several others talk about their experiences in the different fields. They recently welcomed a researcher who created the robot for the new Star Wars movie.

Even though that speaker was a man, “there were so many young girls who asked questions and so many girls who were interested,” Owens said.

The schools have also created a pipeline to colleges that students in previous years would have never applied to, like the University of Illinois, which is known for its computer science program, and Carnegie Mellon University, which has a renowned engineering school.

“We’re creating a pathway that didn’t exist before,” Owens said.

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