At the beginning, people thought she was nuts. Sue Mellon, gifted support coordinator for Springdale Junior and Senior High/Colfax School in the Allegheny Valley School District, thought 7th and 8th graders could develop a deeper understanding of poetry by playing around with robotics.

“Originally, people looked at me like I was crazy,” Mellon said. Now, two years later, Robotics Poetry is a staple of language arts classes at Springdale and a new grant has students preparing to be peer mentors.

Poetry isn’t always easy for students. But with hands-on engagement, they gain new understanding. Take Robert Frost’s “Pasture.” Instead of just reading and discussing the work in a typical classroom setting, students made 21st-century dioramas with robotic tool kits containing sensors, motors, LEDs, and a controller. One student made a blue plastic wrap lake in an old cardboard photocopy-paper box that vibrated, thanks to the motor, and, lit up, thanks to the LED. When the student said the word “water”—students record themselves reading the poems aloud in the audio-editing program Audacity—the LED turned the plastic wrap a deeper shade of blue. When he got to the bit about the “tottering” calf, the motor made the toy calf vibrate.

“A lot of kids aren’t crazy about poetry,” Mellon said. “But we have to help them engage with it. After spending two weeks analyzing the poem and creating visual imagery and symbolism for their dioramas, they really understand the work and get quite passionate.”

Stories like Mellon’s can be found all around the Allegheny School District these days as the area, already renowned for its groundbreaking work in STEM, takes on STEAM.

STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and math; it’s become a shorthand way for talking about how to prepare American students for a 21st-century, globalized economy. But, as STEM took hold, some begun to wonder if there was a component missing. Enter the STEAM movement, championed by people like John Maeda, president of the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design, and former engineer Georgette Yakman. The idea is fairly simple: STEM needs to include art and design.

“STEAM is not a new curriculum,” Yakman said. “It’s a framework for teaching.” On February 14, the idea got the Beltway stamp of approval when the Congressional STEAM Caucus launched.

The move to include art and design in the push to advance science, engineering, and math is not just a “feel-good” move. It’s critical to the future economy and families’ standard of living. Researchers are finding that although children’s IQ scores have been steadily rising, results on the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking—a key measure of creativity—have been on the decline since 1990, just as the demand for more creative thinkers is rising. In a 2010 IBM survey, 1,500 CEOs identified creativity as a top leadership competency of the future.

That’s why the “A” for arts is so important, and why Pittsburgh’s school districts and afterschool networks are taking arts and design so seriously.

For some members of the Allegheny Valley School District, that extra A isn’t as radical as it may seem.

“We’ve always been STEAM based,” said Ed McKaveney, technology director for the Hampton Township School District. “It just didn’t have a name before.”

For others, it has slightly different meanings.

“The A is the creative element,” said Jennifer Vecchio, assistant elementary principal at Colfax Upper Elementary. “It’s looking at birds flying and understanding what that has to do with velocity.”

Bart Rocco, superintendent of the Elizabeth Forward School District, said the transition from STEM to STEAM isn’t really about adding anything at all.

“Personally, I’m not a big acronym guy,” Rocco said. “Science, technology, engineering, math, art—that’s all really important. But really, integration is what’s the issue. That’s the critical piece.”

Both Vecchio and Rocco are right, according to Linda Hippert, executive director of the Allegheny Intermediate Unit (AIU), a state agency that supports school districts in Allegheny County. Together with Intermediate Unit 1 in neighboring counties, the AIU oversees the Center for Creativity, an initiative that offers STEAM grants to enable teachers and administrators to implement classroom-based programs integrating left-brain and right-brain learning.

For Hippert, the story really started one October afternoon six years ago at a professional development event for local superintendents. They’d all read Daniel Pink’s book, “A Whole New Mind,” and then Pink came in to discuss the importance of creativity. He spoke to them about the importance of “right-brain qualities” like empathy and inventiveness.

“The message was loud and clear,” Hippert said. “And that’s when the movement started. Being strong in math and science wasn’t enough. To meet future workforce needs, we had to address the whole-brain needs of our students.”

That kind of thinking is absolutely right.

As Enrico Moretti in his book, “The New Geography of Jobs,” notes, for the first time in history, “the factor that is scarce is not physical capital, but creativity.” The decline is driving the divergence in economies and in families’ wallets. The majority of a product’s value today, he writes, comes from its original idea, not the manufacturing of it. The latter can be done cheaply almost anywhere else, but the “good” jobs lie in innovation, design, and engineering.

As Pittsburgh well knows, the sector responsible for raising the wages of American workers was once manufacturing. Today, as Moretti writes, “the innovation sector determines the salary of many Americans, whether they work in innovation or not.”

Arts & Bots/ Carnegie Mellon University

Arts & Bots/ Carnegie Mellon University

This thinking is evident throughout the Allegheny School District.

“The question is how do we keep our students competitive,” said Bille Rondinelli, superintendent of the South Fayette School District. “The answer is whole-brain thinking.”

One of the keys to success in implementing these ideas lies in collaborations and partnerships.

In South Fayette, students work with kitchenware maker All-Clad. Five years ago, when the partnership started, it focused on manufacturing and ran under a STEM grant. Now, students are helping design the pots and pans of the future and considering issues of environmental packaging. This new, more creative work is being done under a STEAM grant.

The Allegheny Valley School District is using its STEAM grant to start a Living Class Room for upper elementary students. At the beginning of this school year, students started building an outdoor space where they designed and planted a garden. They’re also working on environmental issues like rain collection, solar cells, and composting. They design and make their own tables to use in the garden and use of iPads to identify birdcalls and keep their digital journals.

“STEAM offers a total experience for children,” said Cheryl Griffith, superintendent of Allegheny Valley School District, which is also home to Sue Mellon’s Robotics Poetry.

In the West Allegheny School District, high school students can take an electronic and acoustic sound class where they learn the science of sound, but, instead of sitting at their desk reading from a textbook, they’re studying and modifying different instruments.

Arts & Bots/Carnegie Mellon University

Arts & Bots/ Carnegie Mellon University

Next year, the West Allegheny School District hopes to start a middle school game center. Chris Assetta, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, has a date on her calendar to go visit the Elizabeth Forward School District, which launched one in January 2012.

Heather Hibner is an English teacher who now teaches in the Elizabeth Forward Entertainment Technology Academy (ETA). If you walked by the four long windows of her classroom you’d see “people getting things done,” Hibner said. “If you walk by what I now call a boring classroom, it looks more orderly but really everyone is just zoned out.”

It’s a lot messier in her classroom, Hibner said, but that’s because the students are engaged. They’re working in teams and at their own pace. They’re doing independent projects, modding games, and coming up with stories.

Curriculum for the ETA starts with a history of games going back to ancient Babylon. Then students go on to learn things like 3D design, scripting, storytelling, and computer programming.

“Today, you need teachers who can integrate both sides of the brain,” Rocco said.

According to Hibner, doing whole-brain teaching isn’t difficult but actually feels more natural. The real key, she said, is getting out of the way. “I’m a facilitator really,” she said. “I talk for five minutes and I work one-on-one, but I’m not the ‘sage on the stage’ anymore; really the students are their own guides.”