Tag Archives: community

Pittsburgh Students Rise to the Challenge of Addressing World Water Crises

In March, students from four Pittsburgh area high schools came together for a two day Water Design Challenge. Hosted at the University of Pittsburgh‘s William Pitt Union and supported by a Hive Grant from The Sprout Fund, students were asked to brainstorm to raise awareness about real world water crises. Emily Stimmel shared this story on the Kidsburgh blog.

The problem: raising awareness about real world water crises. The problem-solvers: 55 students in grades nine through 12 from four local high schools.

In March students from Chartiers Valley, Elizabeth Forward, McKeesport and Mt. Lebanon high schools participated in a 2-day Water Design Challenge at University of Pittsburgh’s William Pitt Union. The activities were designed to inspire students to think as local and global citizens and consider the social and environmental implications of something most of us take for granted—water.

Though the project was multidisciplinary in scope incorporating social studies, world language, science and technology–and drawing faculty and students from all four schools–it was pioneered by Mt. Lebanon High School social studies teacher Tina Raspanti. After reaching out to Veronica Dristas, the assistant director of outreach at Pitt’s Global Studies Center, for help in developing a global studies program geared to high schoolers, she felt inspired.

“She told me to dream big,” Raspanti says. So, with a team of likeminded Mt. Lebanon High School teachers, Raspanti approached The Sprout Fund for a grant from its Hive Fund for Connected Learning and the group immediately got to work setting the project in motion.

With funding, Raspanti and her team were able to cover the costs of food, transportation and overnight accommodations offering an “equal playing field for all school districts.” Because no single school was responsible for footing the bill, students from the four schools had equal access to the Water Design Challenge leading to a more diverse, innovative pool of ideas. “It was great to see how they melded together,” says Raspanti, noting that “think globally, act locally” became the teams’ shared motto.

Students engaged in brainstorming sessions and evaluated their ideas using the concepts of human-centered design thinking championed by the event’s facilitator Pete Maher of LUMA Institute. Ultimately, the judges selected two winners—one presenting a local solution and the other a global one.

Make it Rain, the winner in the category of local solutions, promoted a rain barrel system that offers tax credits to residents who use it to water their lawns, encouraging conservation through financial incentives. In the global category, Women 4 Water created a detailed website describing how far women in developing nations walk to retrieve potable water. The average distance was six kilometers, so the all-female team chose a 6K race as the vehicle for raising awareness of the issue while generating funds to support these women.

Students weren’t instructed to use specific tools or methods for awareness-raising, but they naturally gravitated towards social media with most of the groups setting up simple websites and mock online fundraising campaigns.

They also weren’t asked to recruit the next cohort of participants, but they’ve eagerly taken on the task. Though the pilot project focused on water, the essential element of the Challenge is uniting a diverse group of students to collaboratively solve a problem. With Water Design Challenge as a model for future Challenges, the teens who participated in the pilot project are brainstorming the next topic and spreading the word to their peers. With additional funding, Raspanti hopes to develop the project into an annual event uniting diverse groups of students from schools across the region.

Helping STEM Learning Take Root Outside the Classroom

Back in the dark ages—as in, the ’70s and ’80s—a typical afterschool routine might have involved heading home for a snack and an episode of “Scooby Doo.” Today a Pittsburgh teen is more likely to fire up her laptop and engage in a multiplayer game with other online gamers as far away as Tokyo or Dubai, or to construct intricate cities on his iPad using Minecraft.

Boosted by this vital extracurricular learning, those gamers could grow up to be the next Marissa Mayer or Steve Jobs.

But the disparity in access to digital technology leaves many kids in the dust, lagging behind watching reruns of old cartoons. A February 2013 report by the Pew Research Center found that “More than half (54%) [of the 2,462 Advanced Placement and National Writing Project teachers surveyed for the report] say all or almost all of their students have sufficient access to digital tools at school, but only a fifth of these teachers (18%) say all or almost all of their students have access to the digital tools they need at home.”

Enter afterschool programs. They can help bridge that gap, according to a recent issue brief from the Afterschool Alliance, with support from the Noyce Foundation. The brief details how afterschool programs can help contribute to nationwide STEM education goals, especially in high-demand skill areas such as computer programming and engineering.

If you’re imagining a community center where teens play ping-pong and shoot hoops, think again. 

According to the report, “Afterschool STEM programs are proving to be highly effective and they deliver important outcomes. Youth in high-quality afterschool STEM programs show (1) improved attitudes toward STEM fields and careers; (2) increased STEM capacities and skills; and (3) a higher likelihood of graduation and pursuing a STEM career.”

Why is STEM important? Because that’s where the jobs are. According to a 2012 update from the US Department of Commerce, “The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that STEM jobs will continue growing at a fast clip relative to other occupations: 17.0 percent between 2008–2018 (BLS’ most recent projection), compared to just 9.8 percent for non-STEM jobs.”

The most effective afterschool programs offer rigorous STEM learning opportunities and reach marginalized populations. If you’re imagining a community center where teens play ping-pong and shoot hoops, think again. Students in these innovative programs are more likely to be found designing basketball simulators using the latest computer modeling equipment.

The winner of the 2013 Afterschool STEM Impact Awards, for example, enlists middle school students in applied science research projects. Participants in Santa Fe­, New Mexico-based Project GUTS—Growing Up Thinking Scientifically—engage in computational thinking to design and test computer models of real-world issues.

Another program mentioned in the report, Techbridge, reaches girls in underserved communities in Oakland, California, with hands-on programming in technology, engineering, and science. Afterschool program participants might solder a solar nightlight, design a computer animation project, or build a remotely operated vehicle. In August 2013 the program won a $2.7 million grant from the National Science Foundation to expand its afterschool programs to more cities across the country. Programs such as Techbridge do double duty—helping to close the gender gap in STEM fields while addressing income disparity in STEM learning opportunities.

Closer to home, at Crafton Elementary near Pittsburgh—part of the Carlynton School District—afterschool learning takes place in a dedicated STEAM Studio. There, students use high-tech tools such as K’NEX, snap circuits, and iPads to extend classroom projects or explore their own interests.

BotsIQ, another member of the Kids+Creativity Network, engages around 600 students from more than 40 schools in southwestern Pennsylvania in an annual robotics competition. After grappling with a rigorous robotics curriculum, BotsIQ-ers guide 15-pound robots to face off in a gladiator-style competition.

Zoinks. It’s hard to imagine Scooby and his crew tackling anything like that.


Photo / Scott Beale – Laughing Squid