Tag Archives: Elizabeth Forward

Tennessee Teachers Turn to Pittsburgh Fabrication Institute

A $1 million program established by the Volkswagen Group of America will give students in Hamilton County, Tennessee, hands-on access to digital fabrication tools like robotics, laser cutters, and programmable microcomputers. The automaker is partnering with the Hamilton County Department of Education to establish VW eLabs aimed at teaching twenty-first-century skills.

To administer the program, Volkswagen turned to the Chattanooga-based Public Education Foundation (PEF). After PEF’s Director of Innovative Learning Michael Stone and his colleagues selected the first batch of eight schools to receive funding, the next challenge was preparing educators to provide students with meaningful learning experiences using the new technologies, which ranged from 3-D printers to laser cutters.

To do that, Stone sent 17 Hamilton County teachers to the Pittsburgh Fabrication Institute, offered by the Elizabeth Forward School District (EFSD) in Elizabeth, PA.

“In awarding us this grant, Volkswagen charged us with not only opening these labs and making sure there wasn’t high-tech equipment just sitting there, but they were very clear that they wanted to see legitimate impact,” said Stone.

He found a perfect partner in the EFSD, which has taken a leading role in the maker movement and its extension into fabrication and “fab labs.”

Even to educators who regularly incorporate making into their lesson plans, fabrication may be a new concept. To Todd Keruskin, EFSD assistant superintendent, the fabrication lab offers much of the same potential for learning opportunities afforded by makerspaces, with an expanded tool kit.

“In a simple makerspace, you may have cardboard and tape and glue and bottle cleaners, and you can give kids design challenges that way,” said Keruskin. “In a fab lab, it’s the other side of the spectrum, with laser cutters and 3-D printers and plasma cutters.”

Learning to use the laser cutter at Pittsburgh Fab Institute / Photo by Ben Filio

While both makerspaces and fabrication labs pose interesting challenges to learners, the fabrication lab puts technology at the center of the experience.

“We’re getting kids to use technology not just to play Minecraft, but to ask themselves, ‘How do I use this to design and make?’” said Keruskin. “You can get kindergartners designing and printing, or first-graders using laser cutters.”

The Pittsburgh Fabrication Institute offered by the EFSD is a four-day conference providing educators hands-on opportunities to learn both design thinking and specific fabrication tools, ranging from vinyl cutters and 3-D printers to electronic components and CNC routers. In June 2017, it was offered for the third year, with attendance growing substantially over that time, from approximately 60 educators in 2015 to 140 this year, with attendees traveling from 12 different states.

Like fabrication itself, the Fab Institute emphasizes hands-on learning, and is designed to prepare teachers to return to their home schools comfortable with a range of equipment, ready to instruct and inspire students.

“Educators don’t want to be talked to and be bored,” said Keruskin. “The only way to learn this stuff is by doing—and failing.”

It’s the exact process—what Keruskin calls a “growth mindset”—that he and other educators are trying to instill in their students.

“It’s a major part of the twenty-first–century skills we’re teaching,” he said. “We need to teach a growth mindset where they’re going to be resilient and push forward and if they don’t understand something they’ll figure it out.”

EFSD’s interest in the potential of makerspaces and fabrication labs began in 2011, when Keruskin and his superintendent, Bart Rocco, decided to seek out ways to enhance programs like woodshop and other hands-on electives, which at the time were being cut from the state’s education budget. They reached out to experts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and to leaders in the maker movement, including members of the Remake Learning network in the Pittsburgh region.

“When I went to school, we made a birdhouse or a step stool,” said Keruskin. “Those days are over. We want to be able to bring creativity and learning. How do we integrate a computer into wood shop? How do we get kids designing on computers?”

Going from digital design to physical product / Photo by Ben Filio

The district’s first efforts at makerspaces and fabrication were at the high school and middle school level, with efforts currently underway to implement these curricula in elementary schools.

“Creativity and innovation, these are the skills we’re trying to teach—twenty-first century skills,” said Keruskin. “We want kids to be more collaborative, and to be able to communicate—why did they design this, and why did they do it this way? They still need to read and know mathematics, but these are among the many skills that making brings out.”

Stone and the Chattanooga teachers returned to Tennessee energized, inspired by their experience at the Fab Institute.

“We loved the fully immersive experience,” he said. “It really lets teachers engage with the tool as if they were the students, and it’s not didactic. The teachers raved about the increase in their confidence to utilize the tools in the space.”

Grant Knowles, one of the participating teachers from Normal Park Museum Magnet School who this year will fill the role of VW eLabs specialist, noted the value of peer-to-peer learning that occurred between educators at the institute.

“One thing that stuck out was the ability to interact with other teachers,” he said. “You could collaborate and brainstorm with people who did this every day, and others who were learning the process.”

That openness was by design, said Keruskin. Over four days of participating in hands-on workshops and eating lunch together, teachers and administrators get to know one another, often sharing ideas on how to integrate fabrication into their curricula.

“People come to us at the Fab Institute each with a different background,” Keruskin said. “Oftentimes they try to help guide others with what they want to do in their own school.”

The Fab Institute seeks to bolster networking connections by holding additional meetings in the fall and spring, allowing educators to share ideas, comparing notes on their success integrating fabrication into different lesson plans.

“We don’t want this to be a standalone course in schools,” said Keruskin. “Back in the day, when I worked in computer class, the only time I touched a computer was in that class, and now computers are integrated into every class.”

While in Pittsburgh, Stone and representatives from the school district and from Volkswagen shadowed Keruskin throughout an entire school day.

“What we really liked in what we saw is the partnerships,” said Stone. “The way that Elizabeth Forward as a school district is embedding digital fabrication as a common thread in the education experience is more authentic than you see anywhere else in the country.”

Knowles saw evidence of the EFSD’s embrace of fabrication in a different facet of his Fab Institute experience:

“The presenters were excellent but the student assistants from Elizabeth Forward absolutely knew what was going on,” he said. “It was very clear this was something they were not only knowledgeable about but very invested in.”

“All of us felt very strongly that they were onto something and it felt like something we could scale, and take ownership over, and to a large degree replicate,” said Stone.

Indeed, there is talk of organizing a Tennessee Fabrication Institute in the months ahead.

TeacherQuest Case Files: “Engaming” Special Needs Students

In this series of articles, we check in with teachers from TeacherQuest—a unique professional development program focused on games and game design.

Through this 11-month program, which includes a summer intensive followed by a series of online design challenges, teachers learn to design and use games to develop 21st century skills.

Students at Elizabeth Forward Middle School near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania are challenging the familiar adage “don’t play with your food.”

TeacherQuester Timmie Kearns teaches Family and Consumer Science, which is the current reference for the Home Economics classes of the 20th century. But Kearns’ class is far from simple cake baking and grocery list planning. In fact, her co-ed class blends technology with games and other hands-on activities that make her students hungry to participate.

Known as a forward-thinking school district, Elizabeth Forward is home to several programs that are pioneering the way students learn. They have a symbiotic relationship with Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center, which frequently playtests in-development games with students primarily in their middle and high schools. Not to mention the Dream Factory, a makerspace that boasts the latest technology and tinkering equipment. As if having a Dream Factory wasn’t enough to give the school “geek-cred,” each of the 2,355 students received their own iPad in the school’s signature bright red color. Elizabeth Forward was the first school district in Pennsylvania to give an iPad to every student.

Given the investments that the school’s administration has made in their students and teachers, it’s no surprise they jumped at the chance to participate in TeacherQuest—an 11-month professional development program that teaches educators how to design games and integrate game-like learning into their classrooms and curriculum. TeacherQuest is a partnership between NYC’s Institute of Play and the Pittsburgh area’s Allegheny Intermediate Unit 3 STEAM initiative. Teachers from all Allegheny County schools were invited to apply. Timmie Kearns and Anne Meals (a language arts teacher) attended on behalf of Elizabeth Forward. Months after beginning, both teachers are rocking game-based learning in their respective classrooms.

At the beginning of Kearns’ nine-week rotation of the 6th grade Family and Consumer Science class, students covered the basics of food preparation like sanitation, food-borne illnesses and kitchen basics. Then they really got cooking. Students made their own Jolly Rancher lollipops, muffins, “goop” granola, snickerdoodles, tortilla chips and apple dip and other tasty treats. Kearns could see that the students had a blast making their own food—but memorizing definitions and food terminology were not so much fun. That’s when she broke out the secret weapon she had been practicing in TeacherQuest…game design.

TQ_EFMS_slideshow5After designing her own games as part of the TeacherQuest program, Kearns was ready to lead her students through the design process. She started by giving them some examples, like game shows and classic card games. Within a week, the students had designed and created their own games aimed at learning the technical terms used in cooking. Broken into teams, the students did their own “game jam,” where they playtested each other’s games. The results included games inspired by Apples to Apples, Musical Chairs, Go Fish, and a classroom favorite, 7-Up. Every student was engaged helping teammates set up their games. An observer wouldn’t have guessed that these students were learning terminology and definitions. It looked more like a summer camp or community fun day.

“This is definitely making learning definitions less boring!” Kearns said as she laughed. “It’s great to see the students really connecting with each other and having memorable experiences while learning.” She went on to talk about her experience making games at the summer intensive portion of the TeacherQuest program. “My biggest obstacle was letting go of being a perfectionist, and realizing that I could make a game and jam on it even if it wasn’t completely flushed out. We learned we could mod a game on the fly. And that was really eye-opening for me. Basically, I had been playing games my whole life, just like my students, and I knew more than I thought I did.”

Kearns breaks down the benefits of integrating gameplay into her curriculum into three ways.

  • The students learned problem solving, since they had to create their own method of learning and work through the rules and structure of the game, then teach it to others.
  • Creating games instills patience in her students. In a time when people expect immediate gratification, this method of self-regulation shows kids that they may have to rework something in order to get it right.
  • Lastly, Kearns saw the kids developing a special camaraderie with each other that you don’t get from learning independently. They had to work together, give each other feedback, and interact in order to be able to learn the material.

Trish Maddas, principal at Elizabeth Forward Middle School, is ecstatic about what she’s seeing in the classrooms, and says the feedback from parents is overwhelmingly positive. “When you come to sewing or cooking class, it tends to not be something students think is really fun right away,” said Maddas. “But now that we’ve integrated gaming, students are just really excited to get to work. Kids go home and tell parents how fun school is, and this program is carrying over into the home and the community.”

Elizabeth Forward is certainly mixing up the pot when it comes to learning, and we can’t wait to see what they sink their teeth into next.


Why They Love to Learn

Our new occasional series highlights exceptional students who’ve fallen in love with learning and the unique opportunities in and around Pittsburgh that have triggered their passions. Last week we profiled 14-year-old Caroline Combemale, who in addition to being a full time student at Agora Cyber Charter School, also happens to be an award-winning chess player and YouTube developer. This week we talk with an 18-year-old game designer Allyssa Dangel. Here’s more:

Allyssa Dangel: ‘Lunch is no longer my favorite class’

In the spring of her sophomore year, Allyssa Dangel visited her counselor’s office with an issue in her schedule. She needed to add a class, one to replace the study hall she no longer felt she needed. The only option that struck her interest? A brand new course called “Gaming Through the Ages.”

The course turned out to be the unexpected catalyst for a 180-degree turn in Dangel’s high school experience. Part of Elizabeth Forward High School’s Entertainment Technology Academy, “Gaming Through the Ages” kick-started a sudden zeal for learning and a passion for game design—a career she hadn’t even considered before.

“I didn’t think of myself as smart enough of a person to be a doctor, or good enough with my hands to be a carpenter or something crazy. But when this came along I thought, ‘This is something I could really get into,’” says 18-year-old Dangel, now a senior. “Being in those classes is my favorite part of the day. Lunch is no longer my favorite class.”

The Entertainment Technology Academy (ETA) teaches the principals of game design. Created in partnership with Carnegie Mellon University, it was developed with the goal of getting students engaged in their education by incorporating something 97 percent of them do outside of school—play video games. “Gaming Through the Ages,” the first prerequisite in a sequence of over 10 classes, focuses on the history of games from all cultures. It combines a little bit of everything—math, history, problem solving, writing—and a lot of playing hands-on games.

“I didn’t think of myself as smart enough of a person to be a doctor, or good enough with my hands to be a carpenter. But when this came along I thought, ‘This is something I could really get into.’” 
The ETA program resonated so well with Dangel because it combined her two biggest outside-of-school hobbies: art and video games.  Dangel grew up playing “Tomb Raider” and racing games, but her current favorite is the apocalyptic RPG “The Last of Us.” She spends her time outside of school writing fiction and drawing in her sketchbook. But until she met CMU graduate game design students, she never pictured blending the two together into a potential career.

Math teacher Mary Wilson, who taught Dangel’s “Gaming Through the Ages” class, says Dangel always got good grades, but was never really one to seek attention or latch on to an interest. Until she found herself in the course. “Allyssa just absolutely took off from there,” Wilson says. “She made her own plan; ‘Ok, this is what I want to do. I now see that I can take my personal interest in video games and art and formalize that with an educational plan.’”

Dangel started becoming more and more invested in anything her school offered having to do with technology or game design. Wilson says Dangel now said “Yes” to volunteer opportunities, trips, and just about anything offered.

Then, Dangel was invited to speak on a panel at the Reimagining Education Summit in Washington D.C., hosted by Andrea Mitchell. The audience of 200 (not to mention the TV viewership) didn’t make Dangel nervous though—she says she was prepared to talk.

“[Kids] seem to lose interest,” Dangel said, when asked why so many kids give up in school. “They feel that they really don’t need this education in the real world because it’s just your everyday math and English. But if we turn all the math and English into something interesting, maybe something different, and apply more technology to it, they might become more interested.”

With all the game knowledge she’d gained through the ETA program, last summer Dangel applied for the selective CMU National High School Gaming Academy. She spent six weeks in workshops and classes, by the end designing the futuristic art for a strategy game called “Proto-Wars.”

As she heads into her senior year, Dangel is researching colleges with game design programs. She’s looking forward to the internship she’ll have at an outside gaming company as part of the ETA program. With her parents and mentors supporting her, she plans to continue studying to be a game maker.

“The way my life got really extraordinary was all serendipitous,” she says of the sudden enthusiasm she’s found for going to school. “It was all spontaneous and it was all by accident, but it was a great accident.”

The Transformation of the Elizabeth Forward School District

Indeed, my recent visit to the renovated Elizabeth Forward High School harkened back to my own experience when my colleague, the late Randy Pausch, and I co-founded the Carnegie Mellon University Entertainment Technology Center in 1998.

Randy and I were smart enough not to accept credit as the “visionaries” many called us, but acknowledged that we were in truth “reactionaries.” We were “reacting” to what had become obvious to both of us: the pervasiveness of transformative technology was creating a generation of young people possessing perspective and expectations rendering them practically a new species.

Let me explain. I remark often that while my parents enjoyed radio as youngsters and I grew up with television (essentially radio with pictures), it was still in the service of linear storytelling and thinking. It was linear because the content was rendered and perceived in a prescribed manner – much like society. All of that changed when technology-facilitated interactivity became the norm of communication, entertainment, and education.

Technology altered the equation of linearity by allowing for ubiquitous interactivity.
 I call it endowing humankind with Deistic capabilities: for instance, omnipresence (connectivity anytime and anywhere); omniscience (just ask Wikipedia or Google it!); and even at times omnipotence (feeling immensely powerful due to humankind’s technological advancement and heightened knowledge acquisition).

Having come of intellectual age in the midst of the nature/nurture debate, it seemed obvious to Randy and me that if teachers had one true means of making an impact on students it would be through nurturing.

I come from theatre. My entire life has been lived in a fantasyland of imaginary characters, fanciful, poignant and amazing stories, and the physical act of transformation: make-up, costumes, altering my manner of speech, gesture, attitude, and comportment. To put it bluntly: I never grew up. I continued the fantastical imaginings and game playing of my childhood. And, I not only loved it; I felt privileged and fortunate beyond words to have such freedom.

Imagine then the kinship I felt when I first walked into Randy Pausch’s Stage Three Laboratory in the School of Computer Science and found it adorned floor to ceiling with stuffed animals, toys, games, and incandescent lighting. I felt I had happened upon a fellow Thespian, albeit one with a Ph.D. in Computer Science!

[divider style=”thin”]All of these memories flooded back to me when I visited Elizabeth Forward to see its transformation. Though I had never been there before, Superintendent Dr. Bart Rocco and Assistance Superintendent Dr. Todd Keruskin had flooded me via email with photos of the former traditional space. Both Todd and Bart claimed a visit to the CMU Entertainment Technology Center as the impetus for Elizabeth Forward’s transformation. It was enough to make me blush.

It wasn’t surprising to me that the desire to create an environment perceived as nurturing by high schoolers would resemble the ETC. For when Randy and I created the ETC, the mean age for technologically adept, digitally savvy young people mirrored graduate school.

Randy and I knew it was only a matter of time before the proliferation of technology and the ubiquity of interactivity would skew the mean age younger. That is why we now recognize the newest demographic moniker of “digital natives.”

Elementary school children will soon possess the technical adeptness and multi-sensorial learning acumen we know attribute to high schoolers.  Elementary school transformation need be next.

So, what is this transformation? A visually appealing environment, one making use of color, for color is the composition of white light. It is light’s “diversity.” This multitude of color will resonate differently with each individual.

The school environment exudes democracy. It is a demographic transformation in that strict hierarchy is sublimated to commonwealth. The key is to get students teaching each other. Elizabeth-Forward’s open, inviting spaces encourage participation and assistance. It possesses technology resources equal to what many students find at home, as well as the latest in technology that only a school environment can offer. Its technology is both familiar and challenging.

Librarians have evolved into guides. I’d even go so far as to title them “Yodas” to signify significant break from the traditional hierarchy. It acknowledges how learning today is effusive and immersive. We need to teach each other – regardless of age or social status.

There is a café, recognizing the body and mind as interconnected. These are young adults: let them have a café latte if they so desire.

Does it work? It sure worked in the Entertainment Technology Center. It worked well enough for me to travel the globe extensively extolling the virtues of what Randy and I accomplished.

Although my visit to Elizabeth Forward occurred at the onset of its implementation, already teachers were hailing the actuality of students wanting to remain at school after hours, of young people excited and proud of their facility, of ideas being born, shared, and nurtured.

To me, Elizabeth Forward is the future because it truly pays homage to our past: our childhood of curiosity, the desire to figure out this life and world, and to connect to humans of all races, cultures, ages, and knowledge.

With Digital Technologies, Can School Libraries Help Transform Learning?

This isn’t your mom’s high school library.

At the Elizabeth Forward High School library in Elizabeth, PA, beanbag chairs have replaced study carrels, computers are everywhere, and instead of a cranky librarian telling kids to be quiet, there’s a new music studio. Welcome to the new EF Media Center.

The effort is part of a growing movement in Pittsburgh and around the country by educators to use digital technologies to create more opportunities for experiential, hands-on learning, based on new research about how young people learn today. The goal is to harness the power of interest-driven learning coupled with digital media and create an environment that offers mentors and guidance to help students make connections between what they’re tinkering around with and what they learn in the classroom.

“Libraries aren’t a place to be silent anymore,” says Mary Beth Wiseman, Director of Technology for Elizabeth Forward School District. “They’re a place to get together and share ideas.”

In addition to the many books available to high school students at the new EF Media Center, students can grab a coffee or snack at the new café, discuss a project with friends, check out laptops or digital video cameras, or spend time editing an original video project or new music piece using state-of-the-art video and audio editing equipment.

The new library was inspired by YOUmedia, a digital space for teens that started at the Chicago Public Library and is now expanding with the help of the MacArthur Foundation and the Institute for Museum and Library Services to museums, libraries, and schools around the country. The EF Media Center is the first such space to be housed in a public school.

Elizabeth Forward is one of several schools in Pittsburgh that are on the cutting edge of using technologies to encourage innovations in learning and teaching and to help students thrive in the global, digital workplace of the future.

Kids learn best when they’re following their passions, collaborating with others, and creating—instead of passively consuming—media products, according to research studies such as one by University of California­–Irvine cultural anthropologist Mimi Ito. Her study of 700 young people identified the progressive stages of informal learning as “hanging out,” “messing around,” and “geeking out”—ideas that are informing the design of the new library spaces. In Chicago, for example, the library offers teens the chance to just hang out and socialize, but also a section stocked with computers, games, and digital tools where they can mess around and dip their toe in. Once their interest is piqued, they can “geek out” in workshops led by artists and other professionals serving as mentors.

At Elizabeth Forward, students will be able to use these new technologies on their own or with friends to explore interests, create, and connect what they doing on their own back to what’s happening in the classroom.  The school’s faculty will also spend class time in the library, so students can use the new video and audio studio for class projects. The school plans to offer a new music production program in partnership with Hip Hop on L.O.C.K, a mentoring and arts education program in the greater Pittsburgh region that teaches students how to record and produce their own music, and there is talk of collaborating with a local radio station.

Elizabeth Forward also hosts a Situated Multimedia Arts Learning Lab, known as SMALLab Learning, a mixed-reality platform developed at the University of Arizona. With Wii-like technology, SMALLLab uses a ceiling-mounted projector, motion-sensor cameras, and a computer to create a kinesthetic learning environment to teach academic concepts. Students can physically move molecules together to watch their reaction or map a graph by pacing out the points on a mat. SMALLLab brings sometimes abstract concepts to life. The school has also partnered with the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University and the online learning platform Zulama to teach game design with an emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and math.

Stay tuned for more on this ongoing work at Elizabeth Forward and other schools in the region in the coming months.