Tag Archives: Math

Beyond Counting: Encouraging Preschool Teachers to Help Young Children Think Math

The three are teaming up to provide hands-on professional development to Head Start teachers using the new PBS Fred Rogers Company show Peg + CAT.

Early childhood experts say high-quality and challenging math education for 3- to 6-year-olds can build on kids’ natural inclination to explore, tinker, and ask questions. And, research shows math knowledge in prekindergarten is actually the highest predictor of later academic success.

Exposing children to STEM concepts in early childhood teaches them to have confidence in STEM fields and helps them fight harmful notions that often prevent children from pursuing their science- and math-based interests. “Girls aren’t’ good at math,” for example.

“The earlier you catch them, the better off they are,” Claire Caine, an elementary school technology instructor told Lisa Guernsey in the New York Times. In her classroom, Caine has been testing out ScratchJr, a new programming language designed for kindergarten students. “The idea that they might not be good at something hasn’t entered their mind yet,” she said.

The Early Learning of Math through Media project is designed to increase early childhood educators’ confidence and efficacy in teaching math.

Yet preschool teachers, like many of us, may not feel confident in their ability to teach conceptual math and may not feel comfortable integrating math concepts into their classrooms in ways that go beyond simple counting.

That’s where the Early Learning of Math through Media project comes in, which is partially designed to increase early childhood educators’ confidence and efficacy in teaching mathematics.

The project uses Peg + Cat episodes as a platform to illustrate both age-appropriate math content (e.g., sorting, counting, patterns, and data) and to teach that anyone can love to learn math. Like the show, which is about a young girl—Peg—and her sidekick—Cat—who solve problems, the professional development sessions have important overarching messages: “math is everywhere;” “all people can learn mathematics;” and “math learning begins early in life and should be both supported and encouraged.”

“It’s a great platform to build deeper understanding and confidence among these early educators,” Nancy Bunt, the program director for the AIU’s Math and Science Collaborative, wrote in an email. The teachers engaged in math activities and observed videos of children learning. They discussed how to recognize developing stages in learning trajectories of key math concepts, as well as what questions and activities can help to support growth and understanding.

It’s also important to improve math instruction in the United States. Michael Teitelbaum, author of “Falling Behind? Boom, Bust, and the Global Race for Scientific Talent,” recently told an audience at the Brookings Institution that one reason for the shortage of STEM workers today (and why we’re importing talent from abroad) is because of the “mediocre K−12 system and declining student interest.” Only the elite public and private schools, he said, excel in math and science instruction, adding to the rising inequality among schools, and in life. Florida Governor Rick Scott is so worried about falling behind that he wants to offer teachers summer internships at high-tech companies like Modernizing Medicine in Boca Raton, paid for by the state.

“They’ll come here and work for the summer and they’ll go back and inspire their students,” he said.

In July, the first group of Head Start educators in Allegheny County began the training, which will take place for two years—with some educators attending in the summer and some during the school year. The program will eventually be training all of the Head Start teachers in Allegheny County, which includes 42 school districts in addition to the Pittsburgh Public Schools. Themes include the different ways people learn, the nature of high-level tasks, and formative assessment of students.

Teachers were introduced to several pieces of the Common Core State Standards, including the importance of the nature of student and teacher discourse, the value of multiple representations, and the key role of collaboration.

The new instructional approach in Common Core math is getting nationwide attention from comedians and policymakers for its more conceptual aims.

As Motoko Rich wrote in the New York Times last month, the new math “seeks to help children understand and use it as a problem-solving tool instead of teaching them merely to repeat formulas over and over. They are also being asked to apply concepts to real-life situations and explain their reasoning.

This is partly because employers are increasingly asking for workers who can think critically and partly because traditional ways of teaching math have yielded lackluster results.”

Innovative projects like Early Learning of Math through Media hope that getting early educators helping kids think mathematically from an early age can help.

A family engagement component trains teachers on how to encourage families to teach math at home and will offer take-home math activities. The program is being evaluated by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh. They will be measuring whether participating educators learned new math or extended their existing knowledge of math, whether they increased their confidence in math, how well the project worked with families, and whether using media along with professional development enabled teachers to enhance kids’ interests in math.

Why We Should Prepare Our Daughters (and Our Sons) for Modern Manufacturing Jobs

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal pointed out that even though women are a bigger part of the overall workforce, they make up only 27 percent of the manufacturing workforce, down from down from 32 percent in the early 1990s.

“Women tend to be less interested in engineering than men, which is a big skill in manufacturing. Women also tend to take less math courses,” said Journal reporter James Hagerty. “Manufacturers are going to have to make the case to young women that manufacturing can be a very good career.”

A number of factors cause women to be less interested in manufacturing, one of the most important among them being perceptions of the field. Many people think manufacturing jobs involve heavy-duty physical labor in dark and sometimes dangerous factories. In her book, “Grace and Grit,” Lilly Ledbetter describes these kinds of conditions at the Goodyear tire factory where she worked throughout the 1970s. On top of workplace injuries, noxious chemicals, and unrelenting harassment, she discovered she was being paid thousands less than her male coworkers. Her lawsuit made it to the Supreme Court and was eventually the catalyst for the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.

That unwelcoming image of mid-century manufacturing has stuck around. But manufacturing today has changed a great deal since Ledbetter’s day. Women and men working in manufacturing today are critical to the innovation cycle. They design parts, operate robots, and act as key advisors on the practical aspects of new designs or processes. The work is highly skilled and often requires sophisticated computer and engineering knowledge.

Those specialized skills are the focus of the White House’s recently announced new public-private manufacturing hub in North Carolina. It’s the first in a series of institutes Obama has planned. This one is a group of businesses and universities in Raleigh that, using federal funding, will focus on connecting research with manufacturing. The idea is to apply semiconductor technology to developing energy efficient devices for cars, electronics, and motors.

Obama sees improving the manufacturing industry as key to raising middle class incomes. With certificate training, manufacturing salaries can start around $40,000. And as Hagerty pointed out, these jobs offer better pay and benefits on average than service jobs, particularly jobs in retail or food service, which tend to attract a lot of women.

But these middle-tier jobs often go unfilled because employers can’t find qualified applicants. In a recent Bloomberg Businessweek article Anthony P. Carnevale, an economist and head of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, said that even though the manufacturing sector will shrink by a million jobs over the next decade, it will still experience a huge labor shortfall as 2 million workers retire without enough new, trained workers to take their place.

One young women who may be poised to do just that is Sarah Hertzler, a high school junior in South Fayette, Pennsylvania. who fell in love with engineering after joining a club for girls interested in building rockets and robots.

“Sometimes when you think about engineering, you think of grease and nuts and bolts,” she told the Wall Street Journal. “But it’s about ideas and designing.”

Like many schools in the Pittsburgh region, South Fayette High School emphasizes computational thinking and creativity in its curriculum. It also gives students access to lots of technology. The region is ripe with opportunities for girls like Sarah—from Girls of Steel, Pittsburgh’s all-girls robotics team, to the Girls Math & Science Partnership, where girls meet with mentors and explore STEM careers.

And when it comes time to choose what kind of career to pursue, the work of the Pittsburgh Technology Council and others ensures they’ll have a world of STEM job options open to them.

The “Good at Math” Myth

I remember the exact moment when I completely gave up on math. When I was in seventh grade, I hit a wall in geometry.  I told my teacher I was worried I just wasn’t “good” at math. “No problem,” he told me. “Some people are left-brained and good at math and logic, while others are right-brained and good at being creative.”

Well, I know now that’s completely bogus.  But unfortunately it turned me away from math entirely and confirmed what I’d been thinking—I just wasn’t a “math person”.

My geometry teacher’s advice reflected the tightly held notion that our brains are wired to be either good or bad at math. But an evolving body of research continues to show that math as an innate ability is a myth. Little plus and minus signs aren’t hiding within the double helixes of our DNA, determining whether we’re capable of high school algebra. Like for any other discipline, success in math comes from a variety of things, including resources, interest, and practice.

Economics professor Miles Kimball and finance professor Noah Smith recently described this phenomenon in The Atlantic. They argue the myth that math ability and intelligence in general—is innate and unchangeable squanders an immeasurable amount of talent and potential in our nation’s students.

Kimball and Smith agree that natural talent may play a role in some of the most elite mathematicians’ success. But natural ability doesn’t come into play as much as we might think for the kind of math that stumped me and so many American students, and stops them from pursuing STEM careers down the line. “For high-school math, inborn talent is much less important than hard work, preparation, and self-confidence,” they write.

The concept of inborn talent still weighs heavily on us from a young age, though. After that experience in 7th grade, I started off the first day of math class with my head down, believing I was already doomed because my “left brain” just wasn’t cut out for this stuff. Of course, it was a self-fulfilling prophecy, exacerbated by difficult material and nasty quiz scores that I took as further evidence of my innate lack of math talent. A couple years later, I decided to opt out of high school chemistry entirely. To this day I’ve never taken a chemistry class, all because I heard math was somehow involved.

A study by the University of Illinois found when young children believed their ability to perform certain tasks depended on natural ability, it had adverse consequences on their achievement after controlling for other variables.

The idea that math ability is like height or hair color affects everyone, but its effects are most potent for girls (like me), who seem to cling to the idea of innate math ability more than boys do, according to a study done conducted by Carol Dweck, a national leader in motivation research.

How do we help all kids believe they can succeed in STEM subjects?

As she explained in her 2006 paper, “Is Math a Gift? Beliefs That Put Females At Risk,” Dweck and fellow Stanford researcher Heidi Grant conducted another study in 2003 in which they examined a pre-med chemistry class at Columbia University. Among women who thought of intellectual ability as a “gift” or a fixed-ability, there was the typical achievement gap. But for the women who thought they could develop intellectual skills? The gender difference was reversed and those female students received higher final grades.

“The vulnerability seems to reside more in the [students] who see their ability as something that is fixed and that can be judged from their performance—so that when they hit challenges, their ability comes into question: If you have to struggle, then you must not have the gift. If your initial grades are poor, you must not have the gift,” wrote Dweck about the study.

The concept also affects kids from low-income families, who come to math class with less summer math practice, tutoring, and extra-curricular STEM activities than their higher income peers. As Kimball and Smith explain, lower-income kids too often interpret this lack of experience as lack of ability as their higher-income peers pass them up.

Thanks to my seventh grade math teacher, however well meaning he was, there’s an entire world of math and science I’ve never explored, and many fascinating career options that I never even considered. I’m lucky that I went on to do something I love, but my teacher introducing the idea that math was a talent I just didn’t have potentially squashed future interests, and made the rest of my math career in school pretty loathsome.

So how do we change the narrative? How do we help all kids believe they can succeed in STEM subjects and even become a mathematician or an astrophysicist if they’re interested and willing to practice? Several Pittsburgh organizations have the right idea—they’re sparking passion early and providing hands-on experiences.

One after school program, TechGYRLS, introduces girls to STEM careers by providing hands-on design and engineering challenges. The girls also meet with professional mentors who have STEM backgrounds. They’ve built robots, lifted fingerprints, and designed working boats.

WQED is expanding its Design Lives Here program, a hands-on engineering and design competition where kids complete challenges with help from local engineering mentors. Through trial and error, kids figure out tasks like how to move a ping-pong ball down a zip line and eventually invent a solution to a common problem.

Programs like these show kids the process that goes on behind STEM, and lets them experience first-hand the feeling of succeeding through practice and old fashioned grit—something I could have used in my middle school days.

“Perhaps people want to believe in innate gifts over earned abilities,” writes Dweck. “That way they can put high achievers on a pedestal and see them as different from others. Well, they are different from others, but I’m inclined to put more value on the process that got them there than on some ability they came with.”


How Early Should We Be Teaching STEM?

For many parents and teachers, tackling topics like engineering and science with children can seem daunting. Questions like, “Why is the sky blue?” can leave adults feeling like they don’t have the answers. However, many experts believe that this kind of “science talk” is just what children need in their early years, before the fear of being wrong materializes in formal and more competitive learning environments.

“In 20 years as a STEM educator, I have rarely gone a day without hearing or reading two common refrains about elementary education. If these themes were reduced to bumper sticker slogans they would read as follows: Elementary teachers fear science. Children are born scientists,” explained Doug Haller, principal of Haller STEM Education Consulting. Haller, a former educator, has made STEM education his business, literally, and now runs the blog STEM Education: Inspire, Engage, Educate.

Early learning experts have begun to tackle this conundrum. Sesame Street, long known for its pioneering efforts to teach basic math and literacy skills to young children has, in the last four years adjusted the show’s seasonal curricula to include specific science and engineering concepts and to emphasize more specific investigative skills.

For example, the character Grover, who was traditionally known for confidently making mistakes, is now “Super Grover 2.0.” This new version of the Muppet uses trial and error to solve seemingly silly problems like, say, a cow that is stuck in a doorway because of an inhibiting hairdo. Grover’s solutions are now directly linked to science concepts like spatial reasoning. Sesame Workshop will soon be unveiling a new online hub on its website, with new videos, online and mobile games, and parent and teacher resources on teaching science.

The best part about Sesame Street’s new curriculum is that it’s working. While there currently is no publicly available standardized assessment tool to gauge preschoolers’ science knowledge, recent studies conducted by Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit that produces of the show, have found that children can learn sophisticated vocabulary and valuable science concepts from shows like Sesame Street.

Aside from appealing to children’s inherent desire to ask questions about their environment, there are other reasons experts support using STEM concepts in pre-K classrooms.

“One often overlooked benefit of early childhood STEM programs is that they can counteract the destructive and persistent belief that math is for boys,” said Linda Rosen, CEO of Change the Equation, a nonprofit dedicated to improving STEM learning in a recent report. “Boys and girls alike internalize this belief as early as second grade, long before any actual gender differences in performance. We need to nip those attitudes in the bud, especially since math is the language of STEM.”

In addition to being the language of STEM, seminal research by Greg Duncan, professor at UC Irvine, has shown that pre-kindergarten mathematical knowledge is actually the highest predictor of later academic success. And early childhood exposure to STEM concepts not only helps to diffuse gender norms, like Change the Equation’s Rosen said, but can also help fight other harmful notions that often prevent children from pursuing their science-based interests.

For example, Lisa Guernsey, author of “Screen Time: How Electronic Media—From Baby Videos to Educational Software—Affects Your Young Child,” explored the benefits of teaching young children computer programming skills, like coding, in a recent op-ed for the New York Times.

Guernsey spoke to Claire Caine, a technology instructor at the Jewish Community Day School in Boston, where students have been testing out Scratch Jr., a new programming language designed for kindergarten students. “The earlier you catch them, the better off they are,” Caine told Guernsey. “The idea that they might not be good at something hasn’t entered their mind yet.”

Guernsey also noted that children are less likely to be swayed by stereotypes before age eight or nine. She has explored effective, hands-on ways to teach early engineering concepts in preschool and elementary-level classrooms. In a recent piece for the Smithsonian’s online magazine, she explained the game “Ramps and Pathways,” which has children construct ramps for marbles using common objects like blocks and strips of wooden molding. “In Ramps and Pathways classrooms, children explore the properties and possibilities inherent in a few simple materials,” said Guernsey.

Guernsey also interviewed Beth Van Meeteren, professor at the University of Northern Iowa, about the game. Van Meeteren wrote her dissertation on the subject, and has recorded videos of students’ decision-making skills as they build and rebuild their designs. She once saw a first-grade student build a structure over several days, culminating in 13 three-foot ramps in a “labyrinth-like” design that spiraled to the ground. “The marble traveled 39 feet on a structure that took up only nine square feet of floor space,” Guernsey wrote.

Van Meeteren explained that the design was entirely the student’s idea, and that games like “Ramps and Pathways” can teach a multitude of skills in the classroom—not just math. “I’d love to get this into more classrooms,” she said. “It seems that only gifted classrooms are allowed this quality instruction. All children benefit.”

Ideally, STEM learning will continue to find more outlets in early childhood classrooms, as well as kids’ media. But, until then, it’s up to teachers and parents to tackle STEM topics head on and meet young learners where they are, before it’s too late.

Understanding the Common Core

A new survey finds that approximately 62 percent of Americans have never heard of Common Core. Even those who are familiar with the standards admit confusion.

These findings emerge from the 45th annual PDK/Gallup Poll, which measures the public’s attitudes toward public schools and initiatives such as Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind.

Given the confusion, we thought a primer on the Common Core might be helpful. Below is a completely unscientific—and no doubt incomplete—gathering of what people are saying, writing, and thinking about the Common Core.

The basics: The Common Core Standards are an attempt to align curricula across states so students graduate with a shared set of knowledge that better prepares them for college-level work. They are designed to improve critical thinking and reduce reliance on rote memorization. Spearheaded by the National Governor’s Association, the standards apply to the English language arts and math—for now; science standards are in the works). The standards have been adopted by 45 states, though some are now considering retracting their “yea” vote.

The debate: The movement has met resistance from a variety of pundits and politicians, whose complaints center, sometimes in the same breath, on autonomy and control (something like, “I don’t need controls but everyone else does.”). From an education research angle, New York University’s Diane Ravitch leads the movement against Common Core. Ravitch, a liberal, has a strange bedfellow in the Tea Party, which also is resisting the Common Core. According to the Tea Party, the standards infringe on state’s rights; its opposition is perhaps also because the Obama administration has encouraged adoption of the standards through Race to the Top awards and waivers from No Child Left Behind. Business leaders and many editorial boards across the country tend to like the standards because they impart a shared knowledge base and improve high school graduates’ career-readiness. Here’s a handy cheat sheet to learn more about the debate.

What educators think: The opinions are varied, but many teachers and their unions are worried that the year is too short to cover the standards and, like “teaching to the test” under No Child Left Behind, the pressures will snuff out creative teaching and learning experiences. In addition, Common Core will introduce new teacher evaluations; 17 states have moved forward with them this year. A survey in February found that nearly half of the teachers felt unprepared to teach the standards. For more, Mind/Shift contributor Amanda Stupi has gathered thoughts from educators. Education Week offers thoughts as well, like this from algebra teacher Allison Crowley of why she thinks the standards will help students move from being the equivalent of GPS-dependent navigators to finding their way without a map.

Costs: Frankly, who knows? That’s the big question floating out there. The Department of Education has spent $330 million to develop new student assessments that align with the standards, which will start deploying in 2014. Here’s a map of each state’s adoption progress. The Pioneer Institute, a nonpartisan research organization in Boston, approximated the potential costs of the CCSS implementation process at $15.8 billion across participating states over the next seven years. But really, no one has a good handle on this yet.

One thing is for certain: there will be more lingo to remember: GBL, CBL, or PBL? Edutopia’s Matthew Farber defines all the acronyms used to describe creative ways of meeting Common Core Standards.

Remaking Math Education for Young Children

Once, when I was in middle school, I was given a word problem with a series of equations about finding the number of turkeys on a farm. I remember raising my hand and asking my teacher, “What does this have to do with real life? Aside from Thanksgiving, when will I ever need to know anything about turkeys?” Like so many students, I could not see the practical application of the math I was being taught in school.

Making math and science concepts “click” with students is now more important than ever. The National Math + Science Initiative has found that only 45 percent of 2011 US high school graduates were ready for college-level math and only 30 percent were prepared in science. And experts say these skills are going to be even more crucial in the jobs of the future, where the ability to understand sophisticated concepts and innovate will be prized skills.

So today’s educators are finding new ways to help students forge these integral math connections at an earlier age.

Writing at KQED’s Mind/Shift, author Annie Murphy Paul says that one of the easiest ways to do this is through “number talk,” or casually speaking math with young learners. “Many of us feel completely comfortable talking about letters, words and sentences with our children—reading to them at night, helping them decode their own books, noting messages on street signs and billboards,” Paul writes. “But speaking to them about numbers, fractions, and decimals? Not so much.”

Paul says that talking math at home is a key predictor of students’ future achievement in math once they get to school. She also provides a few tips to help educators and parents integrate math language terms into everyday scenarios, such as asking kids to regularly count objects or to directly relate math concepts to their specific interests.

However, sometimes just talking numbers isn’t enough. Last week the New York Times reported on a new project funded by the National Science Foundation to develop and evaluate apps to help very young kids learn sophisticated mathematics concepts. Next Generation Preschool Math, or NextGen, is bringing software developers and designers from WGBH, the Boston public television station, into preschool classrooms to work with Researchers from Education Development Center (EDC) and SRI International to develop apps.

Mathematics expert and Columbia University professor Herbert P. Ginsburg told the Times the educational math apps currently on the market only provide a surface-level exploration of numbers.

Ginsberg said that math games often sound deceptively simple, but that many of these animated number games are actually based on a misunderstanding of what children need to know. “It’s not just ‘I can count 1, 2, 3, 4, 5,’ ” he said. “It’s ‘What does 5 mean?’”

In a post on the same project at the Fred Rogers Center, Vice President of EDC Shelley Pasnik says researchers are trying to understand “what happens to young children’s learning—specifically their math learning—when their preschool teachers have new interactive tools at their disposal.” She writes that skills like counting and one-to-one correspondence, or “bijective function” as mathematicians might call it, are important but aren’t nearly the “whole math story.” Skills like subitizing, where a student is able to identify the number of items in a set without having to count them, or equipartitioning, the ability to create equal shares of one item, are invaluable skills that can have a more obvious practical value to students.

“Despite what may be longstanding anxiety around math as a topic, otherwise unsuspecting adults engage in math thinking quite regularly,” writes Pasnik. “Although adults may commonly engage in equipartitioning activities, they often do so from a social angle, focusing on the concept of fairness. Calling attention to the mathiness of this concept can help kids’ later learning as it’s a precursor to understanding proportion and more sophisticated number reasoning concepts.”

Fortunately, innovative games that reinforce the kinds of cognitive math skills and sub-surface level concepts that Pasnik and Ginsberg were talking about are becoming a part of the landscape in some classrooms across the country.

Digital Toys for Math Literacy, for example, is a low-cost, kid-friendly object with embedded electronics designed by the Pittsburgh nonprofit Propel Schools. The device was developed in conjunction with Carnegie Mellon University and Sima Products, a partnership that Pop City writer Melissa Rayworth says combines technological innovation, nonprofit grant-giving, education, and the importance of family. “Consider the way that parents sit with children to read books, and how that shared reading experience leads to conversations that connect family members, foster learning and promote literacy. This project seeks to create that same dynamic around math,” she writes. “It’s such a perfect illustration of modern Pittsburgh.”

Whether it’s effective games or casual conversation, there are many ways to make math concepts more relatable and interesting to young learners. Hopefully, with these types of learning innovations, the “I hate math” mythos that abounds in school cafeterias and study halls will soon be a thing of the past.


STEAM Lunch & Learn Recap

Kids+Creativity Network members joined for lunch and learning at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit 3 to discuss STEAM learning and it’s implications for Pittsburgh area schools. Presenting on this topic were Ken Lockette of Avonworth School District, David Martin of STREAM Academy, and Todd Keruskin of Elizabeth Forward School District. With a room full of eager-to-learn audience members, and plenty of information to relay, Dr. Linda Hippert, Director of the AIU, began the afternoon with a warm welcome.

Ken and David took the stage first, outlining some background of STEAM education and moving into their experiences at the Downingtown STEM Academy Conference. STEAM, as most know, stands for science, technology, engineering, arts, and math. This has been considered to be the direction schools should push their curriculum, to give students the best educational opportunities available. Many educators are gearing their lesson plans to include more science, tech, engineering, arts, and math in our region, because STEAM plays a huge role in Western Pennsylvania. The region’s market is STEAM-driven, and there’s no end to that drive in sight. We are a developing region, full of culture and life, and we are educating incredibly intelligent students.

“STEAM education enables the next generation of thinkers.”

The Downingtown STEM Academy stands as a great role model for all school districts working to change their students’ experiences. It began as a solution to a problem, and turned into an incredible opportunity. Downingtown High School had entirely too many students for faculty to teach, and building a brand new building was costly, so their solution was to create a streamlined, subject-focused Academy for dedicated students to apply, attend, and succeed. The STEM Academy of Downingtown was born. Pursued on a “leap of faith”- that students would wish to apply, attend, work through the rigorous course materials and complete the tedious and stressful assignments, the academy soon created an atmosphere like no other. Desks were gathered into pods to promote collaborative efforts, grading was shifted to a mastery goal rather than an informative quantity, and block scheduling was implemented to allow students more time to work on projects. Essentially, the Downingtown STEM Academy formed an environment where 21st century skills could be learned and developed.

Todd began his presentation by making a switch from Ken and Dave’s. While they talked about what is going on now, and how important it is to realize it, Todd talked about what could happen- what should happen. The focus, Todd explains, should be on forward thinking. More often than not, schools get stuck in a rut called “tradition” or “formal”. While the structure of the education and the curriculum are at stand still, the students are not. There is a need for a shift from what has always been to the more modern view of what will become. Workspace would be a great place to start. If the goal is to have kids collaborate more, then they need a space that encourages that and allows them to huddle up and discuss their ideas. The technology needs to shift as well to something that is conducive to kids’ virtual world. They are, as they have been called, digital natives, and there is no better place for them to explore that other than in education.

“Frontierland to Tomorrowland…”

Todd points the audience towards a book developed by M.I.T. that has catalyzed the change within his own district. “Hanging out, Messing around, and Geeking out”. Spark suggests you check it out! Hint: it involves everything in the title… in detail. Also, while you’re researching, check out YouMedia and SMALLab. We guarantee you’ll be happy you found it, and you’ll start dreaming of them for your own school immediately.

It is not often enough that educators and innovators are bought together to discuss trends or tactics in education, and today’s lunch & learn was filled with those sensing the rare opportunity. Though the presentations were thoroughly developed and the information outstanding, there is still a need for continued conversation about STEAM education. Spark has initiated this first step, and hopes to continue it further. To keep updated on opportunities to lengthen this conversation, or to join in other ones, visit sparkpgh.org.

International Spy School based in Pittsburgh gives middle school girls a head start in STEM

A group of young girls huddle around a sheet of paper speckled with a dark set of fingerprints.  Magnifying glasses in hand, they study the shapes and patterns of a clue. Across the room, another group uses iPhones to scan QR codes, receiving messages from senior agents at an off-site satellite base.  No, these girls are not being enlisted by the FBI to crack an international case…at least not yet, anyway. Solving mysteries using cutting-edge technology is all in a day’s work at Click! Spy School, an initiative of the Girls, Math & Science Program (GMSP), based at Carnegie Science Center.

Click! engages middle school girls ages 10–14 to become “agents-in-training” as they explore  science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Through summer camps, after school programs, condensed activity sessions, and online experiences, Click! allows girls to assume the identity of a “secret agent” on a covert mission to investigate a global crisis. Combining immersive storylines with practical applications, Click! fosters tactile-based inquiry, real-world problem solving skills, and career exploration in STEM. The Spy School provides critical informal science learning opportunities outside of the classroom, with a strong commitment to helping girls see themselves as future STEM professionals.

“There’s a lot of creativity with the Click! program, but it’s important for the story to be grounded in actual science,” says scientist-in-residence Sandlin Seguin. “It’s a big deal for these young girls to hear a scientist tell them you’re really good at this—you should be a scientist or yes, this is how I solve problems at work. Seeing them behave like scientists really validates what GMSP is doing through Click!

Conceived in 2005 by the University of Pittsburgh’s Learning Research and Development Center (LRDC) in collaboration with Carnegie Mellon School of Design, Click! Spy School focuses on three distinct areas of STEM—biomedical science, environmental protection, and expressive technology. In 2006, the Girls, Math & Science Partnership found a home at Carnegie Science Center.

“The Science Center is a hub for world-renowned education initiatives in STEM,” says John Radzilowicz, director of science at the Science Center. “With the Buhl Digital Planetarium, USS Requin, Rangos Omnimax Theater, and hundreds of hands-on exhibits, our campus is a center where young people can have experiences that inspire them for the rest of their lives. Click! is one of the programs of our Chevron Center for STEM Education and Career Development, which convenes industry leaders, educators, parents, and students to focus efforts to advance science literacy and cultivate the next generation workforce in STEM careers.”

In 2010, a Digital Media and Learning grant from the MacArthur Foundation allowed GMSP to translate the immersive Click! experience into a web-based interactive program to address the gender gap in online gaming. A virtual Click! Spy School was created, complete with female senior agents who mentor and communicate to “agents-in-training,” a chat function, and individual profiles. The online Spy School begins with solving an environmental crisis in Africa using digital “mini-games.” Using accessible and cost-effective online technology, the virtual Spy Camp removes the geographical barriers and allows girls from all walks of life to participate.

Using the city as a setting for adventure

On a typical day at a Click! camp, “junior agents” may be kayaking along the Ohio River, figuring out a whodunit at a local art museum like the Mattress Factory, writing a top-secret computer language, discovering sports science at Heinz Field, or touring a multinational corporation like Delmonte Foods. By venturing into their own backyard, Click! girls are able to connect international issues—like water quality, food shortages, and urban planning—to those that are happening in Pittsburgh.

“Agents-in-training” complete missions using core science methods while incorporating modern technology like iPhones, programming, mobile apps, gigapan imaging, and video conferencing. By the end of a Click! experience, girls have skills in fingerprint analysis, GPS location, water testing, collecting information, DNA testing, computer programming, calculating carbon footprints, and more. All programs are aimed at giving girls confidence in their ability to understand real-life applications of STEM, interpret information, collect and analyze data, construct explanations, design solutions, and obtain and communicate information.

“The girls get to become an international STEM professional, they even design a costume for their ‘passport photo’ and are asked to speak in character,” says Heather Mallak, Manager of Emerging technology  for Girls, Math & Science Partnership, who focuses on the play, design, and web-based aspects of the program. “A mission may involve building circuitry skills through an online game and then physically disassembling and rewiring an electronic. Mixing things up really keeps them interested.”

Since the program’s inception, Click! has reached more than 600 girls through onsite visits to the Science Center, partnerships with public and private schools, Girl Scout activities, community outreach, and afterschool programs.

Click! enlists all-star STEM “Senior Agents”

The Girls, Math & Science Partnership is led by Mallak; Nina Barbuto, trained architect and director of Assemble—a creative art space for children; scientist-in-residence Sandlin Seguin, PhD; and Zachary Koopmans, a mathematics Carnegie Mellon University grad and current engineering student at the University of Pittsburgh.

“There’s a lot of creativity with the Click! program, but it’s important for the story to be grounded in actual science,” says scientist-in-residence Sandlin Seguin. “It’s a big deal for these young girls to hear a scientist tell them you’re really good at this—you should be a scientist or yes, this is how I solve problems at work. Seeing them behave like scientists really validates what GMSP is doing through Click!

Partnerships like that with Seguin are instrumental to Click!’s success. A network of local and national female STEM professionals from esteemed companies and universities that regularly contribute to the Click! curriculum, guest counsel, serve as professional mentors, and act as cameo roles in the camps’ narrative.

Putting the emphasis on girl power, now and in the future

By now, it is no secret that girls rock. But, recent studies show that girls are not as likely to see themselves as STEM professionals as their male counterparts. In the Pittsburgh region alone, according to a 2003 study of career barriers for women and minorities commissioned by The Heinz Endowments, only 9% of women pursue science and technology degrees compared to 26% of men.  This local study reflects national trends, and further demonstrates the need for programs, like Click!, that get girls involved with STEM at a young age.  Early intervention is the first step in ensuring that women are proportionally represented in the workforce of the future.

Over the next decade, the U.S. Department of Labor says 7 of the 10 projected fastest growing occupations are in STEM fields. STEM professionals are expected to earn 26% more over their lifetime than those who work in non-STEM careers. While women still face obstacles in the workplace, arming young girls with the tools they need to succeed in male-dominated professions is one of the main objectives of the Girls, Math & Science Partnership.

GMSP and Carnegie Science Center aim to break down the barriers of education: income, race, socioeconomic status, and geography. In the near future, Click! programs will be offered to the next generation of innovators in England, India,  in a Pittsburgh neighborhood library…and everywhere in between. Satellite base camps are popping up all over the world, and “agents-in-training” are everywhere.

So, the next time you encounter a middle-school girl, see her as a leader, a scientist, a visionary. Because she just may be a secret agent, on a mission to change the world one covert assignment at a time.