Pittsburgh Educators Marry Art with Technology in New STEAM Learning Projects

In Pittsburgh, educators say preparing our next generation of innovators to lead the 21st-century economy means teaching art and design in addition to science, technology, engineering, and math.

Here in Pittsburgh we know a thing or two about interdisciplinary collaboration. The marriage of design, art, and technology has been driving innovation in the city for years, especially in new fields like game design that depend on bringing different kinds of creative thinkers into the same room to collaborate.

The city has long been a hotbed for technology start-ups as well as cutting-edge art and design. Locals like Sabrina Culyba, a robotics designer at Interbots, describe the region as a “melting pot of collaboration.”

This ethos has made its way into the region’s K-12 public schools, where educators are revamping their curriculums, redesigning learning spaces, and placing new emphasis on STEAM learning.

Although the Obama administration has been supporting new programs to help strengthen education in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and math)—see their support for DARPA and the STEM Master Teacher Corps, for example—educators in Pittsburgh and around the country say it’s also crucial to add in the arts, the “A” in STEAM.

At the Pine-Richland High School in Gibsonia, PA, educators are working together to offer a series of interdisciplinary classes in chemistry, business, math, art, systems engineering, music, robotics, and computer-assisted drafting to help better prepare their graduates for the technology- and collaborative-rich workplaces they are likely to face in the future. The aim is to get students to follow their ideas from conception to design to production. Students will be taking classes at the school’s brand new STEAM center, set to open next month.

“We want the teachers to be involved in planning and collaborating across disciplines,” school superintendent Mary Bucci told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “So that the concepts the students are getting in science and math will get to the practical application. It’s the way we get them connected to the real world outside the school.”

The 95,000-square-foot, two-story space has labs on both floors and is surrounded by glass to showcase student work to peers and the public.

Teachers here believe that the melding of the arts with technology or engineering education can enhance engagement and learning and inspire creative thinking and innovation.

John Maeda, president of the Rhode Island School of Design, agrees.

“STEM alone will not get us there,” he wrote in a recent post at Edutopia. “Innovation happens when convergent thinkers, those who march straight ahead toward their goal, combine forces with divergent thinkers – those who professionally wander, who are comfortable being uncomfortable, and who look for what is real.”

Maeda will be among the national leaders testifying at a congressional briefing this week on the importance of changing the vocabulary in education reform from STEM to STEAM—to include both art and science, and their intersections—in educating  the next generation of innovators.

With support from the Center for Creativity and the Allegany Intermediate Unit (AIU), STEAM projects that aim to create these kinds of divergent thinkers, as well as convergent ones, are popping up at schools all over Pittsburgh. The AIU has provided STEAM grants to more than 80 schools in Allegheny County since 2009, totally nearly $1 million in support.

Crafton Elementary recently held a community open house to show off projects fifth and sixth grade students have been working on at the school’s brand new STEAM room. Trib Live reports that students are working on iPads, building robotic merry-go-rounds, and building campground models from clay and fabric.

And at the Elizabeth Forward High School a new library encourages students to perform and record their own spoken-word poetry or remix original musical compositions in a new performance space and audio studio.

“When kids go home they are engaged in this kind of technology,” said Elizabeth Forward School District superintendent Bart Rocco. “We want kids to want to come here and to find it interesting and engaging.”

Published February 15, 2013