A New Model for Coding in Schools

Erica is the communications manager at Digital Promise. You can reach her on Twitter at @EricaLawton.

[For the past three years I’ve worked with the South Fayette School District on a consulting basis. I help to coordinate a Summer Institute for Educators that focuses on computational thinking skills. I’ve also served as an outreach coordinator to work with an urban and rural school demonstrate how the South Fayette model scales to other institutions with different student populations. ]

“It happened one fateful rainy day” sounds more like the start of a romantic comedy than that of an ed-tech transformation. But in South Fayette Township School District, Pa., that’s how an after-school program for technology and arts eventually became a national model for incorporating computational thinking into a K-12 curriculum.

Computational thinking is typically associated with coding and computer programming, but it’s also more than that, involving “solving problems, designing systems, and understanding human behavior,” according to Carnegie Mellon University.

These are important skills in a technology-driven world, whether you want to become a programmer or not. Many schools around the country offer after-school programs or electives for students interested in computational thinking. In South Fayette, a suburban and rural district of 2,700 students near Pittsburgh, it’s woven into the district culture, as well as the core curriculum at every grade level.

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21st Century Skills Made Simple

[The term 21st Century Skills have been thrown about for over 15 years now. We really need a better term. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills developed a matrix around the 4Cs – Collaboration, Communication, Creative Problem Solving, Creativity and Innovation. Today we’re now considering “dispositions” like persistence and grit. The Remake Learning initiative in Pittsburgh has assembled a playbook that addresses the knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary for any learning success. One of the schools cited, South Fayette, is one of my clients. They have made computational thinking the key for teaching and learning. Here’s an article that provides an overview.]

May 19, 2015 with contributions by Kathleen Costanza and Tom Mashberg

Photo/Ben Filo

Photo/Ben Filo

Developing critical thinking, problem solving, and collaboration is challenging, but it must become second nature in an increasingly competitive, global economy.

Advancing technology, globalization, and a demand for higher-skilled jobs mean the modern workplace requires far more challenging skills than it did two decades ago. Responding to these heightened expectations, educators are increasingly finding ways to instill a set of abilities that will prepare kids for the world ahead, commonly referred to as “21st century skills.”

But when you hear the term “21st century skills,” keep two things in mind: People have more of them than they realize, and with focus and learning you can develop many others.

Generally speaking, 21st century skills refers to the demands and expectations placed on students, teachers, employees, innovators, and others as they strive to succeed and prosper and in a competitive, multidisciplinary, and technology-driven world.

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Learning EduWins for 2013


Photo by Norton Gusky

Edutopia recently published a list of top themes for 2013. It was gratifying to see how many of those themes reflect my work with schools, non-profits, and events in the Pittsburgh region. Here’s my own reflection based on the Edutopia article:

  • Game-based Learning – This year I began a formal relationship with Zulama, especially focusing on the Entertainment Technology Academy. Nikki Navta, the founder of Zulama, asked me to provide editorial level feedback for the development of professional development materials. I worked with an incredible team led by Bev Vaillencourt, the instructional designer for Zulama, Caroline Lippi,the all purpose administrative assistant, and Mary Wilson, one of the original Zulama teachers from the Elizabeth Forward School District. Together with Nikki Navta we drafted pre-training and training materials, trying to find ways to “flip” the training to better personalize the sessions. We also delivered a series of training workshops that included teachers, administrators, vendors, and other interested educators.
  • Technology for Learning – For the past few years I’ve been moving the Three Rivers Educational Technology Conference (tRETC) away from technology to become a learning conference. This year Richard Culatta provided an exciting keynote address for our theme: Using Technology to Remake Learning. I remixed the title based on the great work done by the Kids & Creativity Network in Pittsburgh. The presenters included an array of K-12 and out-of-school experts who outlined a variety of ways to make learning an anytime, anywhere endeavor.
  • Empowering Kids – In March I experienced the 2013 Digital Media Learning Conference (DML) in Chicago. The theme for 2013 focused on Participatory Learning, using digital media to develop civic engagement for youth. One of the speakers, Andrew Slack, really impacted me. I decided to bring Andrew to Pittsburgh as the keynote speaker for the pre-conference at TRETC. I’ve always believed in the power of student involvement. Many schools fail to realize that kids can be key elements in their capacity-building. I’m quite pleased to work with my colleague, Aileen Owens, the Director of Technology and Innovation at the South Fayette School District. Aileen has understood the power of student empowerment and now has an app development team at South Fayette. In 2013 I joined Aileen and her South Fayette team as a consultant. I now coordinate the outreach for a project on computational thinking. Students become game designers and computer scientists as they use tools like Scratch, 3D printers, and eTextiles.
  • Project-based Learning – During 2013 I worked with the Mars Area Middle School and Central Catholic High School on project-based learning training for staff members. At both sites I adapted materials developed by the Bucks Institute for Education. Teachers developed engaging lessons starting with Entry Activities and concluding with Authentic Assessments shared with real audiences. Along the way the teachers developed Driving Questions and used an inquiry-based process to engage the students in real questioning. I introduced two of the teachers from Mars at a session at TRETC. The response from the audience was quite enthusiastic.
  • New Sources of Funding – While I will never claim to be a grant-writer, I had a very successful year helping organizations like the Carnegie Library of Homestead, the Keystone Oaks School District, the South Fayette School District, and the Flipped Learning Network receive grants for programs and projects. I feel fortunate that I have learned over the years how to take an institution’s vision and match it to the goals for a particular granting source. In 2013 I tapped into funding opportunities from the Grable Foundation, the Sprout Fund, and the Center for Creativity at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit. The projects ranged from using Digital Media to sustainable gardening with hydroponics.
  • Student Agency – Wherever I’ve worked I’ve always tried to give students opportunities to share their talents. This year it’s been wonderful to see the growth of the Reading Warrior program at the Neighborhood Learning Alliance (NLA)  where I serve on the Board of Directors. The Reading Warriors is one of several programs that focuses on using high school students as tutors for younger learners. There are now Phys Ed Warriors and we hope soon “Tech Warriors.” Google has challenged NLA to come up with a program that will impact young people in the Pittsburgh community. I suggested a program based on digital story-telling where kids use code to tell their past, present, and future stories. If the grant comes through, NLA will have Tech Warriors at the four Pittsburgh Connects sites.