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From Building Solar-Powered Mini-Cars to Creating Apps in the Classroom

Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

Summer camp — it’s not just for kids anymore. 

Teachers from around the Pittsburgh area and from as far away as Alabama this week attended the STEAM Innovation Summer Institute at South Fayette Intermediate School to learn how to embed robotics, computational thinking and game design into their curricula.  

Amidst lights flashing  and lots of beeps, elementary school teachers are playing with, or rather experimenting with, littleBits — tiny circuit boards engineered to snap together with magnets.

“These would be appropriate for students in grades 1 through 5. They are learning different ways to turn their ideas into inventions — make them light up, make them move, play sounds,” said Melissa Unger, STEAM consultant for the Summer Institute.

The inventions can be anything as basic as a windmill to a three-wheeled solar-powered car.

“I’d say the teacher is the guide but the students are the designers of these projects.”

Sixty-seven teachers representing more than 20 school districts attended the Summer Institute. According to Aileen Owens, the director of innovation and technology at the South Fayette School District, the Summer Institute is a continuation of outreach efforts by the district to share successes in innovative learning practices with other schools.

The teachers learned how to use SCRATCH to introduce computational thinking into their courses, as well as game design for students to create their own math tests.  But, because this is a STEAM program — referring to science, technology, engineering, arts and math— Owens said teachers are learning to embed the technology into the arts including language arts for their students.

“They’re making interactive stories," she said. "They’ll read a story and take a piece of that story to make interactive.  It’s very powerful; it’s a new way to think.  We’re teaching students at an early age to think algorithmically, recursively and logically.”

In other words, the way computer scientists and engineers think.

Credit Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0.
18-year old Radhir Khoturi, a recent graduate of South Fayette High School instructs teachers how to help their students create apps

Radhir Kothuri, 18,  plans to be a computer scientist. He graduated from South Fayette this spring. But before heading off to the University of Illinois, he was in front of the teachers at the Summer Institute, instructing them how to use computer programming for their students to create games and mobile apps.

“Processing allows you to have that creative output while still learning the fundamentals of programming,” he said.

Kothuri said the teachers are "actually really good at understanding what programming is and picking up from the start about all the skills and everything we need to create the game.”

So how will the teachers at the STEAM summer camp apply what they learned this week? 

“It can be incorporated into any discipline whatsoever,” said David E. Cook, who teaches Spanish at Fort Cherry Junior and Senior High Schools in Washington County.

He plans to use modules from Zulama's Evolution of Games course that focus on culture including games found in Babylonian royal tombs in what is now Iraq.

“We can incorporate this with other Spanish games that were part of the Aztecs and Mayans and incorporate it in a culture lesson within Spanish.”

Kathy Michelotti is a special education teacher with Pittsburgh Public Schools.  She believes the Scratch coding language will be helpful with her students at Pittsburgh Woolslair K-5 in reading, math, science and storytelling.

“You can use it any activity where the students can actually use the coding to make presentations to other students on any subject matter.  They can create games, quizzes, all kinds of really cool stuff that the kids I think will enjoy.”

According to Summer Institute coordinator Aileen Owens, the innovation techniques enhance the change in approach to learning, from memorization of facts to problem solving.

“We want to change the way that they look at the world," Owens said. "We want to change the way they think. We want them to be creative producers and not absorb knowledge, but actually be creators.”

The teachers at the STEAM Innovation Summer Institute will soon be back in their classrooms guiding these young creators.