An increasing focus on science, technology, engineering and math education could mean that the traditional staples of elementary education like story time and LEGO blocks could be augmented by lessons in science and computers. Schools all over the country are feeling the pressure to take steps to increase the number of students interested in pursuing degrees in the STEM fields to meet the growing demand in the job market. Schools in the Pittsburgh area are responding by overhauling their elementary education curriculum to add STEM components earlier.
“I was never in a programming class until I hit high school. Now students in the third and fourth grade have a chance to learn how to program a game,” said Todd Keruskin, assistant superintendent for the Elizabeth Forward School District.
Observing students at the district’s Summer Middle School Gaming Academy on Tuesday as they tweaked software settings to customize video games, Mr. Keruskin and Superintendent Bart Rocco couldn’t help noting how much technology education had improved in the district over a short time.
The effort to reshape elementary education began only last year, funded by a $10,000 Grable Foundation grant that was meant to be used to upgrade technology in the district’s high school classrooms. But what resulted was a state-of-the-art Entertainment Technology Center where students of all ages can get together and take advantage of the comfortable leather-clad seating to work on their technological dreams using new laptops.
The Summer Gaming Academy, which was restricted to high school students last year, had about 30 students in two classes this year and is expected to grow to 170 students next year.
Since the first grant came in last year, the district has secured $170,000 to use part of the high school library to create a high-tech YOUMedia center, which connects students to digital media and programs from across the country.
An additional $20,000 grant will go towards a similar project, called SMALLLab, which is aimed squarely at middle-school students. The center will contain computers equipped with video conference technology and motion-capture cameras. There will also be game systems with wireless controllers that will allow instructors to integrate video-game technology into their lessons. Both centers will open their doors to students and teachers this September.
In previous years, the district has experimented with ways to meld video games with academics with programs like having students write apps that they could then submit to the Apple store. This year, the program will be expanded to elementary schools throughout the area by forming a partnership with the Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center that will have students acting as guinea pigs for the games designed by the center’s graduate students.