By Eric Seiverling
Seven-year-old Halina Boburka is building a roller coaster. No, it’s not the kind you’ll see at Kennywood or other amusement parks.
The South Fayette Township Elementary School second grader and her classmates are building miniature prototype roller coasters, with the help of a marble to test their track’s speed and efficiency, as they learn innovation and teamwork.
The district believes this curriculum will transform the education process by exposing students to the engineering and design problem-solving process, and is part of the district’s STEAM – science, technology, engineering, arts, mathematics – program.
“The kids are very engaged and excited to work on the projects,” said Melissa Unger, second grade STEAM teacher. “They recognize teamwork as a concrete skill. It prepares them for third grade engineering projects, like building bridges. I think it’s great to see how it builds their confidence.”
The new curriculum coincides with the high school’s new look, which includes 35,000 square feet of additional space to accommodate the district’s growing population. Superintendent Dr. Bille Rondinelli estimated the district grows by 120 new students per year.
The $32 million project included additional classroom space, wider corridors, updated media center, and an innovation lab that features engineering labs, and media and art studios.
Dubbed The Fab Lab, the engineering lab allows students to research designs for their own robots, which they use for battlebot competitions, and create projects using 3D printers, lasers, CNC machines, and scanners.
“The 3D printer takes a 10-hour print job and pares it down to two or three hours,” high school senior Dave Petyk explained.
The lab lets students get a taste of real-world business practices by learning marketing and manufacturing. Some of the students’ work has been used by companies like Alcosan, EAFab Corporation, and All-Clad. But, for high school seniors to succeed in this curriculum, they must be introduced to computational thinking at an early age.
As early as kindergarten, students are being introduced to computer coding, electrical circuitry, and programming Lego robotics.
In the intermediate school, students are learning computational literacy, engineering VEX IQ robots, and designing virtual tours of the school building.
“The kids love every minute of it,” Tom Kaminski, intermediate school principal, said. “It’s hands-on, and it’s minds-on. We’ve had a lot of praise from parents for it.”
Kaminski said the computational learning program has been so successful, the school district now features a STEAM summer camp, which sees between 60 and 70 students enroll during their summer break.
By the time students enter the middle school, they must learn Python programming language and use their skills in a simulation of the movie The Martian where students use their computational thinking abilities to solve mathematical puzzles, science equations, and even learn to grow potatoes on the planet Mars.
Teachers, parents, and students aren’t the only ones praising the results of computational learning.
Members of the non-profit organization Digital Promise visited the school district on Wednesday, Sept. 6, as part of its League of Innovative Schools initiative. The group provides grants to school districts in an effort to pioneer innovative learning and leadership practices.
“We always want to have our eyes and ears out there to see what’s going on in the classrooms,” said Kim Smith, the league’s executive director, after touring the school facilities. “South Fayette is doing outstanding work. They’re really cutting edge. How they think about opening students’ minds is really impressive.”