Google Glass and greenhouses: unique Pittsburgh classrooms

When Pittsburgh Langley K-8 opened in August 2012, in the former Langley High School building, principal Rodney Necciai and his staff found a greenhouse in one of the building’s courtyards. It looked as if it had not been visited, much less used, in decades. Surrounding the greenhouse was empty, overgrown land.

Today, cherry tomato plants and plum trees flourish beside plots with immense green zucchini and eggplants. Banana peppers dangle over one garden bed, while an herb garden is nestled in the greenhouse’s shadow.

Students in Langley’s after-school gardening club cultivate the vegetables, then harvest them for use in Langley’s home-economics kitchens. CitiParks staffers and the culinary arts program of the Art Institute of Pittsburgh have lent the program a chef and culinary students to mentor club members.

Langley’s courtyard garden is just one example of a Pittsburgh-area school creatively addressing the question: Where can students learn?

The answer, increasingly, is: Anywhere. Outside, in what looks like a pile of forest debris but is really an insect lab. Inside the glass walls of a brand-new science space designed especially for small groups of girls. Everywhere. Schools throughout the region are experimenting with unusual learning spaces that provide students with unique and authentic learning experiences.

Inside Langley's greenhouse, the class combines science and art. Photo by Erika Gidley
Inside Langley’s greenhouse, the class combines science and art. Photo by Erika Gidley

“Our kids have had an opportunity to go from seed to table and see what that looks like,” says Necciai. “They started out the year making smoothies, and by the end they were making home-made gnocchi and chicken alfredo.” Students not only gained some impressive cooking skills, but came away from the experience with a broader sense of where their food comes from and the involved processes required to get a meal to the table.

Growing their own food is especially meaningful to Langley students: the school’s West End neighborhood of Sheraden, where most students live, is considered a “food desert.” Few students have had the opportunity to garden.

“We try to give students access to as many experiences as possible,” says Necciai. “This is a big part of that effort.”

The Active Classroom for Girls

The Ellis School's new science space is specially designed for girls to learn STEM subjects. Photo by Erika Gidley
The Ellis School’s new science space is specially designed for girls to learn STEM subjects. Photo by Erika Gidley

Inside the Ellis School‘s new Active Classroom for Girls, a 3-D printer warms up on a lab counter. Each of the classroom’s tables holds a flat-screen computer with a touch screen, equipped with software for designing prototypes and sharing student notes via an in-class network. Two projectors play a video of a lab demonstration on the classroom’s walls, taken by the school’s Google Glass-wearing physics teacher.

“All of these changes are a signal that something different is going on here,” says Lisa Abel-Palmieri, the school’s director of technology and innovation.

She’s standing in the middle of this new science space, which was recently transformed into a state-of-the-art learning environment dedicated to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education.

Just as important as the technology inside the Active Classroom, says Abel-Palmieri, are subtler touches, such as the dual projectors that put images on two walls, erasing the distinction between the front and back of the room. And while the classroom’s tables aren’t particularly cutting-edge, they were designed to fit just three students, based on research indicating that teams of three are optimal for helping students, particularly girls and minorities, learn STEM topics.

Working on robot construction in the new Ellis classroom. Photo by Erika Gidley
Working on robot construction in the new Ellis classroom. Photo by Erika Gidley

And Abel-Palmieri’s in-class time has flipped, from approximately 80 percent devoted to lectures to that same amount now devoted to labs and other hands-on work.

So far, the Active Classroom has been a hit with students. Abel-Palmieri describes girls flocking to the room to catch a glimpse of the latest prototype from the 3-D printers.

“We have to kick them out of class,” she says.



Wishful learning

The Falk School classroom takes kids into the field. Photo by Erika Gidley
The Falk School classroom takes kids into the field. Photo by Erika Gidley

Falk Laboratory School’s School Habitat Enhancement and Rehabilitation Project (SHERP) is a weekly class exploring ecological issues first-hand, with a classroom composed of dirt trails and dense foliage that host a variety of plant and animal life. A second-grader crouches on a dirt trail and plants a bright pink flag beside a groundhog burrow. Nearby, another student uses a yellow flag to identify poison ivy among the undergrowth on a slope behind the school. Up the hill sits the “Critter Cottage,” a jumbled pile of bricks, wooden planks, straw, and leaves that a fourth-grade class recently designed to attract insects for up-close observation.

Falk School has hands-on education in its outdoor classroom.
Falk School has hands-on education in its outdoor classroom. Photo by Erika Gidley

The Falk School’s approach to innovative educational spaces like this one is driven by an educational philosophy founded on wishes. The wishes teachers have for Falk students range from developing friendships to maintaining a healthy diet. And they include fostering a sense of reverence for the natural world and encouraging children to share in maintaining spaces around, which inspired Falk to develop SHERP, says kindergarten teacher Jill Sarada.

Says Sarada: “Our mission is to educate the whole child, and to encourage them to think critically, to learn in different ways, and to learn by doing hands-on activities.”

Putting it all together

A second-grader lifts the lid of a giant plastic bin in a corner of a classroom at the Environmental Charter School (ECS). Her classmate dumps in a bucket of food collected from the cafeteria.

They’re not feeding a class pet; this food is organic waste to be processed by the worms inside the bin. A third student leans in to monitor the moisture levels of the worm composting bin, then adds scraps of shredded newspaper to keep the compost from attracting flies.

Across the room, writing and drawing with markers on a glass wall, students design signs that will be displayed in the cafeteria to let their classmates know about their project and the kinds of foods that can and can’t be composted. Two ECS faculty members, a science teacher and an art and design instructor, move from group to group, asking questions to help the students reflect on their work and push forward to the next step.

This is the Thinking Lab at the ECS lower school in Regent Square, a classroom where science, art, and design come together. Using simple tools like Post-It notes, the glass wall, and poster boards to create concept maps and storyboards, the second-grade class identified the problem of waste in the school cafeteria, devised a solution, and implemented a process of collecting food waste during each lunch period. Students work in groups to collect data on the composting progress and to collect food waste to dump into the bin.

It’s part of the ECS’s longstanding interest in learning that occurs through students’ interaction with their environment—both natural and man-made.

“We’re interested in developing students’ capacity for understanding how the world around them is connected,” says Shannon Merenstein, art and design coach. “We’re hoping to get them thinking about the complex ideas and systems that are all around them.”