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Pittsburgh STEM teachers pair with STEM professionals in new ASSET program

Emily Stimmel
October24/ 2017

Above: Chevron’s David Bajek shares a geology lesson with fifth graders from Tenth Street Elementary School in Oakmont. Photo by Jeff Swensen.

There’s no denying the value of STEM–science, technology, engineering, and math–education in preparing students for the careers of the future. But although the demand for highly skilled workers is steadily increasing, the number of students pursuing STEM fields isn’t keeping pace.

To close the gap, ASSET STEM Education recently launched a pilot program that pairs classroom educators with industry experts. The program is one of over 130 professional development courses the organization provides to more than 3,500 educators each year.

Through the program, 25 local teachers and school administrators have partnered with more than 20 professionals from nine companies. The educators—who teach subjects ranging from Japanese to social studies—attended a two-day project-based learning (PBL) session in August. They brought what they learned back to students at all levels from second grade through college.

Compared to traditional instruction, PBL has been shown to increase long-term retention of content, sharpen problem-solving and collaboration skills and improve students’ attitudes towards learning. This is why ASSET’s executive director, Dr. Cynthia Pulkowski, calls it the “gold standard” for interdisciplinary learning.

“Teachers become the facilitators of student-driven, authentic, real-world scenarios that provide opportunities for collaboration, critical thinking, communication, creativity, and innovation,” says Pulkowski. “Classroom projects range from conserving the region’s riverfront to alternative game design—think musical chairs with no music or chairs—and cybersecurity.”

One of those projects is connecting Cathy Favo, a fifth-grade science and social studies teacher at Riverview School District’s Tenth Street Elementary School, with David Bajek, a senior geologist from Chevron.

Favo says her teaching style has continuously evolved over 32 years in response to innovations in technology, from personal computers to the Internet, laptops, and smartphones. For her, the externship experience is another important piece of her professional growth.

“I am including more inquiry, self-selected projects, design challenges and group work in my lessons,” she says.

For his part, Bajek is engaging students by framing the discussion around their neighborhood.

“They got to see why Oakmont was located where it was and what role the Allegheny River played in creating the flat spot for their town. We also discussed the cliffs across the river and why Route 28 experiences landslides,” says Bajek.

Favo’s students will integrate their newfound geological knowledge with their social studies curriculum.

“We are starting a project now to research a national park and make an infomercial to share what they learned and entice people to visit that park. One requirement is to include some information on the landforms and physical features and how they were formed. I can’t wait to see what my students produce!” she says.

But the lessons aren’t limited to the classroom.

Favo adds, “It was great to meet someone as avid about his career as I am about mine. It was interesting to meet a grown-up rock enthusiast and see how this passion has turned into a very successful and satisfying career.”

Cathy Rohrer co-teaches fourth, fifth and sixth grades with Rachael Dudzic at Montessori Children’s Community in Sewickley. She was paired with Doug Smith, a landman with Consol Energy.

Rohrer believes the partnership aligns well with the Montessori philosophy of “cosmic education,” which emphasizes the interconnectedness of academic disciplines. Her students will form teams to examine the environmental and archeological implications of drilling sites in western Pennsylvania and Ohio and will report their findings to Smith.

“This experience is a great way to make our history, geology, geography, and ecosystems work very relevant to the timely issue of energy production,” says Rohrer.

Left to right: Alcoa’s Shelley Ranii, Norwin School District’s Tim Kotch, and Grand Canyon University’s Candace Robick. Photo courtesy of ASSET STEM Education.

Indeed, the externship program highlights the overlap between varied disciplines – and STEM skills aren’t the only focus. According to Norwin School District’s assistant superintendent of secondary education Tim Kotch, cultural competency is an essential element of success in an increasingly global job market.

Alongside Norwin High School teachers Dr. J. Scott Polen, Ray Rakvic and Tom Harskowitch, Kotch was matched with Shelley Ranii, a manager of strategic planning and analysis at Alcoa. Through the collaboration, he witnessed firsthand how Alcoa fosters teamwork worldwide, with employees regularly traveling to the Middle East, South America, Asia, Africa and Europe.

With funding from Arconic Foundation and additional support from Chevron, Consol Energy, Covestro and PPG, ASSET is linking pedagogy and practice by giving educators an inside view of STEM careers. But Pulkowski credits the program’s successful start to the participants.

“The enthusiasm of both the teachers and STEM professionals has been absolutely inspiring,” she says.

Emily Stimmel

Emily fell in love with the written word as a teenager, when she published zines and wrote for her school paper. Today, she is a freelance writer with a decade and a half of experience in non-profit communications. She enjoys cooking, reading, crafting and exploring Pittsburgh with her husband and two sons.

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