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STEM-focused education gains steam in Western Pennsylvania schools

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Dave Wiegmann, accountant

• Chief financial officer and director of accounting at The Meadows Racetrack and Casino in North Strabane

• Bachelor's degree in management with emphasis in accounting and finance from Oakland University; master's degree in corporate finance from Walsh College; Certified Public Accountant in Michigan

• “Being an accountant you're always using numbers, and it's all about numbers. ... The mathematics part is, ‘Why are the numbers doing what they're doing?' It's with that information that you can explain what's happening. It gives you an incredible amount of power in whatever situation.”

Jim Graham, insurance agent

• President of Graham Insurance Group Inc., a Nationwide Insurance agency in Jeannette

• Bachelor's degree in elementary education, insurance licensing exams

• “One of the things I do oftentimes when I sell insurance on a house is take measurements and calculate the square footage, then plug that into an estimator that helps determine what it will take to replace. Calculators do the figuring but they don't tell you what numbers to put in and what function to perform.”

Mike Benson, banker

• Se nior vice president and bran ch sales executive at First C om monwealth Bank, based in India na

• Bachelor's degree in economics from Kalamazoo College; master's degree in business administration from Kent State University

• “In everything you do, you have to measure the result. In the business world, in part, math is, ‘Are yo u making a profit?' ‘Are you deliverin g on your promise to the customer?' All businesses need to measure whether they're successful or not, becaus e if you're not successful, then you can't remain in business.”

Binky Sargent, materials science engineer

• Manager of materials ana lysis at Kennametal in Unit y

• Bachelor's degree and master's degree in materials science engineering

• “We use a lot of different measurements, so by using statistical math, we can be smart about how we do our sampling. We get to be creative; we get to calculate chemistries to get the type of result we want. It doesn't matter if you're going to be a doctor, an engineer, a musician or an artist, math is going to be beneficial.”

Jeffrey Kennedy, dairy farmer

F ourth-generation farmer an d owner of Four Seasons Farm in Penn Townshi p, Butler County

• Graduate of Knoch High School

• “Budgets — every business has to worry about budgets. Making sure you have calculated how much feed for what the cows are producing in pounds of milk per day. In the spring, calculating how much fertilizer we need. ... Math is almost second nature. You can ask me a question and I can pop off an answer, that's how involved math is in my life .”

Nancy Hoff Barsotti, interior designer

• Fellow of the American S ociety of Interior Designers; president of the Pennsylvania West Chapter of ASID; certified by the National Council for Interior Design Qualification, with an office in South Side

• Bachelor's degree in interior design from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh

• “This is very much a business. It's wonderful to be creative and such, but you need to be able to handle the business. Math is extremely crucial and important in my business. You have to be able to think on your feet. You could be stuck with a very expensive mistake: a sofa, a wall unit. It's really important to be able to do (estimates) quickly and accurately.”

Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013, 8:30 p.m.

Students having difficulty in reading are thought to be missing developmental milestones, but when they falter in math, it doesn't carry that stigma, said Sarah McCluan, spokeswoman with Allegheny Intermediate Unit, which provides services to 42 suburban school districts.

“It seems in our society it's perfectly OK to say, ‘Oh, I can't do math,' ” she said.

To propel students into science- and mathematics-related careers, the right attitude has to start at a young age, McCluan said.

The importance of focusing on problem-solving and critical thinking and exposing students to careers in science, technology, engineering and math — collectively known as STEM — intensified in recent years.

State assessments shifted to Common Core Standards, which would teach math more in-depth. School districts are developing strategies such as using technology and hands-on activities, said Cindy Shaffer, Westmoreland Intermediate Unit curriculum specialist.

“We can't be asking them to do things at the recall level. We have to ask them to apply,” she said.

Pine-Richland Assistant Superintendent Dave Foley said in that Allegheny County district, educators work to build a foundation for youngsters with real-life applications of math and science. For older students, teachers are revamping the algebra curriculum.

In Norwin School District, hands-on, problem-solving curricula, such as educational Lego robotics projects in third grade, evolve into robotics projects during technology classes in high school, said Michael Choby, coordinator of STEM education and the high school's assistant principal.

The district hosted its second STEM summit in the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown, last week , inviting educators, business representatives and parents to strengthen resources and relationships, he said.

“We're trying to grow this across the board, because kids will be able to transition (these skills) from subject to subject to subject,” Choby said.

“When employers look at graduates as potential workers, they are not interested in people who can fill out multiple choice tests but people who can solve problems,” said Chris Schunn, a senior scientist at the University of Pittsburgh's Learning Research and Development Center. “That rote way of learning things is the easiest to forget.”

Research shows about half the students who express interest in a STEM career by eighth grade end up in those fields, Schunn said.

But if a student doesn't understand the most basic math, he or she will fall behind, he said. That translates to the equivalent of 10 years of difference in instruction that would be necessary to catch up the lowest-performing students to the highest, research shows.

Stacey Federoff is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6660 or




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