STEM-focused education gains steam in Western Pennsylvania schools

| 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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