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Greater Latrobe, Norwin school districts increase emphasis on STEM curriculum

Jeff Himler
| Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017, 11:00 p.m.
Eighth-grade wood shop teacher Chip Pletcher (center) oversees students (from left) Trey Anderson, Logan Short and Hailey Eury as they work to weave a wooden base for a serving tray during their STEM class at Latrobe Area Junior High School in Unity on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
Eighth-grade wood shop teacher Chip Pletcher (center) oversees students (from left) Trey Anderson, Logan Short and Hailey Eury as they work to weave a wooden base for a serving tray during their STEM class at Latrobe Area Junior High School in Unity on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017.
Teacher AJ Haberkom works with eight-graders inside his medical detectives class at Latrobe Area Junior High School in Unity on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017. The medical detectives class teaches students to investigate illnesses as if they were in a crime lab, while learning about viruses, bacterias and the human body.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
Teacher AJ Haberkom works with eight-graders inside his medical detectives class at Latrobe Area Junior High School in Unity on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017. The medical detectives class teaches students to investigate illnesses as if they were in a crime lab, while learning about viruses, bacterias and the human body.
Eight-grader Max Wilson investigates different food-borne illnesses as part of the medical detectives class at Latrobe Area Junior High School in Unity on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017. The medical detectives class teaches students to investigate illnesses as if they were in a crime lab, while learning about viruses, bacterias and the human body.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
Eight-grader Max Wilson investigates different food-borne illnesses as part of the medical detectives class at Latrobe Area Junior High School in Unity on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017. The medical detectives class teaches students to investigate illnesses as if they were in a crime lab, while learning about viruses, bacterias and the human body.
Eighth-graders (from left) Josh Brown, Zoey Bier, Mia DeCerb and Savannah Ferry use Chromebooks and Google Classroom to investigate food-borne illnesses as part of the medical detectives class at Latrobe Area Junior High School in Unity on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
Eighth-graders (from left) Josh Brown, Zoey Bier, Mia DeCerb and Savannah Ferry use Chromebooks and Google Classroom to investigate food-borne illnesses as part of the medical detectives class at Latrobe Area Junior High School in Unity on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017.
Eighth-grader Hailey Eury tightens a wood clamp while making a woven serving tray during wood shop, as part of the STEM program at Latrobe Area Junior High School in Unity on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
Eighth-grader Hailey Eury tightens a wood clamp while making a woven serving tray during wood shop, as part of the STEM program at Latrobe Area Junior High School in Unity on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017.
Eighth-graders (from left) Trey Anderson, Hailey Eury and Logan Short weave a wooden base for a serving tray during wood shop, part of the STEM program at Latrobe Area Junior High School in Unity on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
Eighth-graders (from left) Trey Anderson, Hailey Eury and Logan Short weave a wooden base for a serving tray during wood shop, part of the STEM program at Latrobe Area Junior High School in Unity on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017.

Max Wilson is looking forward to slicing into a brain.

“I've always liked medical stuff. I used to watch surgeries on YouTube all the time,” said Wilson, 13.

He and about 80 fellow eighth-graders will dissect a sheep's brain as one of the key activities in a new “Medical Detectives” elective course introduced this semester at Greater Latrobe School District.

One of the hands-on exercises that set the course apart, the dissection is a means to an end. Instructor A.J. Haberkorn explained it will help students identify areas of the brain linked to different senses.

“They'll learn the anatomy, what those functions are and apply those afterward,” he said. “We'll do a sensing lab for sound, taste, sight — all the major senses.”

The course introduces students to procedures used in crime scene investigations and in diagnosing diseases. The students have learned about vital signs, modeled how chicken pox would spread among a group where only some had been vaccinated and were tasked with identifying a malady based on a list of symptoms. As closing projects, they'll take DNA samples from their cheek cells to create personal pendants and will use their new skills to solve a hypothetical murder.

Mia DeCerb, 13, said the course is challenging but fun and noted she may consider a science career. “I liked learning how blood pressure works and the heart rate,” she said. “I never really knew what a fever was and that it was actually a good thing that you got a fever” — a sign that the body is fighting an infection.

The course is among those offered at Greater Latrobe through Project Lead The Way, a national provider of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs for schools.

Haberkorn hopes the course will spark an interest in students to consider other STEM electives as they advance toward graduation. Regardless of their career choices, he said, “With the skills that are present here in critical thinking, problem-solving and organization, it's definitely helpful.”

Included in the district's STEM-related curriculum are two nine-week courses — Introduction to Manufacturing and Automation and Robotics — taught by Chip Pletcher.

He said his students are able to use advanced technology, including a 3-D modeling program, to design and fashion items from wood — matching what they can expect in the working world.

His shop features four updated CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machines, purchased for $4,000 each, that students will use to create footstools with precise mortise and tenon joints.

“You can do mirror images with them,” Pletcher said of the machines. “What you do on one side you can program them to do on the opposite side.”

Norwin is among school districts in the region that are placing a new emphasis on STEM education.

The district is in its second year of offering three cybersecurity courses in cooperation with the University of Pittsburgh, according to Tim Kotch, Norwin's chief STEM officer and assistant superintendent for secondary education. He explained students who successfully complete the program can earn college credit at Pitt. As a bonus, representatives from the FBI's Pittsburgh office “come out and conduct seminars and speak with the students,” he said.

Similarly, students in grades 9-12 can sign up for two engineering design courses and, if they pass a year-end test, can receive credit through the Rochester Institute of Technology, a partner in that program.

Last year, Norwin also invested in a CNC machine. Among other things, Kotch said, it helps students design and manufacture their entries in a robotics competition.

New this year, he said, Norwin is investing $25,000 to create a maker space at its middle school.

“We'll be bringing in tools that allow students to become innovative and creative,” he said. He said projects teachers are developing for STEM courses and advice from the Westmoreland Intermediate Unit will help determine how the district equips the new area.

Jeff Himler is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-6622, jhimler@tribweb.com or via Twitter @jhimler_news.

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