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Burrell's STEM program not just about subjects

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Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Principal Greg Egnor said turning Stewart Elementary into a STEM-focused school is about changing how classes are taught as much as it is about subject matter.

When Burrell School District realigned the elementary schools at the beginning of the 2011-12 school year, officials turned Stewart into an upper elementary for fourth- and fifth-graders. Bon Air became a primary building for kindergarten through third grades.

Administrators wanted to stress literacy in the lower grades. At Stewart, they want to emphasize STEM learning — science, technology, engineering and math.

Stewart students have a 60-minute math class and a 45-minute science class every day, plus two classes each in technology and engineering during every six-day cycle of classes, Egnor said.

But a STEM focus means more than just having classes on those subjects, Egnor explained to the school board and public this week.

“We're changing the way we teach core subjects,” Egnor said. “That's what we're trying to do at Stewart.”

All classes are moving away from teachers leading a lesson to being more focused on problem-solving, student innovation and hands-on projects, Egnor said.

Students will have challenges that will encourage them to design solutions that will need to be tweaked and redesigned.

Rather than merely having a robotics club, all fifth-graders will be exposed to robotics in class starting this month, Egnor said.

All students will participate in a science olympiad that requires them to solve on-the-spot science-related challenges. Egnor said the olympiad is a step up from the traditional science fair in which students would often display a model they'd prepared ahead of time.

Egnor said the goal is to have students think more like problem-solving engineers, even if a career in engineering is not in their future.

“Engineering is the glue that holds STEM together,” he said.

Stewart is only in its second year of the initiative, but Egnor said the school is quickly implementing the new curriculum and teaching methods.

Using an evaluation developed by the North Carolina STEM Learning Network, Egnor said Stewart scored as prepared (having a quality program that meets expectations) or developing (a good start but needs improvement) in 31 of 34 categories. The district scored as model, the best of four possible levels, in three other categories.

Egnor said Stewart teachers collaborate with educators in North Carolina and Virginia because those states are further ahead in STEM education than Pennsylvania.

Burrell Superintendent Shannon Wagner said some regional school districts have begun to stress STEM learning but those programs also are in their infancy and often are geared toward the secondary grades.

Kiski Area plans a new elementary school that will have a STEM focus. South Fayette also is building a new STEM school, Wagner said.

“We don't have a new building and we don't have a lot of money, but we're doing it,” Wagner said.

Wagner said the changes should help ensure all students are exposed to STEM principles, not just the students who show an interest in science and math.

Egnor said the idea of STEM learning began as an economic issue about 15 years ago when employers noted there wasn't a large enough labor pool to fill the technical jobs becoming available.

He said upward of 80 percent of future jobs will require employees to have experience in at least one STEM subject.

Board member Tami Kelly questioned what would happen as Burrell students left Stewart for the secondary grades.

Wagner said Huston Middle School science teachers Bob Campbell and Shaun Reddick will pick up where Stewart teachers left off in scientific fields. Egnor said the district's technology department is up to speed.

And all staff is being trained in the inquiry-based teaching techniques that are the hallmark of STEM learning, Wagner said.

They'll also be encouraging partnerships with Penn State New Kensington and employers to prepare students for college and careers, she said.

“It's exciting to hear how well it's going,” Kelly said.

Liz Hayes is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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