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New program at South Fayette furthers technology interest

| Wednesday, March 13, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
John Barrett, South Fayette seventh-grade student, assists third- grader Katlynn Kyle in programming a video game using Scratch. Submitted photo

A new program in the South Fayette School District has barely “scratched” the surface of technology interest.

There is a waiting list of students eager to participate in the new program.

The program is called “Scratch,” introduced to the school by Aileen Owens, the district's director of technology and innovation, as part of the K-12 computational thinking initiative, which involves introducing students to the concepts of programming.

Two years ago, a middle school girls afterschool STEAM group, coached by teacher Frank Kruth, demonstrated their work to educators at the Three Rivers Educational Technology Conference. They then taught families, who attended a community learning night. It also was used by middle school art teacher Diane Lally with her unit on cartooning involving 120 students in grades five through seven. It is now being used by 62 third- and fourth-graders in afterschool Scratch clubs: Cartooning, video game challenge and music composition.

Scratch is a beginning programming language developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab for creating and sharing interactive stories, animations, games, music and art.

Last month, a group of South Fayette middle school students presented at the grand opening of TransformED, a digital playground for teachers at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit. They also traveled to the Mars Area School District to train teachers on how to use the Scratch program.

“Scratch has ignited the imagination of our teachers and students,” Owens said. “They are enamored by their power to be creative and with their ability to create interactive characters, sound, music and more. Since students can download the program at home free of charge, they are extending their learning from school to home. Students send me the videogames they make and we are collecting them to make a library of educational games for our students to play.”

Breanna McCann, a South Fayette eighth-grade student who was one of the presenters at Mars, says the experience has been enlightening.

“I have learned computer programming, coding, problem solving and other skills. This experience has been great because I've learned about careers that I never really thought about. I feel that everyone, no matter if child or adult, deserves the right to learn and to discover new things. I am proud to say we have been able to give people the right to learn and have taught them so much about computer programming.”

Her mother, Kim McCann, agrees.

“This experience has helped expand Breanna's skill set and increased her confidence in presentations,” she said.

The elementary school's afterschool Scratch Club has been a catalyst for making connections to the curriculum. Scratch Club members began showing off their projects to their teachers and now the teachers are introducing Scratch into their classrooms.

In late February, 13 middle school and high school students met with Mitch Resnick, director of MIT's media lab and head of the Lifelong Kindergarten group, the creators of Scratch. They attended his presentation sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh Learning Research Development Center and he talked with the students prior to his lecture.

The students also have been invited to teach at a weeklong STEAM summer institute for teachers, now in the planning stages, and might teach a Girl Scout troop in the near future.

“Having students involved on a leadership level allows us to expand our opportunities to more students in ways we could not before,” Owens said.

Charlotte Smith is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media and can be reached at 724-693-9441 or charlotte59@comcast.net.

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