Ligonier students go full STEAM ahead

| Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014, 9:02 p.m.

In August, a new educational program was introduced in the Ligonier Valley School District. Halfway through the school year, the curriculum is a hit among students.

STEAM — short for Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics — is challenging students at R.K. Mellon and Laurel Valley Elementary Schools with its creative, hands-on approach.

“It's fabulous,” Principal Ed Moran said. “It is one of the most engaging elementary programs I have ever seen.”

Once every six days, grades two through five participate in the class, taught by Adam Petalino.

“From what I can see, most students seem to love the class,” Petalino said.

Petalino said fifth-grade students have been learning about building and programming robots while utilizing motors and sensors. Fourth-grade students are also learning about motors and sensors. The fifth- and fourth-grade student use a computer program based on National Instruments Lab VIEW, which is used worldwide by scientists and engineers.

Third-grade students have been learning from “Engineering is Elementary,” a curriculum that explores various types of engineering, Petalino said. He said they have focused on civil engineering projects, like building bridges. Second-grade students are learning art concepts; the basics of engineering, using gears and levers; and cooperative learning through technology — laptops and iPads.

“I think students enjoy that this class is a place to explore new and unique ideas while learning from their mistakes,” Petalino said. “The greatest inventions were a result of trial and error. I like to think that this class represents an environment of exploration and free-thinking, while focusing on reaching a goal.”

Students from Mr. Leu's fifth-grade class recently experimented with programming LEGO robots using touch sensors. Each group of three plugged a robot into a laptop via a USB port and then selected different commands from accompanying LEGO software to create a “program,” or sequence of actions, for the robot to execute.

Petalino demonstrated the process using his smart board and laptop, selecting directional icons and adjusting numerical values to customize the robot's path.

Students mimicked Petalino's lead, testing out their programs by pressing their robots' touch sensors. After a few demonstrations, Petalino allowed students to experiment with the technology on their own.

Olivia Petry's group decided to program a robot to turn whenever it approached a wall.

Petry said the STEAM class is “really cool” and challenging. Her group mate, Tatum Hoffman, said she enjoys the opportunity to “try something new.”

After the group saved their program, Kailey Johnston unplugged and set up the robot at the end of the desk. The girls excitedly watched the robot drive forward and turn after sensing Johnston's hand in its path.

“You can make it do anything,” Johnston said.

While the activity exemplified the technology, engineering and math aspects of STEAM, Petalino said the art portion of the class is addressed through technology, such as movie-making on iPads and using Art Studio applications.

Regarding science, Petalino said the subject comes into play in simple machines activities and engineering applications. He said it will also be incorporated into future lessons when students use the engineering method and scientific method to complete assignments.

Moving forward, Petalino hopes to utilize an educational product called “littleBits” in class, which are handheld circuit-boards that connect and perform tasks, like moving objects and making music. He would also like to obtain more iPads and laptops for his classroom and possibly enter students in local STEAM competitions, where students compete against other schools in STEAM-related challenges.

Growing up near Pittsburgh, Petalino saw many bridges, dams, skyscrapers and other structures regularly, and he believes STEAM is important to have in Ligonier, where students are not typically exposed to such obvious examples of engineering in the rural area.

“Our students are going to be competing for jobs with people all over the world,” he said. “This class will hopefully prompt them to start thinking about the careers that are out there and what they have to do to obtain those kinds of careers. I know that seems a little serious for elementary students, but that is what the students around the world are doing right now.”

Nicole Chynoweth is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-850-2862 or

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