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CMU prof urges students to embrace evolution in speech at Elizabeth Forward

| Friday, Feb. 21, 2014, 5:01 a.m.

Student leaders from nine South Hills and Mon Valley area high schools came together Thursday to build relationships, share ideas and work toward collaboration between districts.

The second annual Pennsylvania Student Leadership Consortium was hosted by Elizabeth Forward, which retired Carnegie Mellon educator Donald Marinelli called “one of the most forward-thinking high schools and educational centers in the country.”

It was a chance for more than 100 student leaders from Belle Vernon Area, Chartiers Valley, Elizabeth Forward, Mt. Lebanon, Peters Township, Ringgold, South Allegheny, South Fayette and Upper St. Clair to discuss ways to “lead with imagination.”

Keynote speaker Marinelli is no stranger to Elizabeth Forward, or imagination. He and the late computer science professor Randy Pausch, known for his “Last Lecture,” co-founded Carnegie Mellon's Entertainment Technology Center, a program that brings together students from a variety of academic backgrounds.

Marinelli said the center stimulated the evolution of high technology education at Elizabeth Forward, where every student benefits from school-issued iPads.

“For the most part, evolution is a mistake,” he said. “Things get thrown on their head. The mistake becomes more adaptable to the environment than the species it came from.

“I think you are a mutant species. Is it because of radiation? No. It is because of technology.”

He detailed the “Triumph of the 21st Century Digital Natives,” his term for “the first generation where school is preparing you for a world that does not yet exist.”

He drew on his doctoral thesis, a look at the “futurism” of 1909, what he called the first concept “to embrace technology as the pinnacle of artistic achievement.”

Marinelli talked about his own evolution from a professor of drama and art management who never ventured into the School of Computer Science his first 15 years at CMU. When he finally did, he said, “I felt at home.”

Now he sees technology as a palette where anyone can become what actors become when they enter a stage. He sees where it will change traditional institutions.

“We have to reinvent museums the way Elizabeth Forward is reinventing schools,” Marinelli said.

After Marinelli's remarks, some participants broke the ice with a game where they had to guess which president of the United States others in the group were asking them to portray.

In a breakout session conducted by the host school's student government president Alex Thornton, D.J. Hamilton of South Allegheny guessed quickly that Alex had posted “George Washington” on the note on D.J.'s back.

“Do I wear a hat?” he asked. “Sometimes,” others responded. “Do I have black hair?” No, they said.

“Do I have white hair?” Yes, they said. “Am I the first president?” was his final question.

The first consortium took place at Peters Township High School. Elizabeth Forward Student Government Association stepped up to tackle the second.

“They were asking for volunteers and our kids said, ‘Please, please let us, let us host it,” assistant principal Mary Carole McCay said.

Peters Township brought an idea for a service project — fundraising to acquire an indoor arena to expand the Horses with Hope program year-round to help youngsters with special needs.

“Their riding sessions (at South Park) can only be given in the warmer months of the year,” Vinnie Giovannitti said. “The parents of these kids will travel far and wide for a program like this.”

Vinnie's classmate Katerina Sankow said the focus is on a site along Catfish Run, not far from Brownsville Road.

Given the likely cost of acquisition, Katerina conceded, “It would be hard to raise $800,000 without connections.”

The fundraiser will begin with a T-shirt sale to spread the word about Horses with Hope.

“We are working on the design and the supplier,” Vinnie said.

More details are at the website.

Patrick Cloonan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161 ext. 1967, or