Butler school districts seek to improve STEM offerings

| Saturday, Aug. 17, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Even as budgets shrink and costs rise, school districts in Butler County are adding programs and expanding curriculum to put more emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, to meet the needs of the job market.

“There is a lack of candidates coming out of colleges and universities to fill those STEM-related jobs out there, research points to that. I think that's why you're seeing national and state initiatives that push down into those STEM initiatives,” said Mars Area High School Principal Todd Kolson. “We're getting our kids ready, trying to compete for those jobs in the STEM-related fields.”

School districts in Butler County are working to improve their STEM offerings, and Seneca Valley serves as a model for online learning. Here's a look:

Mars Area

Mars Area is focusing on technology with the new One-to-One Computer Initiative. The program will give high school students in grades nine to 12 a laptop computer for educational purposes at school or home, said school district spokesman Josh Schwoebel. Teachers will receive laptops as well.

There is no cost to students for using the laptop in school, but students must pay a $57 fee at if they plan to take the laptop home, Schwoebel said.

The One-to-One initiative will enable students and teachers to use the same devices and also target more “21st century teaching and learning,” Kolson said.

“The main reason we're doing it is we're trying to eliminate technology barriers for students and teachers. That's our vision,” he said.

Kolson said Mars added more STEM-driven curriculum when they upgraded facilities and equipment through a 2009 renovation and expansion project. Other Butler County school districts are following suit this year.

Butler Area

Butler Area School District received a $20,000 STEAM Grant this spring from the Allegheny Intermediate Unit's Center for Creativity to create a Smart Lab in Butler Senior High School, said Assistant Superintendent Brian Slamecka.

STEAM integrates the arts into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics programs.

The grant helped the district buy state-of-the-art equipment for an existing high school lab area, which was renovated during the summer and will be open to students at the beginning of school, Slamecka said.

“The primary focus behind the Smart Lab is to have a facility that really focuses on inquiry-based and hands-on learning,” he said. “It's a trend in education, at both a secondary and post-secondary level to put a big focus on STEM or STEAM.”

Slamecka said some schools throw art into the STEM education because much of the engineering or technology initiatives involve having a creative background.

Freeport Area

Freeport Area School District is putting more emphasis on STEM education and post-secondary education at the high school level. New courses in biology, physiology, astrophysics, computer programming, engineering and nutrition will begin this year, said Todd O'Shell, Freeport school and student events coordinator.

In addition, three College in High School courses were added, which will give students college credit from the University of Pittsburgh, O'Shell said. The courses are: basic physics for science and engineering, computer programming for visual basic language and argument, rhetoric and communication.

South Butler

South Butler School District will offer a full robotics course at Knoch High School beginning this year, after having success with a pilot program in the spring 2012 and spring 2013, said Jason Davidek, a spokesman.

Students built a robot and competed in the Pittsburgh First Robotics Competition for the second year in March, he said. The Knoch team placed 6th out of 45 teams.

“This is excellent, considering that we were only a second-year program,” Davidek said.

About 40 students have signed up for the class, Davidek said.

Allegheny-Clarion Valley

Allegheny-Clarion Valley School District said it has aligned its curriculum with the Pennsylvania Common Core Standards, which provides a guideline for what students should be taught at each grade-level in English and math.

Seneca Valley

Up to 30 school districts will team with Seneca Valley's cyber school program during the 2013-14 school year, said Assistant Superintendent Matthew McKinley.

Seneca Valley enrolls students from other school districts in its cyber program and trains teachers from other districts to become teachers in online programs.

The cyber program has attracted school districts that want to learn how to start their own cyber programs.

“We're interested in showing them how we did it, partnering with them and showing them how to run their own program,” said Seneca Valley Superintendent Tracy Vitale.

Seneca Valley's 7-year-old cyber program offers part-time, full-time or hybrid workloads for full-time students taking extra classes online.

“Our graduation rate is 97 percent, and in cyber charters, it ranges from 49 percent to 83 percent depending on which cyber charter it is,” Vitale said.


Moniteau High School principal Maynard Harvey said the school added two remedial courses in literature and algebra for students who have not met proficiency requirements on the Keystone exams.


Representatives of Karns City Area School District and Slippery Rock Area School District said their districts did not add or eliminate any programs for the upcoming year.

Freelance writer Shawn Annarelli contributed to this report. Rachel Farkas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach her at 724-779-6902.

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