AIU Lending Library offers top technology at no cost to school districts
Youngsters rush from the bus, hustling to get to school as quickly as possible.
Inside the hallways of Regency Park Elementary School in the Plum Borough School District, they approach intervention teacher Martha Freese and ask her to visit their classroom — or more like, bring those gadgets of hers so they can play and learn.
“They can't get enough of it,” said Freese, of the materials used in the classroom to teach students the components of STEAM, or science, technology, engineering, art and math.
Educational games and instructional materials — often too expensive for school districts to readily purchase on their own — now are easily accessible for teachers in Allegheny County. The Allegheny Intermediate Unit this school year formed the STEAM Lending Library, to enhance learning, at no cost to the districts.
A $60,000 grant from the Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation and Citrone Fund financed the project.
The AIU's STEAM Lending Library has more than 1,000 pieces of equipment, including Osmos, Hummingbird Robotics kits, Puzzlets and littleBits, all learning materials meant to introduce students at all grade levels to computer science and coding concepts.
Thus far, 40 of the 42 school districts in Allegheny County outside Pittsburgh have used the Lending Library, said Megan Cicconi, director of instructional innovation at the AIU.
“It's really exciting,” she said. “This idea is really catching on.”
Cicconi, who hosts professional development courses at the AIU on topics ranging from art to technology, said the idea for the Lending Library came from teachers. They had concerns that their districts couldn't afford to buy some of the technology, Cicconi said. Or, if their district got a grant for new equipment, at times, the teachers said, they needed ideas for how to better use the devices in the classroom.
The STEAM Lending Library solves both problems: the equipment, thanks to the grant, is free for teachers to borrow.
Cicconi also set up a one-day professional development course to teach educators about the program and equipment.
Upon completion of the course, educators can borrow one classroom set for their school for a six-week lending cycle. Each school can only borrow one classroom set in a given period.
The lending library has nearly run out of equipment during each of its first three cycles.
Michael Dobos, a fourth-grade teacher at McClellan Elementary in the West Jefferson Hills School District who has a master's degree in instructional technology, said he always tries to find new ways to bring tools into the classroom.
He borrowed Puzzlets, touted as the “classic puzzle meets technology,” from the Lending Library for his fourth-grade class.
“They loved using it. They keep asking when we're going to use it again,” Dobos said.
In the Brentwood Borough School District, technology teacher Kate Smeltz borrowed a Hummingbird robotics kit, which allows students to use sensors and motors — and learn coding — to create robots and sculptures out of crafting materials. Her goal was to have the students create a petting zoo, using art materials, where the animals talk and move with the help of the robotics kit.
Smeltz borrowed the set for Elroy Elementary so the students could have the opportunity to use the same equipment that their classmates at Moore — Brentwood's other elementary school — already have access to with a set purchased through grants and community donations.
“They now have the same opportunities,” she said. “We have no money to be able to buy this.”
Creating equality among schools is one of the goals of the Lending Library, Cicconi said. It also allows districts to no longer have to worry about money when planning out their students' lessons.
“This really does just open wide the opportunities,” said Alisa King, curriculum coordinator in the South Allegheny School District. “We don't have to worry about financial constraints anymore.”
By borrowing the materials, districts can decide if the students are interested enough in them to justify a future purchase.
“I see this as an excellent way for us to try it out before we buy it,” said Scott Miller, principal at Avonworth Primary Center.
After borrowing Bee-Bots at Regency Park, teachers were so enthused by the materials that they went onto DonorsChoose.org and got donations to buy six of the devices for the school. “When you see a child and they don't want to stop learning, as a teacher it's like, ‘OK, we're doing something right here,' ” Freese said.
The learning is widespread, King said. There's problem solving, creativity and imagination.
The students are grouped in pairs to use the devices, which also teaches collaboration, she said. But it's not just learning, it's also fun.
“You're meeting so many of the standards in a way that the kids are begging for more and when the bell rings the kids are sighing because they don't want to leave,” Cicconi said.
The craze of the technology library is starting to take off in schools.
In the Fox Chapel Area School District, leaders are looking to launch a district-wide STEAM Lending Library, patterned after the AIU program, Cicconi said.
Freese said she has had to create a master list for which teachers can borrow the equipment on a given day.
“Carnegie wanted free, public libraries for all. The AIU's lending library is making that kind of impact on children, on schools and on the world,” Freese said.
Stephanie Hacke is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-388-5818 or firstname.lastname@example.org.