Offering STEAM to students with special needs should be a priority, Mon Valley educators say
Robert DeFillippo challenged his geometry students at Mon Valley School in Jefferson Hills to create a code that would guide a robot through blobs of paint spread across a large canvas.
He then asked them to again use coding to make the robot splatter the paint around.
Their efforts resulted in more than just a unique piece of artwork. The students learned about angles and measurement and how to think computationally. They developed critical-thinking and problem-solving skills.
“Patience is key,” said Stephon, 20, a senior, who lives in Plum. “You have to really learn about degrees and angles and how they really work and how they’re going to affect the project.”
At schools such as Mon Valley, which serves 155 full-time students ages 5 to 21 who have severe cognitive and emotional disabilities, the addition of STEAM — or science, technology, engineering, art and math — programs are a rarity, school leaders say. The school, which also includes about 60 part-time vocational students, serves students from more than 30 school districts across Allegheny and surrounding counties.
“People just think our kids can’t do that,” said Stephanie Paolucci, special education supervisor and special projects coordinator. “Well, they can and they should.”
At Mon Valley, which is operated by the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, there has been a push over the past three years to implement STEAM. Teachers have found with new technology and hands-on learning comes increased student engagement and improved behavior. Ultimately, students have more fun learning.
DeFillippo, a secondary autistic support teacher who has taught 20 years in the unit, has three students headed to college next year. They are his first to go on to higher education, a fact he credits to the addition of technology and STEAM in the classroom.
To showcase what they’ve been working on, Mon Valley will host a Remake Learning Day, “Making Made Special,” from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. May 17. Students from the school, along with the AIU’s two other special education schools, Sunrise in Monroeville and Pathfinder in Bethel Park, will display their work and a panel discussion will be held.
Picking up STEAM
Knowing nearly all students in today’s society grow up with a cellphone or iPad in their hand and special education students are no different, staff at Mon Valley began working three years ago to bring new technologies into the classroom as way to increase engagement.
Teachers at Mon Valley looked across the country to find schools like theirs implementing STEAM programming. There weren’t many.
“We keep saying, ‘There needs to be another seat at the table. We want that seat,’ ” DeFillippo said.
Adding technology can be even more beneficial for students with disabilities, school leaders said.
Many students have expressive and receptive language issues. Others require occupational and physical therapy. Writing can be difficult, DeFillippo said. If they have a camera and they can record themselves, they can complete a task and get their thoughts across much easier.
But first, they need to get the technology.
At Mon Valley, DeFillippo and Beth Whitney, elementary emotional support teacher, led the charge. They applied for grants and were able to secure funding for the equipment.
In the past two years, they’ve started to introduce new technology with more being added each year, thanks to grants.
Thus far, they have 28 Sphero circular robots, 45 Hummingbird robotics kits, three Micro:bit microprocessors and five Dash robots.
Teachers use them in the classroom for hands-on learning that puts the student in the driver seat while instructors facilitate.
There’s been a learning curve for the students as well as the 125 staffers. The adults are used to helping students every step of the way through tasks. But they’re learning the kids can figure it out on their own with a little time.
The way they engage with technology is different for each student, depending on their ability.
This school year, Mon Valley took on the daunting task of joining Code.org’s “Hour of Code,” which brings students across the world together to code at the same time. Some did very basic sequencing, while others did the full program, Paolucci said.
There are teachers who still worry their kids won’t be able to use the technologies they’re adding at the school, she said.
For DeFillippo, a defining moment came after a teacher expressed a similar concern. Then, he watched one of the students in the teacher’s class hook up an entire gaming system and follow all of the instructions on the TV to get it started, just because he wanted to play the game.
If kids can do that, they can use this technology, too, DeFillippo said.
The benefits, teachers say, are widespread.
Whitney said her students used to hate working together. Now, they’re happy helping each other.
This year, both Whitney and DeFillippo’s classes had Chromebooks for every student. Next year, the school is adding a computer science class, likely for the high school. It also is in the process of creating a makerspace, thanks to grants, that will be a hub for technologies and STEAM in the school.
Senior Cara, 21, of Swissvale said all of the new technology is coming together to help her to learn.
“It’s more hands-on than trying to look at a book and figure out what a word says,” she said. “It’s more fun.”
With coding, she was able to see her mistakes firsthand and process what she was learning, instead of just regurgitating words onto a piece of paper.
“To be honest, it widened my future,” she said.
Stephon plans to head to Johnstown to the Hiram J. Andrews Center to major in construction and landscaping.
He, too, credits the technology for making his future brighter.
“It opened the door,” he said.