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Educators called to engineer skills in students

| Tuesday, March 13, 2012

About 350 educators and business representatives attended a summit at Norwin High School yesterday for what the district superintendent called "a national call to action to advance the cause of STEM" -- science, technology, engineering and math.

Those fields have been emphasized at Norwin during the past 18 months, Superintendent Bill Kerr said.

Kerr highlighted those local initiatives -- an elementary "camp invention" and a middle school robotics competition, among others -- at the district's first STEM summit.

He introduced Allegheny and Westmoreland County educators to leaders of a STEM Academy in Downingtown Area School District, near Philadelphia.

Downingtown's STEM Academy opened this year as a magnet school, drawing interested students from within the district.

It's an open-access school and not just for the best and brightest students, said Larry Mussoline, Downingtown superintendent.

"Over half of our engineers are going to be retiring in the next five to 10 years," Mussoline said, "and that's a major problem."

Coupled with that, other countries produce far more STEM graduates than the United States.

"We've got to get our kids involved in STEM education," Mussoline said. "The world is producing them."

At Downingtown's academy, 800 students applied for 400 open seats in 2010. In 2011, 400 students applied for 200 seats.

George Fiore, headmaster of the STEM academy, attracted students by asking them if they wanted to learn differently.

At the academy, students are allowed to retake exams, classes run in a block schedule, all tests -- even math tests -- are essay-based, and students are allowed to access YouTube and Facebook.

As early as ninth grade, students study introductory engineering and physics.

"It starts with my teachers, bottom line," Fiore said. "They were willing to change how they taught."

Students say they work harder than they ever have, but they love it, Fiore said.

"The kids are leaving saying, 'You've got to go to this school,'" he said.

The summit featured a panel discussion including representatives from local businesses, like Latrobe-based Kennametal and Irwin-based PDS Industries.

Some panelists mentioned the difficulty in finding employees and spoke about the importance of getting students excited about science, technology, engineering and math.

In addition, said Robert Scherrer, principal of Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy, it's important to bridge the gender and racial equity gaps in those fields.

Smaller, breakout sessions for participants focused on topics such as Marcellus shale, engaging girls in STEM and robotics.

Robert Shuber, a Norwin High School technology education teacher, said students studying robotics learn a programming language developed at Carnegie Mellon University.

Shuber teaches robotics, engineering and manufacturing at the high school.

In one exercise, he said, students remotely pilot a robot to retrieve a ball from a pipe and then dispose of it, basically a minefield exercise.

Although robotics has been offered at the high school since 2001, the revamped program provides more depth, he said.

Robotics classes are offered in the middle school thanks to a grant from the Alcoa Foundation, said Matt Mincucci, a seventh-grade technology education teacher.

The middle school offers a robotics club, a robotics team and Saturday robotics camps.

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