Using the Power of STEAM to Energize Educators and Students at Pittsburgh Public Schools

by Shaun Tomaszewski

STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) education seems to be the most popular fad in the field of education today. Many educational leaders are convinced that the multidisciplinary and engaging nature of STEAM learning is what will finally hook students into developing “21st century skills.” As the STEAM administrator for Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS), I can say that these expectations are a bit far afield. I will say, however, that STEAM education frameworks offer a powerful construct within which educational leaders can leverage these rising energies to build professional capacities and foster organizational cultures that truly benefit the students we serve.

At Pittsburgh Public Schools, I have worked hard to develop STEAM programming that does not simply manifest as a bank of unused 3-D printers in a computer lab or as a set of robots collecting dust in the corner of a classroom. Nor do we want to pay some sort of superficial lip service to supporting students’ development of “21st century skills.” Rather, the STEAM program at PPS is guided by the following charge issued by President Obama in a 2009 address to the National Academy of Sciences: “We need to empower young people to create, build, and invent—to be makers of things, not just consumers of things.”

And by this, we are not suggesting any sort of formalized “maker education” construct, which has, in itself, become a rather popular spinoff of STEAM Education. Instead, we truly do want to give all students, especially urban students of color, the cognitive, academic, and sociocultural supports that they need to be makers of their own futures.

This vision was the impetus driving forward our program’s theory of action, which states: If STEAM education at Pittsburgh Public Schools develops a Strong Curriculum, fosters and supports Innovative Teaching, and builds cultures grounded in a Collaborative Spirit, then we will enhance students’ capacity to create their own futures.

From our theory of action, we developed the program’s logic model (Table 1). This logic model allows us to track indicators of success as the STEAM program is implemented in six different schools across the district. Indicators of success were intentionally kept general; as what might be appropriate for one building context might not be appropriate for another. As an example, Pittsburgh Woolslair PreK-5 has a STEAM program that is very arts centric. This development was organic, because the faculty who teach there were more comfortable working within this context. Pittsburgh Lincoln PreK-5, however, has adopted an approach to STEAM education that is more focused on the sciences. When one examines the professional background of the school’s principal, Virginia Hill, this should come as no surprise.

Logic Model for the STEAM Program at Pittsburgh Public Schools. Rows represent points of leverage, and columns contain indicators of success that allow us to track progress.

At the district level, then, it has become important to maintain a clearly articulated vision of STEAM programming for our 26,000 students, who attend more than 50 schools. I must always ask myself, ‘What do we hold tight, and what do we hold loose?’

These are questions with which I continue to wrestle, though I have developed some semblance of a working conclusion. STEAM education is whatever students, faculty, and all other stakeholders within a school need it to be, as long as it results in:

  1. sincere cross-content and cross-grade level collaboration amongst educators that leads to…
  2. culturally relevant and appropriately rigorous learning opportunities for students that are…
  3. assessed in authentic ways that empower those same students, faculty, and stakeholders to create their own futures.

At Pittsburgh Public Schools, STEAM has manifested in a purposeful arc of professional learning opportunities that empower faculty to engage with their professional cores. This arc has consisted of work devoted to horizontal and vertical curriculum mapping activities that link the creation of instructional modules across content areas and grade levels, making learning more seamless across these traditional dividing lines. With faculty support, we have collectively explored notions of professional vulnerability and opened classroom doors, so that better practices can be shared more efficiently. We have also focused on authentic assessment systems that allow us to frequently and iteratively become aware of what our students understand and how we should respond with appropriate instructional and curricular tools to meet their needs.

In addition to empowering faculty, we are also empowering students as educators. The generous support of the Grable Foundation has made possible a STEAM Mini-Grant Program that disbursed funding to 10 unique initiatives, developed by teachers and principals, across the city in fall 2015. A selection committee comprised of administrators, teachers, and community members selected the winning initiatives. For the spring 2016 disbursement cycle, we are opening up the program to student applicants. This will provide students with the opportunity to leverage substantial resources—up to $7,000—to create learning experiences for themselves and their peers in the 2016-2017 academic year. Involving students at this level is unprecedented and resulted in the STEAM Mini-Grant Program being showcased at the White House’s Next Generation High School Summit in November of 2015.

I said earlier that STEAM education is a current fad in education, and I am not about to back away from that statement. When I look out across the educational ecosystem, I see for-profit, not-for-profit, non-profit, NGOs, government offices, institutions of higher learning, and K-12 organizations alike attempting to legitimize their products, programs, and people by adopting a STEM/STEAM/STREAM/SHTREAM/HAMSTER moniker.

If we allow ourselves to get caught up in the fray, it becomes very easy to lose sight of what matters: the students and their learning. The power of STEAM to energize educators and engage students is real—we’re seeing it at Pittsburgh Public Schools. As such, I encourage everyone to jump on the bandwagon, get STEAMy, and empower students to make their own futures!

SHAUN TOMASZEWSKI is the Pittsburgh Public Schools K-12 STEAM education coordinator, in addition to a University of Pittsburgh MEd graduate and current PhD student.