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STEM Education Has Long Branches Throughout the Region

By Todd Miller

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With the continuing struggle to beat the pandemic and the 20-year commemoration of the 9/11 attacks at the forefront of people’s minds, it is understandable that the two-decade anniversary of the term STEM went unnoticed. Coined in 2001 by administrators at the National Science Foundation, STEM is an interdisciplinary, hands-on curriculum based on the idea of educating students in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math to help them prepare for careers and become informed citizens. Numerous area companies and non-profit organizations, including the Pittsburgh Technology Council, have developed STEM-related initiatives that are benefitting students throughout southwestern Pennsylvania.

PPG, a global supplier of paints, coatings and specialty materials, supports STEM education through its foundation. “STEM is so important because of a growing need for people to fill jobs that require the skills that a STEM education provides,” says Malesia Dunn, Executive Director of the PPG Foundation. “At PPG, we have a lot of jobs that require the skills that students learn through a STEM curriculum, so supporting STEM education helps us build a pipeline to a future workforce, not only for us but for so many other area companies.”

The company’s STEM efforts also focus on encouraging students of color in middle school and high school to pursue studies in scientific and technical fields. Observes Dunn, “The number of black and brown students entering STEM-related careers is dwindling, and we are working to achieve more diversity in STEM fields because having people with different perspectives in the workplace can be an advantage in so many ways.”

To help students of color become interested in STEM careers, PPG sponsors CS Explorers, a two-week summer program that teaches students the basics of computer science, and Neighborhood Academy, which allows African American girls to do a deep dive into STEM-related topics. The company also works with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania to help students gain an understanding of artificial intelligence (AI) and the career possibilities for people who specialize in AI.

PPG’s a long-standing partnership with the Carnegie Science Center (CSC) has helped the company support STEM education in the community. The two organizations, in cooperation with the Pittsburgh Penguins, recently developed a program called “Science at Play,” a 45-minute Bill Nye-style program that explains the physics and chemistry related to hockey.

Similar collaborations have included a program called “Wild by Design,” which focuses on biomimicry, and “Science Takes Flight.”

“PPG is a great partner,” says Jon Doctorick, the CSC’s Director of STEM Outreach Programs. “To make sure that as many students as possible see these wonderful programs, we are working hard with schools to make the programs available virtually as well as in-person.”

The Science Center is Everywhere

CSC’s STEM-related programs have been a staple of southwestern Pennsylvania students’ educational experiences for more than a decade and fall into three categories: Onsite programs at the CSC, in-school programs through Science on the Road and the BNY Mellon Fab Lab and virtual programs which are a response to the pandemic.

Science on the Road offers in-person and virtual assembly programs, as well as STEM-by-the-Hour classroom programs for students in grades K-8 that feature lessons in astronomy, biology, chemistry, engineering, physics and more. The Mobile Fab Lab is a traveling makerspace that invites students in elementary, middle and high school to experience the STEM-based maker movement through in-person and virtual workshops.

Over the past year, more than 30,000 students have accessed CSC programs virtually. “Before the pandemic, we didn’t have a virtual component to our programming,” says Nikole Sheaffer, CSC’s Director of Stem Education. “Virtual programs have allowed us to connect with more people in the Pittsburgh region and throughout Pennsylvania. They have also expanded our reach nationwide.”

As technology enables the creation of personalized programming for students, Sheaffer promises that she and her colleagues “will continue to take cues from our target audiences rather than create programming in isolation.”

Sheaffer and ten of her colleagues, including Doctorick, manage this expanding array of programming which has also included outreach to underserved communities through YWCA STEM Stars, a hands-on, project-based program which helps young women improve academic achievement in math and science, increase interest in STEM topics and careers, and decrease the opportunity gap.
Through the program’s Saturday Academy, a monthly full-day event, girls visit a local college or university for STEM enhancement, college and career preparation, and to meet successful, female STEM professionals.

CSC also works directly with families through the Council of Three Rivers American Indian Center’s Head Start Program to encourage STEM-related achievement. The Center is an intertribal social service organization in Dorseyville that was formed in the early 1970s.

Full STEAM Ahead

Assemble, a non-profit organization and community space for arts and technology education located in Pittsburgh’s Garfield neighborhood has been a Tech Council member since

Nina Marie Barbuto created the organization in 2011. Assemble has a full-time staff of eight people and ten who serve the organization part-time.

For the past decade, Assemble has incorporated art into its STEM-focused after-school, evening and weekend programs for K-12 students because, as Barbuto puts it, “We use art to communicate about STEM.”

The organization’s STEAM programs are directed to students from marginalized groups, including African Americans, women and LGBTQ that Barbuto says “have been unseen or erased from history even though they have been creators, makers and technologists.”

Assemble’s programs include Hack the Future, in which students use their creativity to address challenges or problems they deem important, as well as an Afrofuturism curriculum that explores the intersection of African diaspora culture with technology, such as the Black Panther superhero movies, to help students understand that there is a place for everyone in STEM, and that STEM is part of the future.”   

Before the pandemic, Assemble served 2,400 students a year through in-person programs, and that number has grown substantially through virtual programming that reaches youth throughout Allegheny County and in many of Pennsylvania’s other 66 counties.

Assemble’s other programs include guest experts from companies, including numerous Council members such as Schell Games and XRconnectED, as well as experts from academic institutions throughout the Pittsburgh region.

“Those sessions allow guest experts to play-test what they’re working on and share their own stories about how they got to where they are now so kids can see connections between what they are doing at Assemble and the careers they may want to pursue,” says Barbuto.

A New Commitment Revealed

Aurora, a self-driving technology company, recently named Pittsburgh as its official corporate headquarters. To mark the occasion the company made a $65,000 donation to fund STEM-related requests from teachers in the City of Pittsburgh.

Through the donation, Aurora is funding a variety of STEM-related projects that include helping third graders obtain supplies for building volcanoes, purchasing a color printer for a fifth-grade classroom and funding a digital microscope, as well as books about performing scientific experiments and an incubator for hatching chicken eggs.

“With a firm belief in the future of this city and its workforce, we’re excited to have our corporate headquarters here and to be making a donation that will help fund the city’s next generation of technologists and roboticists,” says Gerardo Interiano, Aurora’s Vice President of Government Relations.

The company’s Pittsburgh presence includes offices in the Strip District and a test track in Hazelwood.

Tech Council STEM Programs

Through Fortyx80, the Tech Council’s non-profit arm, the organization offers a plethora of STEM programs. “Part of our obligation to members is helping them fill the pipeline with the next generation of talent,” says Marie Pelloni, the Council’s Director of Talent, Stem and Workforce Innovation Initiatives, “and these programs fulfill that purpose.”

Foremost among Fortyx80’s initiatives is the LAUNCH Program (Learn, Aspire, Understand, Navigate, Connect, Highlight). It affords girls in 10th and 11th grades in-person and virtual opportunities to become familiar with STEM career possibilities while developing their leadership skills.

LAUNCH includes mentorship by women STEM professionals, taking the Birkman method workplace psychological assessment test; and reading and discussing Martha Mertz’s Becoming Athena: the Eight Enlightened Principles to Leadership, as well as Kathy Kay’s Confidence Code. The program culminates with each young woman creating a plan for advocacy that integrates tech with their studies and interests.

Fortyx80 also created CS Explorers, which in partnership with the STEM Coding Lab gives middle school students opportunities to learn about careers in computer science, interact with industry professionals and visit tech companies throughout Pittsburgh each week during the six-week program. CS Explorers also gives students opportunities to learn about different themes or subjects related to STEM careers.

For students and individuals over age 18 who are in the workforce, the Council’s Apprenti  PGH program bridges the tech talent and diversity gaps by adapting the time-tested model of apprenticeship to meet evolving workforce needs. The program enables employer-partners to hire participants as apprentices. Participants from throughout Pennsylvania take an assessment test that gauges their math, logic and reasoning skills. If an individual scores 80% or higher, he or she becomes part of the candidate pool. If the individual is hired as an apprentice by an employer-partner, he or she participates in a 14-week tech boot camp, either Academy Pittsburgh or Tech Elevator. During the apprenticeship, participants can make 60%-70% of the salary of a full-time employee in that tech role. This fall, 12 apprentices entered the initial class.

Additional Council-sponsored STEM programs include high school students hearing about career opportunities from high-profile members, including Luis Von Ahn, co- founder of Duolingo, a language education platform, and Dr. Louis Falo, Chairman of the Department of Dermatology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

“Those sessions have been highly effective,” says Pelloni. “A number of students who attended these presentations have told us that they now consider studying STEM-related subjects in college because they were inspired by our speakers and by future opportunities for employment in Pittsburgh.”

Adds Pelloni, “Many companies are looking to connect with students and don’t know how to go about it. Any time I put out a call for members to volunteer their time to work with students, they respond quickly, and all of us on staff are grateful for their participation.”

The Tech Council’s commitment to STEM education is a source of pride among team members. “When there is a success story related to one of our programs, we celebrate it organization-wide,” says Pelloni. “Even though everyone on staff is not directly involved in our education and outreach activities, they are proud of our programs’ successes because they help to strengthen Pittsburgh’s tech sector and have the potential to benefit our member companies individually and collectively over the long term.”