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Downtown Reflections. Photograph by Brian Cohen.
Downtown Reflections. Photograph by Brian Cohen. | Show Photo

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How one elementary school is turning kids onto learning in a really fun, highly effective way

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On the night of the Crafton Elementary STEAM Showcase, Claire Rex's 6th graders are predicting New York City's weather on New Year's Eve. Pointing at posters, they gladly explain their findings and the math they learned to make sense of the data. In four separate groups, the class used records of wind speed, humidity, temperature, and air pressure to calculate conditions like relative humidity and wind-chill. The groups met, shared their findings, and came to a consensus about whether or not it would snow. The verdict: Yes it would. About two feet, they thought. “But what did New York City do with all of that snow?” a parent asks. (The numbers were based on historical data from a real New York blizzard.) One of the kids watching the presentation chimes in, “They melted it in big copper tubes and put it in the New York Harbor!”  
 
This scene is part of an E-Mission, an online learning adventure that is only one of the many ways Crafton Elementary has incorporated STEAM, a new framework for teaching, into its curriculum.
 
STEAM stands for: Science and Technology interpreted through Engineering and the Arts, all based in Mathematical elements. It was created by Georgette Yakman, a self-described left- and right-brained thinker who has always been an avid learner, but said that education didn't make sense to her.
 
Before developing STEAM, Yakman pursued careers in fashion and architecture, studied engineering at Virginia Tech, and taught primary school. Her family background is no less diverse. Her grandfather worked on the first modular moon landing for NASA, her grandmother is an ex-debutante from Puerto Rico, her father is a painter, and her mother and younger brother have Asperger's syndrome. Through this background Yakman developed an eye for a wide range of teaching and learning styles. She used this consciousness to engineer an educational framework that she says is “more representative of how people learn naturally, but still applicable to the public education sector.” As a framework, STEAM is a guide for incorporating the main silos of an existing curriculum into one holistic learning experience.
 
Or as one of Claire Rex's students put it: “It’s fun! I like it because you get to act it out and be part of the job.”
 
At Crafton Elementary the change started four years ago with E-Missions. At first the E-Missions were used only in the 6th grade. They were an instant success and within a year the missions were expanded to 5th grade. But the school needed funds to take it further. In 2010 Crafton Elementary received a STEAM Education Grant from The Grable Foundation and the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation which allowed the school to expand E-Missions to the 4th grade.
 
The STEAM grant also enabled Crafton to afford much-needed technology. Promethean Boards (devices similar to a huge iPad) appeared in classrooms. According to math teacher Nina Kovanis, who served as co-chair of the Crafton STEAM Showcase this year, the Promethean Boards “opened up a whole new world” of possibilities for education and enabled class-wide hands-on learning. On the night of the showcase her co-chair, Josh Ficorilli, talked about a health class he taught where students used the boards to place organs on a digital body. The kids loved it.
 
“When I got here the health books were from ’78," says Ficorilli. "With things like Promethean Boards you’re up to date. If you add those components into the regular curriculum there’s more of an emphasis on the kids being accountable for their own learning. With that comes a ton of partnership and interaction ... This is my seventh year here and I’ve seen as big a difference in kids from last May to this May as I have in my previous six years.”
 
Kovanis added, “None of this would be possible without the technology.”
 
Promethean Boards are only one of the new technologies at Crafton Elementary. Ficorilli uses Flip Cams to show students their movement in gym class. Kovanis uses Active Votes, a polling system for Promethean Boards, to facilitate in-class debates and math competitions. Skype is an essential tool for the E-Missions where teleconferences are projected. Of course, not every classroom at Crafton has constant access to the new tools. The classes without dedicated boards share two of them and a collection of laptops.
 
While the E-Missions represent one application of STEAM, they are mostly based in math and science, with a supplemental historic or creative element. They are also directed at older students. A year ago Crafton added a more significant art component to its curriculum. In so doing, the STEAM framework was expanded to the rest of the school.
 
Now second graders learn sculpting, natural science, and creative writing by making clay models of an animal, labeling its major biology, and writing an acrostic poem about it. Art teachers have worked to include mathematical properties like area and perimeter into their lessons and music teachers are working to explain the science of sound and music history.
 
But STEAM isn't only about combining subjects. Yakman proposes that it also works for students at any age or ability. She says it is as effective for her grandmother who suffers from Alzheimer's as it is for kids playing in a sandbox. This might sound complex, but as Susan Kosko, who teaches K-4 Reading Development at Crafton,  explains,  STEAM works because the kids own it. “They have an attachment to it so they push through.”
 
Over the last two years Kosko has watched her students improve dramatically. Her method is to teach what she calls the Dolphin Project, a unit that combines the book Dolphin Tale with Skype sessions between her class and a team of marine biologists in Florida. The readings and the Skype sessions go hand-in-hand so kids can see real examples of the text and ask the experts questions. No question is too simple—or irrelevant. Kosko remembers, when one of her students asked, “Do dolphins need to wear clothes?” the biologist explained blubber's insulating properties to him. The effects of these exchanges have been dramatic. “We’ve had kids with reading disabilities learning words like 'echolocation' and 'prosthetic' and not just saying them, but reading them,” Kosko said. 
 
Her students have also shown an increased awareness of the world and become more confident in their ability to make a difference. Last year, when the scientists at Dolphin Rescue were attempting to find a dolphin with a life-threatening injury similar to the one described in Dolphin Tale, Kosko’s students decided to help. They sold cookie dough and raised $100 for their friends in Florida. After the rescue team located the dolphin dubbed Seymour, they called Kosko through Skype. The good news spread and Kosko's classroom was quickly filled with students who skipped recess to watch the rescue they helped fund.
 
Connections like Kosko's partnership with Dolphin Rescue are vital to STEAM at Crafton Elementary. Crafton Elementary has also partnered with local organizations Attack Theatre, the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium, and LabRatz, the government-sponsored organization Seaperch, and the Challenger Center. Plans for other partnerships are in the works.
 
Nina Kovanis explains, “The kids are excited by it. It’s interactive. All of the kids have different learning styles, so this is a way that we might reach one or two more than before…”
 
Maybe she is being modest. The three floors of talkative students and interdisciplinary projects on display at the STEAM Showcase make an observer think that more than just one or two extra students are being reached through STEAM. It seems as though the whole school has been energized.
 
Kovanis finishes her sentence: “...because the activity is constant.”
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