Two foundations are giving $500,000 to 25 school districts in southwestern Pennsylvania, and most of the schools will use the money to create places where students can employ the latest technology to learn.
Each district will receive a $20,000 grant from the Grable and Benedum foundations. Many will use the grants to redesign an area of the library or a classroom where students can gather to focus on projects related to what is called STEAM -- science, technology, engineering, art and math.
The emphasis on gathering spaces in this year's awards will foster collaborative 21st century learning, said Gregg Behr, executive director of the Grable Foundation.
"There's a new focus in education on creating colorful, interesting spaces where teens can hang out, mess around and geek out," he said. "You create a space where they can go with their friends and peers and make it cool and attractive.
"Maybe the students are using smartphones, tablets or laptops. And there are mentors there, whether they are librarians or teachers, to help foster the learning process," Mr. Behr said.
He said research shows that this generation of students is wired differently to learn. They love the newest technology gadgets, no matter what they are, so educators are finding ways to take advantage of that.
"Technology is just the tool to learning," he said.
"I remember watching Fred Rogers as a child," he said. "On the one hand, he was the nice grandfather, but he was really a 1950s geek. He saw that children were attracted to TV, so he was just taking advantage of the newest technology -- TV -- to help use it for a good purpose.
"It's a mistake just to focus on providing our schools with technology; the focus needs to be on learning," he said.
Elizabeth Forward High School, for example, has used a Grable Foundation grant to repurpose an area of the library where students can gather.
It's the same concept as the YOUmedia labs at several Carnegie Library branches, where new technology is available for teens, Mr. Behr noted. Students can access a TV studio or sound studio to create their own segments or music videos.
"It's become the hub of activity at the Elizabeth Forward High this year," he said.
The Allegheny Intermediate Unit is administering the STEAM grants. Eighty school districts in the region applied for them for the coming year.
The overall goal is to support innovative learning ideas and encourage students to use technology in cross-discipline projects.
"We really fund what the superintendents tell us they need," Mr. Behr said.
James Denova, vice president of the Benedum Foundation, said the STEAM grants "seed the inspiration and creativity of classroom teachers. Too often, the innovative ideas of frontline educators are overlooked by large scale, top down initiatives. Grant programs like this allow fresh ideas to be tested at the classroom or building level."
Rosanne Javorsky, assistant director at the AIU, said, "We could have easily funded 50 districts this year. Early in the STEAM grants, schools applied to buy things, such as iPads. But now many applicants have the vision to use them to engage and motivate learning."
The AIU had seven criteria for rating the grants, including how they would engage students in learning and also embody a STEAM component.
"In most cases, an English teacher, a biology teacher, or a librarian will facilitate the learning in these spaces," she said. "Sometimes the high school will be open for the kids before or after school. Oftentimes, the kids want to access these spaces long after the school day is over, which is the great thing."
Collaboration is a big part of the new learning style and the creative learning spaces, Mr. Behr said.
"We want layers of learning," he said. "We want students working with students, maybe a writer working with a programmer, or an engineer working with an artist on a project. And we want teachers working among themselves, and with the students in reverse mentoring. Then we have school districts working with universities, such as Carnegie Mellon University, or their local library on a project."
For example, Elizabeth Forward this past year partnered with the Arts & Bots Initiative at Carnegie Mellon University, to establish an all-girls robotics club. Girls were taught the basics of computer programming, such as how to control LED lights, motors and sensors. Then, they combined those skills with art and design to construct robots.
Education trends also focus on helping students make a product, Mr. Behr said.
He attended a recent education conference in Washington, D.C., and said President Barack Obama has a "maker" education initiative, in which students learn to produce products. That might include designing, creating and manufacturing a product on a three-dimensional printer or making a film about the history of their neighborhood.
At the MAKESHOP at the Children's Museum in Pittsburgh, for example, parents and children sit at long tables together to make wood products, animation or circuitry or to use sewing machines. Experienced "makers" and artists are on hand to help.
This is the fifth year for the STEAM grants from the two foundations, which have totaled more than $1 million.
Debra Duncan, freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.