Elizabeth Forward schools recognized for high-tech efforts

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At any given moment in the quad of Elizabeth Forward Middle School, sixth-graders could be studying schematics for a 3-D printing project on an iPad. At the high school, it's no surprise seeing students hunched over library tables tweaking plans for an iPhone app. Even at the elementary level, lessons on constellations become digital stargazing sessions for kindergarten students brandishing iPad minis.

A push to promote the fundamentals of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education has propelled the Elizabeth Forward School District to elite status among national technology and education organizations.

In only three years, the district has transformed spaces in the high school and middle school into high-tech learning centers, taken computer programming classes down to the elementary level, partnered with Carnegie Mellon University's Entertainment Technology Center to guide technology learning and become Pennsylvania's first school district to provide iPads to all 2,355 students, according to the district.

The efforts were officially recognized during a Jan. 15 school board meeting when an executive from computer giant Apple presented the district with a plaque recognizing its designation as an Apple Distinguished Educators Program.

The computer company's program recognizes schools and organizations globally for using Apple products to integrate technology and learning, to create original material and to encourage a culture of innovation for the next generation. An Apple representative said the company is not disclosing how many schools are taking part in the program. The school district's designation runs through 2015.

"Elizabeth Forward has created a 21st century learning environment that provides every child with immersive learning tools," said David Diokno, Apple education development executive, during the presentation.

The push to integrate technology learning beyond the computer lab is a new priority for districts such as Elizabeth Forward, but may not be such a novelty in coming years, said Drew Davidson, director of the Entertainment Technology Center.

"[Schools are] big institutional structures, and it's hard to make changes. But when kids see people are willing to think of interactive ways to enable them to learn as opposed to them thinking of ways to test them, you see more of them recognize that learning is fun," he said.

For school Superintendent Bart Rocco, the award ceremony provided a moment to appreciate what's been accomplished before diving into the next project.

That same day at the middle school, teachers were preparing for today's grand opening of The Dream Factory -- a quad of classrooms featuring a robotics lab, a professional-grade workshop outfitted with laser engravers and 3-D printers in addition to standard vise-equipped wood benches, a green-screened video production room stocked with cameras and a lab full of Mac desktops.

"We're in the midst of a uniquely exciting and engaging moment for education and creativity," said Mr. Rocco.

The idea behind the factory, according to technology education teacher Conrad Colaric, was to create a space where students can imagine and design products, build them and create print or digital marketing campaigns for the full small business experience.

The Dream Factory came together thanks to a $20,000 joint grant from the Grable Foundation, Benedum Foundation and Allegheny Intermediate Unit as well as a $10,000 Hive grant from the Sprout Fund.

"There are production classes for students to decide what they are going to make and how they're going to market it," said Mr. Colaric. "So if they want to make a candy bar, they can mill plastic to look like their design, take sheets to make molds for chocolate bars, make the candy in the home [economics] room and design the wrapper in the computer room."

Between the middle school's Dream Factory and SMALLab, which uses motion capture cameras, wireless controllers and other features for educational games; the high school's Entertainment Technology Center, ground zero for programming courses; and YOUMedia Center, where students can access specialized digital media programs, little expense has been spared to promote tech education, said Mr. Rocco.

Although SMALLab, the Entertainment Technology Center and the YOUMedia Center came together with grants totaling $200,000 from the Grable Foundation, the Sprout Fund, the Idea Foundry and several other organizations, the district had to squeeze $380,000 out of its $38.8 million 2013-14 budget to arrange the two-year lease agreement with Apple for the iPads.

However, when interactive videos created by third-graders Cassidee Fitterer and Kyleigh Fetchen popped up on iPad screens, there was no arguing that the investment was worth every penny, said assistant superintendent Todd Keruskin.

"The future is technology, and we're trying to get kids programmed to get into tech at an early age to hook them in," said Mr. Keruskin.

Deborah M. Todd: dtodd@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1652.

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