Story time and building blocks aren't exactly extinct in the nation's youngest classrooms, but an increasing emphasis toward early science, technology, engineering and math -- or STEM -- education could mean those early children staples may be paired with a biology or physics lesson.
With the world's top-paying jobs increasingly tied to technological, scientific or mathematic innovation -- and with American teens ranking 23rd in science and 31st in math among 70 developed nations -- school districts have been scrambling over the past few years to improve student interest and knowledge of STEM subjects.
While most schools are taking the incremental approach of expanding course offerings at the highest levels, several in the Pittsburgh region are reshaping their entire curriculum or introducing programs where high-level concepts trickle down to the youngest students.
"I was never in a programming class until I hit high school. Now students in the third and fourth grade have a chance to learn how to program a game," said Todd Keruskin, assistant superintendent for the Elizabeth Forward School District.
Observing students at the district's Summer Middle School Gaming Academy on Tuesday as they tweaked software settings to customize video games, Mr. Keruskin and Superintendent Bart Rocco couldn't help noting how much technology education had improved in the district over a short time.
What started last year as a $10,000 grant from the Grable Foundation to upgrade the high school computer lab grew into the creation of the school's Entertainment Technology Center -- a state-of-the-art space featuring Mario Brothers murals, pop art and sleek leather couches where students work using brand new laptops.
The Summer Gaming Academy, which was restricted to high school students last year, had about 30 students in two classes this year and is expected to grow to 170 students next year.
Since the first grant came in last year, the district has secured $170,000 to use part of the high school library to create a high-tech YOUMedia center, which connects students to digital media and programs from across the country.
It has also secured a $20,000 grant to create a middle school SMALLab (Simulated Media Arts Learning), which uses motion-capture cameras, projectors and wireless controllers to run games that students can play using their bodies and images displayed on surfaces throughout the lab.
Both the SMALLab and the YOUMedia center are scheduled to open in September. Grant funding was provided by The Sprout Fund, the Idea Foundry and other organizations.
Although the grants have multiplied the range of options available to students, Mr. Rocco said the partnerships and initiatives that have come as a result of the new programs will have the most impact.
The district has extended its video gaming curriculum to the elementary level, starting with a fourth grade apps-making class that will allow students to download finished work to Apple's App Store for wider distribution. The school also has formed a partnership with Carnegie Mellon University's Entertainment Technology Center to test games created by graduate students and also have graduate students work with students in programming courses.
Students will work with programming software and won't write actual code, but Mr. Rocco said the experience will set them up for success in future computer courses and could spark an interest in other STEM courses.
"The goal isn't just to create a video game program, the goal is also to work together corroboratively like in the real world," he said. "If kids can work together through this process, hopefully that's going to translate to other coursework."
Collaboration is one goal for the Allegheny Intermediate Unit's STREAM (Science, Technology, Reading, Engineering, Art and Math) Academy Cyber Charter School, which features classroom space in Wilkins for student projects and lectures, but the school's primary goal is to introduce STEM concepts from the moment students enroll, according to spokeswoman Sarah McCluan.
Formerly the PA Learners Online School, the STREAM Academy now features a STEM-based curriculum that introduces addition, geometry, problem solving and the concepts of fractions in kindergarten and makes the course, "Engineering is Elementary," a requirement starting in first grade. Students must choose career "tributaries" where they receive comprehensive training toward specific STEM careers by the time they hit high school.
Introducing STEM concepts early is critical to directing all types of students, particularly young girls, toward careers they may have never known would spark their interest, said Ms. McCluan.
"Many children do not truly know the scope or breadth of opportunities in the STEM fields, so this allows them to actually experience content to see what they like and what they're good at," she said.
While extending such concepts to lower grade levels is an admirable approach, it isn't one that will be easily adopted across all school districts, according to Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy 6-12 principal Bob Scherrer. The academy, the only Pittsburgh public school created specifically to promote STEM learning, will open this year with a little more than 500 students.
Costs and teaching materials aside, Mr. Scherrer said the major factor is trying to integrate additional courses into an already packed school year. He said some concepts could be added as "complements" to existing math or science courses, but administrators might be hesitant to replace any of those courses with higher level STEM classes.
Last week's announcement by President Barack Obama of the STEM Master Teachers Program, a proposed $1 billion federal initiative designed to train 100,000 educators over the next decade, is one sign the country is only seeing the start of such initiatives.
According to Mr. Scherrer, the sooner young people learn the potential that comes with STEM careers, the better.
"People look at [STEM] like it's something that's not accessible. It's our job to show them it is accessible."
Deborah M. Todd: email@example.com or 412-263-1652.