The STEM Excellence Awards were created by FETC to recognize excellence and innovation in the field of STEM education at the primary, middle, and high school levels. Finalists were selected by the STEM Excellence Awards Committee from nominations of schools nationwide based on the quality of their STEM experiences and their use of interdisciplinary curriculum, collaboration, design, and problem solving.
Chartiers Valley High School—a public high school located near Pittsburgh, Pa.—has a long history of academic excellence. The school emphasizes enabling its 1,200 students “to adapt to change, to recognize the value of lifelong learning, and to become a contributing member of a global society.”
During the STEM Excellence recognition ceremony, Mark Smith, chair of the STEM Excellence Awards Committee and executive director of Michigan Association for Computer Users in Learning, said, “[Chartiers Valley High School] emphasizes rigorous and relevant projects, based on real-world situations. Involving an advisory board comprised of professional engineers, the school implements curriculum across its departments, including designing STEM programs for college dorm rooms, researching wind power, and involving World War II curriculum in their projects that they do. From excellence in STEM curriculum to competing in FIRST Robotics, Chartiers Valley High School is a STEM school of excellence.”
After the ceremony, five members of the Chartiers Valley team shared their experience with educators from across the nation. During the FETC session, they recalled the decision making that led to the creation of their nationally recognized STEM program and highlighted aspects of the program, which beginning next year will touch students K-12.
Five years ago, the Chartiers Valley superintendent wrote a new directional report for the school. At that time, educators in the Department of Engineering, Applied Engineering, and Technology took a moment to consider what was in their students’ best interest. Instead of continuing with the status quo, they chose to revamp and advance the program. As a result of that effort, the department today offers a comprehensive curriculum that appeals and is relevant to the broadest student population.
In its Technology Education program at the high school level, the department offers courses in visual communications, manufacturing and construction, and transportation technology areas. Each area has introductory and advanced courses. Specialty classes also are offered in the area of graphics, digital design, media production, and engineering. Classes are open to all students, grades 9 through 12.
Additionally, the department offers pre-engineering classes through Project Lead the Way, which is an engineering curriculum provided by the American Society of Engineers. Courses include Computer Integrated Manufacturing, Digital Electronics, Principles of Engineering, and Introduction to Engineering Design. These courses are available to sophomores through seniors. For these courses, students may elect to receive transcript college credits from Rochester Institute of Technology. The Department also offers Engineering Design and Development, a capstone experience during which teams of students design and construct a solution to an engineering program by applying the principles from the other courses. The portfolio that students develop as part of this course is invaluable for their college applications.
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At the high school, the Technology Education program takes a hands-on approach to learning using a comprehensive collection of technology. “We have pretty much every piece of equipment and machinery—from stuff that is 30 years old that we’ve kept to new technology that we’ve added in the past few years,” said one team member. The team brought along some projects completed with a new CNC wood router and a CNC plasma cutter, which were recently purchased with state grant monies.
Clayton McGalla, who has taught graphics and photography for 15 years, says the program is really the answer to the question, “Why do we have to learn this?” “You come to our department, and we’re going to show you why you need to learn this stuff. We’re going to apply it in an engineering setting,” he explains. “You’re going to go home with something and say, ‘This is what I made in school today.’ We take the math, and we apply it. We take the science, and we apply it. We take the engineering, and we use it. Technology ties all that together.”
McGalla went on to say that Chartiers Valley’s STEM program is really a STEAM program, which also applies the latest of technology to prepare students for careers in graphic arts. For example, McGalla recently incorporated the school’s MakerBots 3D printers in the graphics arts classes. “I started to use the MakerBots in my graphics classes, where the students design in Adobe Illustrator and print 3D keychains, trinkets, whatever they want to print. It gives them a 3D avenue to work with and they love it.” He also teaches a prep-course to prepare students to take the Adobe Certified Associate Exam.
At Chartiers Valley, STEM will soon touch students K-12.
As a feeder program for Project Lead the Way offered at the high school, the district offers the Gateway to Technology Program at the middle school. In the sixth grade, the program teaches design and modeling, which “lets kids know that they can be the makers of the future” by letting them design new products or innovate existing products. In seventh grade, the focus is energy and the environment, a program which is highlighted by the district’s own wind turbine. And, in eighth grade the focus is on automation and robotics, which promotes algorithmic thinking, allowing kids think through a process from start to finish to find the answers.
Next year, the school district will begin to implement the Project Lead the Way launch program at the elementary level to create a K-12 vertical articulation. “So now STEM education, this philosophy of teaching our student how to solve a problem, how to ask questions, is going to be ingrained over the years into the culture of our teaching,” said one team member. “So STEM education is going to become part of the thought process hopefully of every teacher in our district, so all kids realize that we can solve problems using science and technology and engineering and math.”