Jesse Robinson is the face of technology at Shady Side Academy.
The director of the Glimcher Tech & Design Hub at the academy’s Senior School, Robinson runs a state-of-the-art STEAM facility that, since opening in 2019, has rocketed Shady Side’s science, technology, engineering, art and math curriculum to a whole new level.
Robinson teaches tech and design classes, partners with teachers in other disciplines to integrate tech and design projects into their classes, works with students on independent study projects, advises STEAM clubs and teaches STEAM summer camps to middle schoolers.
“I have the best job in the world,” Robinson told the Chronicle. “I get to go to work and play all day, and see students play all day — and they only are limited by their own imaginations.”
The dropping costs of certain kinds of technology — say, a 3-D printer — has put STEAM education within the reach of students who previously only dreamed of such resources. And this is not just a story about Shady Side Academy; independent schools throughout Pittsburgh, including Jewish day schools, are stressing the growing importance of STEAM in a well-rounded education.
Sarah Posti oversees kindergarten through eighth grade at the Campus Laboratory School, a Carlow University institution in Oakland celebrating its 60th anniversary this spring.
“We are values-based — and that’s what we have in common with other facilities,” said Posti, who addressed the incongruity of a Jewish newspaper interviewing school officials at a Catholic university. “We’re mission-driven and inclusive of other faiths.”
Taryn Brown, the school’s STEAM and library teacher, boasted about Campus Laboratory’s STEAM curriculum, which includes a project where older, middle-school students must interact with and design toys for their younger peers.
“They’re going to have to talk to each other, empathize and see where the younger kid is development-wise,” said Brown, who added that LEGO Braille blocks have been created in the past.
“It’s amazing how much the kids love programming and coding,” Brown said. “And they’re better at it than I am … It’s that idea of equity and inclusion — it’s so valued.”
Brown teaches STEAM and works with others on the staff of 35 at the 225-student school to incorporate technology into the curriculum. They have a robotics club and a “maker’s space”; Brown stresses the school needs to remain flexible because it remains unclear what technology jobs the students of today will eventually fill.
“I don’t know if you’re going to find [this level of STEAM education] in a pre-K to 8 environment elsewhere,” she added. “There’s a real dedication to STEAM.”
Jewish day schools also are getting in on the action.
Hillel Academy this summer started a $10.5 million project to remove the front of its building, build a new shul, construct a second-story addition for the girls’ high school, add a basement and — perhaps most importantly — construct a new, nearly 1,000-square-foot science lab.
“We’ve been growing the curriculum to include more science and engineering,” said Rabbi Sam Weinberg, who heads the Squirrel Hill school. “And we can modify and adapt the new [lab space] as needed. We have microscopes, chemical sciences for chemistry. The new space will allow us to do more robotics and engineering.”
Hillel Academy, like other independent schools, has robotics and coding clubs, Weinberg said. But it also offers deeper dives into robotics in classes like AP Computer Science.
“It’s really exciting stuff,” he said.
At Community Day School, a pre-K to eighth-grade Jewish day school in Squirrel Hill, regular STEAM activities begin in its early childhood program with the school’s youngest learners and extend through middle school, as it prioritizes student-centered learning, inquiry and real-world problem solving, spokesperson Jennifer Bails said.
In 2020, CDS opened a joint computer lab and library dubbed the Legacy Learning Lab. In that modern space, students across all grades come to create, innovate, explore and discover using a variety of tools — including coding and robotics, green screen videos, 3-D printing, programmable sewing machines and invention kits, Bails said.
“Our goal is to prepare our students to honor the worldwide legacy of Jewish innovation and to make a positive difference in the world,” she said.
The Ellis School, a pre-K through 12th-grade school in Shadyside, is bursting with STEAM activities. The school offers several AP calculus and science classes, widely available coding instruction for all ages, and a “state of the art and flexible” science and technology space for middle-schoolers that’s set to be completed this fall, Head of School Macon Finley told the Chronicle.
“We, as a school, are really committed to a mission of creating good problem solvers,” Finley said. “We want them to all have a lot of skill and confidence in that kind of training.”
Ellis School also participates every year in the Future City competition, in which middle school students taking an elective class design a city around specific goals, such as energy use, Finley said. The school has received multiple awards for its contributions to the competition.
In addition, Ellis School offers “discovery units” in science, technology, literature and more at the elementary school level, and a “maker’s space” complete with a 3-D printer, laser cutter, vinyl cutter, and more, Finley said.
“It’s an important part of what we do,” Finley said.
Or there’s the way Robinson, the STEAM director from Shady Side Academy, put it.
“I’ve got second-graders using laser cutters with great success,” he said. “And it’s awesome.” PJC
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.