South Fayette Schools: A Computational Carnival for Kids

Combine a makerspace, science fair and a coding bootcamp and you have South Fayette School District, a computational carnival for 3,200 students south of Pittsburgh.

With four schools on one suburban campus, South Fayette is the best example of K-12 integrated computational thinking we’ve seen. Yes, kids are learning to code but more importantly, they are learning to attack complex problems, analyze data, and sprint in teams to public products.

Bille Pearce Rondinelli, in her ninth year as Superintendent (left), thinks of computational thinking as the new literacy. Embedded into STEAM studio learning model K-12, computational thinking is the problem solving process used in computer science–it’s the ability to think logically, algorithmically, abstractly, and recursively.

South Fayette integrates its approach to computational thinking with habits of mind of successful problem solvers, as compiled by Art Costa and Bena Kallick and their The Institute for Habits of Mind. That includes dealing with complexity, persistence and tolerance for ambiguity. It includes human-centered design thinking strategies and visible thinking.

South Fayette students develop Habits of Mind through project-based learning. This video explains more:

Computational thinking is also embedded in career awareness which includes contexts where the problem-solving processes, dispositions and attitudes apply. This helps students understand and envision how those careers reflect their learning.

The change process began in the intermediate grades in 2010 with Scratch coding after school. It was followed by 1:1 initiative starting with the primary grades and rolling up to high school.

Tori Bishop is a STEAM literacy teacher for grades 3-5. Pictures of her focus wall and daily assignments (below) show how teachers integrate coding, computational thinking, and habits of mind.

Design Partners

A half an hour drive north of South Fayette is Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) which has one of the best computer science programs in the world. For Rondinelli’s first leadership team meeting, they visited CMU’s Create Lab.

“Our partnership with CMU is critical in developing robust pathways and ecologies in computer science and engineering at South Fayette, from high school to university and beyond,” said Aileen Owens (@InnovationSFSD), Director of Technology and Innovation.

Over the last nine years South Fayette has been working with computer science professors and researchers at CMU in various capacities. Early on they enlisted the help of professors to lead student teams, provide after-school outreach in computer science, and to engage in educational research together. Today, integrated teams support the development of successful strategies to support computer science K-12.

“In some ways, we have become an incubator for piloting curriculum and strategies that can be implemented to all districts to provide equity in education,” said Owens. “The CMU team has continued to connect us to other valuable partners in the computer science department, for the purpose of expanding opportunities to help us reach the next level of development in creating innovative thought leaders,” she added.

“To help our students engage in this type of thinking we practice using Visible Thinking strategies and Human Centered Design, said superintendent Rondinelli.

Visible Thinking routines from Harvard’s Project Zero help South Fayette students engage in deeper thinking in spaces like the Learning Lab, STEAM studios and high school makerspace.

Human Centered Design techniques help students understand the cause of a problem or the needs of the people students are designing for. From there, they can work towards deeper understanding and designing solutions.

“Systems thinking is a mindset for innovation,” said Owens. She described the iterative process of innovation and of developing small scale incubations before full-scale implementation.

Owens said education research partnerships were key to understanding what works and why. Equally important is nurturing relationships with students, teachers, families, and community to understand priorities said Owens.

Companies like All-Clad have supported high school makerspace and student work experiences.

South Fayette and 60 other districts in Southwest Pennsylvania have benefited from and invigorated the Remake Learning (@remakelearning) Network supported by the Grable Foundation and others.

Like four other suburban Pittsburgh districts, South Fayette is a member of the League of Innovative Schools.

What’s the key to all of these partnerships? Superintendent Rondinelli said it’s follow through. We have worked diligently to build a professional reputation that if given the opportunities,” like those discussed above, “we will follow through with and for children.”

Student Leadership

Aileen Owens said that developing student agency and leadership has been core to the South Fayette transformation. Students have learned with teachers and even taken on teaching roles.

For the last four years, student teams have designed and taught Python courses in after-school connected learning experiences to South Fayette students and as outreach for visiting districts. The students worked collaboratively with the CMU Teknowledge team last year to run a Python incubator to evaluate embedding Python into the 8th grade curriculum for all students. As a result, this year South Fayette now offers the Python course as a mandatory rotation for all 8th graders.

Student teams have also taught professional development in computer science to teachers from the region as part of the STEAM Innovation Summer Institute offering courses in Python, Raspberry Pi and App Inventor. Student leaders are designing, beta testing and taking products from ideation to launch such as the BusBudE app, and publishing educational research findings on their pen-based software application, MyEduDecks.

Owens thinks student peer networks can accelerate and improve the change process, “Students  thrive when they have like-minded peers to work with.” She added, “Our entire program was driven by students.”

Possibility Culture

Our goal is not only to serve the children of our community, but also to set sustainable models that can be replicated, especially by underserved populations, and to collegiality share what we have learned through our partnerships and experiences with others so that all children and as many educators as possible may benefit,” said Rondinelli.

Lead teachers Dawn McCullough and Brian Garlick have been working with CMU to advance computer science in the middle and high school. The integrated team is working side by side as students engage and learn.

All of this work requires capacity development and barrier reduction. A Saturday workshop for staff and students jumpstarted the process. The South Fayette leadership team worked closely with employee groups to redesign student and staff schedules. Substitutes were provided so that teachers could collaborate and attend training sessions at CMU.

The sense of possibility starts early in South Fayette. We visited a primary classroom (below) that was exhibiting their smart city model complete with QR codes and online explanations.

“A culture of dedication, commitment, and perseverance are all necessary,” said Rondinelli.

Superintendent Rondinelli and incoming board chair Alan Vezzi in the new Innovation Creativity Hall

All Star Team

South Fayette has used a mixture of developing internal talent and hiring. Aileen Owens, who joined shortly after Rondinelli, has been the driving force for computational thinking.

Over the last three years, South Fayette has hired STEAM teachers and facilitators for K-8 grades and changed existing positions and scheduled to support STEAM learning and computational thinking. Melissa Unger, K-2 STEAM Teacher, Shad Wachter, Intermediate School STEAM teacher, Anthony Mannarino, middle school TechEd teacher and Frank Kruth, TechEd teacher who later became the middle school STEAM facilitator, were key to the K-8 transition. Two teachers team taught an Innovation Studio class at the high school.

South Fayette hired Curriculum and innovation Coordinator Stephanie DeLuca from Environmental Charter School (one of our 85 K-8 schools worth visiting) where she was running the Thinking Lab.

Superintendent Rondinelli is retiring at the end of the month. Replacing her will be Kenneth Lockette who was a high school principal and assistant superintendent for nearby Avonworth School District, also a member of the League of Innovative Schools.

Lockette will boost the arts in STEAM education. In Avondale he launched Studio A, a three-day professional development workshop that partnered with the LUMA Institute and Pittsburgh Center for the Arts to promote project-based learning among teachers. As principal he spearheaded the Pittsburgh Galleries Project that provided a behind-the-scenes view of local museums and brought exhibits to the school’s campus.

Add South Fayette to your list of districts worth visiting.

This post is part of a blog series in the upcoming “Getting Smart on Reinventing Education” Smart Bundle produced in partnership with The Grable Foundation. Join the conversation on Twitter using #RemakeLearning. For more, check out the other blogs in the series:

Stay in-the-know with all things EdTech and innovations in learning by signing up to receive the weekly Smart Update.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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