It was on an afternoon not so long ago in a Butler, PA high school that the epiphany occurred. That Jim Denova met the future—saw STEAM (the marriage of Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Math) work—and was impressed.

In that moment he also saw the future of workforce development.

In a large, open space Denova saw the AP physics teacher working with students here, the vocational ed teacher working with students there; commercial design kids in this corner; metal fabrication students across the room. “You’d think it would be chaos,” Denova recalls. “It wasn’t. All four teachers were moving about with groups of 10 to 12 students, all working on projects. The voc ed students were competing with the physics kids designing a kayak—and winning!”

“What’s more,” Denova continues, “not only did the students mingle, but class divisions also disappeared. Separate disciplines disappeared. The voc ed students were doing commercial design. The physics students were using the same equipment as the manufacturing students. It was a fascinating open system—a remodeled educational model.”

“It was STEAM—an open laboratory where everything flowed. It was exciting.”

More than that, it was the bold, new face of the future of education and of workforce development. Because the future of education is integration—the AP physics student headed for Harvard and the voc ed student headed for a career in manufacturing working in the same lab together. Adapting, changing, learning from each other.

Ending what Denova aptly calls educational apartheid. A strong word, but our secondary education system separates academic from vocational, he notes. School districts send students to “special” vocational schools; usually underresourced, and of lesser academic rigor. This has led to a two-tiered educational system, divided by class.

The affable, able, visionary vice president of the Benedum Foundation, Jim Denova, holder of a Pitt Social Work Ph.D., is a lifelong veteran of such public service-oriented foundations as the United Way, Catholic Charities, Jewish Healthcare Foundation, The Forbes Funds, and since the turn of the millennium, Benedum. “My job,” Denova says, “is discovering those great and innovative ideas that are out there, often lurking under the radar, and investing in them. The Butler multi-disciplinary lab was the vision of an individual teacher.” At Benedum,” he explains, “our mission is to promote successful learning, academic achievement and preparation for the 21st-century workforce in smaller, rural Southwestern Pennsylvania and West Virginia schools.”

Further, says Benedum president Pat Getty, because change is the constant, education is the key. “Better, modern manufacturing will be cleaner and, of necessity, more nimble, to adapt and survive the inevitable changes to come. [In this region] we have strong universities and corporate research to drive innovation; leadership positions in significant areas such as robotics, additive manufacturing and materials science; a strong and diversified energy sector; a legacy of advanced manufacturing that is still vibrant. We understand that an educated workforce is a factor that is becoming and must remain a competitive advantage.”

That being said, Denova adds, “Benedum can be the enhancer. We can be the R&D investor in new ventures. We can pilot something with risk capital in a way that schools can’t with public tax dollars.”

As an example, armed with years of data on a self-guided algebra program, Benedum demonstrated that 9th grade West Virginia math scores improved significantly. “Such enhancements,” Denova says, “can help guide school districts to decide what to institutionalize—in this case, self-directed learning.”

Designing and making in school. Photo by Rebecca Kiger.

Designing and making in school. Photo by Rebecca Kiger.

Premier among Benedum’s current activities is giving grants to further STEAM. An often overlooked aspect of “STEAM,” Denova says, “is industrial design. Advanced manufacturing and industrial design can reinvigorate kids, help them recognize technical education and manufacturing as aesthetics. Recognize that Leonardo da Vinci, a master of syncretism, integrated manufacturing with high art. Recognize that, as a designer asked, do you want a toaster? Or do you want art that makes toast? That’s STEAM.”

This kind of STEAM education he adds, can end the class segregation we see in the educational system: “Right now, this is an acceptable bigotry,” he says. It presumes that people who have different educational interests, and different aspirations should be separated. As in, two entirely different educational tracks. Outside of rare and enlightened situations like Butler, the auto mechanics students and the advanced physics students never share space. Or ideas. Or even lunch.

In fact, they’re in entirely separate buildings. “High schools and vocational schools are separate schools,” he says. “Maybe that worked once. But in this day and age, if you profile students, put them on a bus, send them to special school, it’s over—for them, for their potential, for workforce development.”