Jim Denova at a Remake Learning rally at WQED. Photo by Tracy Certo.

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.”

“The corrective is STEAM,” Denova adds. “STEAM not only teaches students how to think, but also how to be nimble. To be adaptive. Because in the 21st century the advanced manufacturing workforce has to be both. It needs change at light speed. Today, for example, the hot applications are chemicals and precision manufacturing—Bayer and PPG and others are creating chemical conduits and putting filaments into invisible circuitries. That’s the fusion of chemical engineering with new materials and devices.

Photo by Rebecca Kiger.
It’s about being creative and adapting new technologies. Photo by Rebecca Kiger.
It’s about being creative and adapting new technologies. Photo by Rebecca Kiger.

“But,” Denova warns, “what’s hot today may not be hot tomorrow. Who knows what people are going to want in 10 years—in 2025? So STEAM isn’t about just prepping students for gainful employment now. It’s about mobility; It’s about being creative; and having the disposition to adapt to new technologies. That’s the new face of manufacturing—and where STEAM can take them.

“Our students,” he says, “need to be able to go in and out of a community college and a university. They need to be able to get technical skills along with communications and analytics. That’s the future for them. Because when they can do that, it doesn’t matter what’s hot.”

“I ask industry people if manufacturing is an opportunity for education and employment?” Denova says. “They say, it’s not only necessary, it’s essential. We will always need to know how to make things. How to design. How to solve problems. That means manufacturing is not just learning the lathe. It’s learning robotics. Electronics. Physics. Chemistry. Communications. Language arts. STEAM teaches students to learn all those things, bundle them, use them. For they’re all workforce preparation skills. The ability to move sideways. The versatility to move around the workplace. That’s 21st-century workforce development.”

“That’s also equity in education across classes,” Denova says. “Manufacturing is a vehicle for doing that, for ending educational apartheid. Manufacturing provides commercial venues for those who want to be artistic creators in a three-dimensional world. Teaches skill sets that apply equally to transportation aeronautics and Michael Graves toasters. And with STEAM, when demand changes, they’ll be prepared to adapt, to change, to cross over. That’s the face of the new workforce. That’s how Pittsburgh will succeed.”

View Jim Denova’s video from Leadership Pittsburgh’s Unboxed conference in November, 2014 on this same subject here.

Abby Mendelson is a veteran Pittsburgh writer and reporter. A novelist and short-story writer, he is also the author of numerous Pittsburgh-related books, including Arena: Remembering the Igloo, Pittsburgh: A Place in Time, Pittsburgh Prays: Thirty-Six Houses of Worship, Pittsburgh Born, Pittsburgh Bred, and The Pittsburgh Steelers Official History. As a journalist, he has written on countless subjects in a wide variety of publications, local and national, print as well as electronic.