Teacher Tim Liller took on a rather ambitious project last year with his tech ed class at Big Beaver Falls High School. His students spent the better part of the year designing and building photo voltaic modules, better known as solar panels.

The project was an experiment, he says, to see if students could not only master the advanced problem-solving skills required to design the modules but stay focused and engaged on a highly technical project that spanned the entire school year. The project was a hit. Each day, students reported to class and went to work in teams, some learning how to solder the solar cells together, others figuring out the process of encapsulating and insulating the cells.

By May, the class had built eight solar panels capable of an output of 75 to 80 watts a piece during peak periods of sunlight. They mounted the panels on the roof of their high school where they are now absorbing rays. The panels are wired to record the daily energy production which is then reported on the homepage of the high school’s website.

Solar panels made and installed by Beaver Falls Students
Solar panels made and installed by Beaver Falls Students

“This is a blue collar town,” explains Liller. “If I’m going to teach tech education, why not help kids learn to make something that they can use? It was like mayhem all year, but a good experience. This knowledge will go a long way.”

As a follow up, his class this year is tracking the solar energy being produced by the panels and thinking about ways to put it on the grid. “As time goes on, they are beginning to see that this could have a big impact on their own community,” says Liller. “We have a lot of outdoor lighting in front of the school. It’s free electricity.”

Among the key benefits of the class is the idea that students are learning STEM skills through collaboration. Liller assigned each student to a team based on their interests. Some were problem solvers. Others preferred manual skills like soldering.

When the going got tough, a few students spent hours beyond the classroom to figure out the complicated process of encapsulating and insulating the cells. This required the construction of a vacuum table to suck air from between each cell layer and an oven to heat the modules, which the students built themselves, Easy Bake style with lights.

“They had to make a sandwich out of it and heat it to 292 degrees Fahrenheit,” says Liller. “We we heated it up and suctioned the air out of the sandwich.”

For Liller’s part, teaching became an exercise in teaching students to teach themselves and getting out of the way. Students generated a level of enthusiasm and pride in the project because they owned the result.

“Even the students who were reluctant at first wanted to be a part of the team,” says Liller. “It’s painful getting to that point sometimes—it’s often hard to get kids to think about things on a larger scale. They struggled, but they did it. It’s their work and they take a lot of pride in that.”

Funding for the project came from an AIU STEAM grant through the Grable Foundation. Buoyed by the success of the solar panel project, Liller is now applying for a grant to build wind and water generators.

Global Passport students working at All-Clad
South Fayette students working at All-Clad

The Global Passport Project

Students at South Fayette High School and the North Allegheny Intermediate Unit are tackling some real-world challenges as well. The classes are in their second year of studying global issues such as the scarcity of potable water in parts of Africa and Asia.

The Global Passport Project is a program, developed by Dwayne Rideout, former vice president of human resources at at All Clad, to connect the students with local businesses to conduct the necessary research on global issues. Not only does the project give students a first hand experience of a breadth of careers, they are learning a world of ways to make a global difference, says Maureen Pedzwater, project coordinator for GPP.

Thar Industries provided a project and presented students with a problem, asking them to select a country where potable water is unavailable that would benefit from the company’s water desalinization technology.

“It was a big success,” she says. “The students (from different districts) worked collaboratively and became friends. They have learned how to implement 21st century skills: problem solving, communication, research and an effective use of social media for gathering data.”

Like Liller’s tech ed class, the students excelled because they were allowed to think through ideas and suggest and test solutions. “They had ownership of their solutions,” she adds. “Traditional classrooms today aren’t necessarily allowing kids to learn these 21st century skills today.”

These are just two successful examples of ways that local schools are venturing beyond lecture and test curriculums to Remake Learning in the fields of STEM, science, technology, engineering and math. But while programs like these are recognized as the classrooms of the future, educators today face several challenges in implementing these programs successfully.

The $21 million regional initiative: STEM programs in 27 counties

The Carnegie Science Center recently released a study that addressed this issue, called “The Role of STEM Education in Improving the Tri-State Region’s Workforce,” conducted by Campos with funding from Chevron and support from Nova Chemicals.

“In our work at the Carnegie Science Center, we consistently hear concerns from corporate leaders about having a qualified workforce for the future,” says Ron Baillie, co-director of Carnegie Science Center. “Corporations need collaborative problem-solvers with excellent skills in science, technology, engineering and math – or STEM.”

Faced with a shortage of workers prepared for STEM-related professions, leaders are working to identify the barriers that prevent students from pursuing STEM careers. “We wanted to understand those barriers and how parents as influencers and kids discuss these things,” says Baillie.

The findings suggested several ways to tackle the problem regionally. The first addresses a lack of a general understanding of the wide variety careers available in math and science fields. Many parents don’t realize the earnings potential as a skilled welder, for example, says Baillie. Many urban and suburban parents, particularly, insist their kids prepare for college instead.

“This is really important because there are so many open positions in these STEM areas,” he says. “In Pittsburgh alone there are more than 22,000 job openings in STEM related fields. That’s one of the big ahas! The other secret is most of the major corporations in our region will often provide either all or partial support (to a student) for a four-year degree (in these fields). It could be a really nice pathway with the company paying the tab.”

Another other hurdle is the language barrier in the classroom. Schools today create artificial walls with language by describing a class as “advanced” or “rigorous.” “It’s become a barrier in education,” says Baillie. “There’s a fence you have to get over to get into the hard stuff. A lot of students veer off at that point. Imagine if there was a natural flow from one course into the next.”

Classrooms of the future need to address math and science in more of an inquiry based manner that allows students to work within teams in a project-based setting. This will facilitate career awareness, he says.

Another key finding highlights that rural areas represent the greatest opportunity for STEM education related careers in new industries. Programs like the ones in Beaver Falls and South Fayette are exactly what the region needs.

Another recent workforce development program in the region underscores the importance of all of this. This month Chevron Corp. committed $20 million to a regional initiative that will promote STEM education programs in 27 counties across Western Pennsylvania.

“We need to help people to see the path to these opportunities,” says Nigel Hearne, president of Chevron Appalachia. “I need to help my own son see the possibilities of certain skill sets. That’s how we can help as parents. It’s not about what we say but how we inspire our children to do something different.”

This story is underwritten by the Grable Foundation as part of the Remake Learning Initiative, in partnership with WQED, WESA and Pittsburgh Magazine.  See all the Remake Learning stories in NEXTpittsburgh and on our partners’ websites.

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Deb Smit

Deb is an award-winning journalist who loves ancient places and cool technologies. A former daily newspaper reporter and Time-Life Books editor, she writes mostly about Pittsburgh. Her stories have appeared in Fast Company, Ozy and Pittsburgh Magazine.