A paradigm shift is underway in education. Students gather in STEAM labs and studios to create mobile apps, program robots and play with computing coding. The traditional school day has blossomed into a playground of innovation as educators teach students to think scientifically—and more like a computer.

It’s called computational thinking and it’s the new literacy.

In Southwestern Pennsylvania, one school district stands on the forefront of this brave new era in education. South Fayette School District has embarked on an initiative to develop a national model to teach computational thinking and digital literacy in schools. While some educators choose to introduce higher-level thinking skills to students in high school, South Fayette has found starting students young—as early as kindergarten—and providing a “continuum of learning” through high school to be highly successful.

Even the students agree. In a survey of South Fayette students grades 3-5, 81% expressed passion for programming in classes where they could see their ideas come to life. By seventh grade, 88% of all students were asking for more. Boys and girls responded with equal enthusiasm.

“What is happening here is we’ve changed the culture,” says Aileen Owens, director of technology and innovation. “We have to teach this as a literacy, much like reading and math. What we see happening is when you build this out, a student’s entire perspective of the field (of computer sciences) changes.”

Owens is the high-energy educator behind the development of the computation-based curriculum for South Fayette. Last year she won two major awards in recognition of her progressive ideas. This February, EdSurge and Digital Promise named her an Administration Trailblazer, national recognition for her work in digital innovation learning.

Aileen Owens, director of innovation and technology at South Fayette
Aileen Owens, director of innovation and technology at South Fayette

Weaving these concepts into an otherwise traditional school day is an incisive balancing act. Students at South Fayette spend 40-minutes, three consecutive days a week, every two weeks, in a STEAM lab or studio where they engage in scientific inquiry like building and testing the thrust of bottle rockets, creating and lighting up electric circuit boards, learning PYTHON programming and coding bee-like robots using SCRATCH, a block-based software designed for younger children.

“This curriculum creates a pathway inside the existing curriculum and works within it,” Owens explains. “It’s a solid new piece integrated within our traditional education system. It’s so important because it allows us to create innovators of the future.”

The goal is to develop students’ computational thinking skills, not just in science class but beyond. “We don’t know the jobs that will be available for future students,” Owens says. “But we do know students need to have a problem thought process. That’s what we’re teaching our children.”

By definition, computational thinking is the ability to think abstractly. Software engineers and scientists intuitively know that to solve big problems, they must be broken into smaller parts. When problems are broken down, patterns emerge. Students learn to identify patterns and create instructions that go on to solve similar problems.

This is how computers process information, using algorithmic problem-solving and abstraction techniques to find solutions. In adopting the framework, Owens was inspired by the work another woman, a CMU professor Jeanette Marie Wing, formerly head of CMU’s Computer Science Dept. Wing believed computational thinking was a discipline that could be applied to other subjects across the curriculum.

The initiative appears to be working in South Fayette’s favor academically. PSSA scores across the district have continued to rise in tandem with the rollout of the program.

“We are teaching students to think more creatively and innovatively, which is better preparation for the global environment in which they will work,” says Bille Rondinelli, superintendent of South Fayette School District. “It (computation literacy) has to be a fundamental part of the way they see the world.”

Melissa Drake’s STEAM Lab launching bottle rockets.

Melissa Drake’s 5th grade STEAM lab serves as an example. On this day, bottle rockets fly across the room. Students scramble after them and measure the distance flown. “There’s a lot of trial and error. They get frustrated,” Drake says. “But a maturity and leadership comes from the way they work with one another. It’s not about who built the rocket right, but who has worked (successfully) beyond a problem.”

Last year, South Fayette reached out to two schools, Fort Cherry School District and Manchester Academic Charter School, and shared several of the activities. The program, funded through a grant from the Grable Foundation, proved so successful, South Fayette will extend the opportunity to other schools in the region this summer. The STEAM Innovation Summer Institute will provide professional development to 300 teachers.

The agenda is packed. BirdBrain Technologies will teach the creation of robotic art from recycled materials. CMU-spinoff Zulama will guide professional development on the fundamentals of game-based design. Workshops will be held on digital, hydroponic growing, SCRATCH, mobile app design and more.

“We will track how it works in other districts and watch the paradigm shift unfold,” says Owens. “From each new experience comes deeper learning. From deeper learning comes the ability to be creators and innovators.”

This article is part of the Remake Learning initiative, a multi-media partnership between NEXTpittsburgh and WQED Multimedia,Pittsburgh Magazine and WESA. Click to see their stories on Learning innovation in Pittsburgh.

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.