One regional school district is garnering national attention for its pioneering use of technology in and beyond the classroom, and is poised to serve as a model that can be replicated across the country.

Located in Allegheny County about 35 minutes southeast of Pittsburgh, Elizabeth Forward School District serves approximately 2588 students. The district’s innovative approach to teaching 21st-century skills is profiled in EdSurge, an information resource focused on education technology.

In the article, From Drab to FABLab: How One District Trains Kids on 21st Century Skills, the district’s assistant superintendent Dr. Todd Keruskin takes readers on a virtual tour of how educators, administrators and students are working together to transform teaching and learning processes as well as the curriculum.

“We are already fifteen years into the 21st century, and many educators continue to talk about the importance of students gaining ’21st Century and STEM skills.’ But the big question is, how much has our curriculum changed to address 21st-century skills in K-12 schools across the country?” says Keruskin.

Helping to address these critical questions are the district’s on-site middle school FABLab and DREAM Factory, created with input from experts at MIT, MAKE, TechShop and MAYA Design.

“We decided to bring down the silos between art, computer science and technology education departments, as students struggle to see the connection between these subjects, and our teachers traditionally don’t create interdisciplinary projects. We created a FABLAb that we call the DREAM Factory, between the art, computer science and technology teachers to help middle school students make almost anything,” says Keruskin.

What’s it like to enter the DREAM Factory? As they walk down the Innovation Hallway, students are inspired by 20th-century artifacts—from the steam engine, the first calculator and the first television, to floppy disks and Google glasses—all gracing the walls.

Central to the DREAM Factory is an art room complete with 3D printers, 3D Doodle pens, a 3D scanner, laptops and Wacom tablets. But it’s not just about shiny new tools. Art teachers still teach traditional art techniques, while also including technology in most projects.

Keruskin goes on to explain how teachers are transforming the district’s curriculum, integrating new tools in the art room and successfully engaging more students to take learning beyond the classroom.

In the DREAM Factory’s Computer Science room (dubbed “Silicon Valley East”), students learn everything from computer programming and robotics, to green screen technologies and 3D design. Rounding out the DREAM Factory is the colorfully painted Technology Education room—a prototype lab for students that boasts 3D printers, a CNC router, laser cutter, vinyl cutter and traditional woodshop equipment.

All of these innovations are leading to results, more engaged students and collaborative teaching methods.

“Students are now more engaged in computer science and we created our first robotics club and a technology student association club. Students are staying after school to continue video projects and are demanding summer enrichment programs in computer programming. Students are now skipping lunch, staying after school and coming before school starts to 3D print personal projects, using the laser cutters for projects beyond the classroom and are demanding to keep the lab open during the summer,” says Keruskin.

And the district understands that both individual and common planning time for teachers is key to the initiative’s success.

Learn more about Elizabeth Forward School District’s model for a 21st-century middle school here.

Jennifer Baron

Jennifer has worked at the Mattress Factory, Brooklyn Museum of Art and Dahesh Museum of Art and is co-author of Pittsburgh Signs Project: 250 Signs of Western Pennsylvania. She also is co-coordinator...