Greater Johnstown first-grade class

Stephanie Heming’s first-grade class participates in a Lego activity held in December at Greater Johnstown Elementary School.

A local initiative to enhance digital literacy for workforce development in grades K-12 has created a new collaborative effort between Pitt-Johnstown and Greater Johnstown School District. 

Code for the Commonwealth, launched in the Greater Johnstown region through the Pitt-Johnstown Outreach Office, is the first step in an effort to assimilate coding literacy into school curriculum and after school and summer programs across the commonwealth.

“Dr. (Jem) Spectar’s ultimate goals and vision are about really lifting the community in terms of jobs and opportunities and skill sets when it comes to computer science technology,” said Roxanne Jenner, Pitt-Johnstown’s Director of Code Programs. “So what we’ve been working on is how to put this into a program or an offering to take to schools. 

“That’s what we are doing this year in the Greater Johnstown Elementary School,” she said. “A school environment with a lot of kids and classrooms – that’s where it all comes together.”

In addition to the elementary’s school-wide Lego activities that began earlier in the academic year, the university’s Code 4 STEM Academy was introduced as a pilot program to the school’s fourth-grade students.

The academy features an innovative approach that builds on the power of computational thinking as a problem-solving methodology.

So far, students have had the opportunity to get some hands-on learning on topics such as engineering, weatherization and computer science coding.

“We’re really trying to connect their learning to things in their lives and give them hands-on things to get involved with,” Jenner said. “We want to help them start to wonder a little bit and be excited about learning.”

According to statistics provided by code.org, 71 percent of new STEM jobs are in computing, while only 8 percent of STEM grads are in a computer science related field. Currently, there are more than 510,000 open computing jobs nationwide.

Greater Johnstown Elementary’s assistant principal Vicki Ryan says the best part about about the coding process and STEM is the students learn just as much from their mistakes as they do from the final product.

“The thing about STEM is you’re not learning specific content, but you’re learning the process – a thought process that you can apply to all science,” Ryan said. “So instead of just reading about weather, we can build a house through a project and now they’re learning all about the weather elements in a context that’s more than just reading the text book.

“The more we can embed that STEAM process and that product thinking into regular education classrooms and regular school subject areas, the better honed those skills will be for our kids.”

Jenner, who has been instrumental in piloting the Code 4 STEM Academy at Greater Johnstown Elementary, said her goal is now to teach the teachers how integrate this into their classrooms.

“They have a hard job, and we know that,” Jenner said. “And we know that these types of activities and these types of learning will help the classrooms run better. I see it myself when I go in to these classes.”

By infusing code and STEM into the teachers’ lesson plans, it has put more of a focus on how the children are learning, which is something Ryan said is needed in schools today.

“I think it’s phenomenal for the teachers that are willing to take that risk, because it’s really changing the way they teach,” she said. “They are embracing it. I think they see how the students respond in the classrooms and it’s worth the risk to their own personal comfort zones.”

A Family STEAM Night will take place at the elementary school from 5 to 7 p.m. April 4. The event will highlight the partnership between the school and Pitt-Johnstown, and promote their efforts to connect learning with innovative teaching methods using coding and STEAM.

The free family event will feature robots, Legos and students from Greater Johnstown High School and Pitt-Johnstown. 

For more information on Pitt-Johnstown’s CODE 4 STEM Academy, visit upj.pitt.edu/code4stem.

Ronald Fisher is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter @FisherSince_82.