Creativity Center Serves as Sandbox for Teachers

In Pittsburgh, new models of professional development allow teachers to tinker with technology.

December 04, 2013
Kathleen Costanza
Common Sense Education Blogger

CATEGORIES Professional Development

The Sto-Rox school district in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania recently transformed one of its school’s libraries into a Creative Media Technology Learning Center complete with animation software, video equipment, and green screens. Now, on any given school day, students are producing daily TV segments based on local news and the happenings at their high school.

Sto-Rox’s upgrade was possible through a STEAM -- science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics -- grant from the Center for Creativity, a unique effort that provides hands-on grants and 21st century professional development to teachers in 42 districts across the Pittsburgh area. A partnership between The Allegheny Intermediate Unit and Intermediate Unit 1, part of the local school government structure in Pennsylvania, the Center has provided 140 grants totaling $1.6 million to schools since it was founded in 2009.

“School districts and teachers in southwestern Pennsylvania are doing a fantastic job, but wouldn’t it be great if there was a place they could go where they could be even more inspired?” says Sarah McCluan, supervisor of communication services for the Allegheny Intermediate Unit. McCluan says the center was created to serve as a “sandbox” for teachers to tinker with technology, make mistakes, learn, and create.

In addition to its grant work, last February the Center opened TransformED, a space devoted to hosting professional development for K-12 teachers.

“You walk into the room and you know you’re not going to get the same old open-up-the-binder professional development,” says Paul Cindric, a curriculum and instructional coordinator for the Allegheny Intermediate Unit. TransformED is packed with iPads, MacBook Airs, photography equipment, and a 3D printer as well as mobile desks and chairs that get rearranged for just about every event. One of the walls features a brightly colored mural, another is painted green for using green screen technology.

TransformED is a busy place, filled with a myriad of events and activities. A recent group of social studies teachers received a demonstration about printing ancient coins with a 3D printer.

“It opens up a lot of eyes to teachers who may even have a 3D printer but don’t even know they exist because they’re in a technology lab somewhere,” says Cindric of the printing demos.

Other days at TransformED see visits from the Brentwood Creativity Cadre, a devoted group from the Brentwood Borough School District that has embarked on a year-long investigation into digital learning with the Center’s help. Their events have covered topics like using audio software and the potential of games-based learning.

As the Pittsburgh Regional Manager for Common Sense Media, Jennifer Ehehalt hosts many of the workshops held at TransformED as part of her wider outreach effort. One of the biggest hits? Appy Hours, complete with battery-operated candles and “mocktail” Shirley Temples. Appy Hours introduce teachers to 4 to 6 apps, websites, and games and encourage them play around with the new tools while bouncing ideas off each other.

For example, there are hundreds of definition apps, but how exactly does a teacher find the best one for learning? Appy Hours often introduce the WordFlex Touch Dictionary for the iPad. The $12 app turns learning vocabulary into a visual experience by breaking words into chunks and connecting them in intricate webs.

Ehehalt says being armed with firsthand knowledge about how specific apps spur learning motivates teachers to return to their districts and request funding for them. Or, if they’re free, take the plunge and try them out in the classroom. Ehehalt also uses the space to teach our digital citizenship curriculum.

“Media and technology are not going away. Kids are probably connected now more than ever. They’re bringing their devices to school and schools are rolling out 1-to-1 programs,” Ehehalt says of the new ways teachers have had to adapt. “So when teachers see something that’s so fun and easy to implement, they’re kind of like, ‘You’re giving me all these resources and all I have to do is teach it?’”

Beyond making the experience fun and engaging, McClaun says believing that collaboration across sectors is possible has been imperative for the Center for Creativity’s success. “For something like this really this to succeed, it really does require the effort of many in different types of organizations that represent different learning areas,” she says. “It’s not just a formal education, there are all these informal places where people learn.”

In addition to intense cooperation and collaboration, Cindric adds that one of the keys to the Center’s progress is its open-minded policy toward innovative ideas.

“The word TransformEd is a play on the word transformed,” Cindric says. “We have to be continually transforming ourselves and keeping up with the technology.”

He explains the Center is always open to meetings with people who spark their interests, whether they’re education entrepreneurs or experts from tech-centric Carnegie Mellon University. Sometimes, the meetings spin out into ideas that work, sometimes not. Regardless, it’s all part of taking risks and continually learning how to provide teachers the resources they need for a modern classroom.