Throughout the Commonwealth, Intermediate Units are serving their communities and students. Check out our IU Spotlights to learn more about some of their efforts:
When it comes to computer science, teaching students to program computers is only half the picture.
“Computer science is understanding how to use a computer as a tool to solve problems -- how to break a problem down into smaller steps, how to iterate or attack a problem and keep trying over and over to solve it, how to use the computer as a tool to work with big data,” says Delaware County IU 25’s Lauren Poutasse.
While computer science is part of Pennsylvania’s core standards, schools face challenges in delivering. Rural schools struggle to find qualified teachers. Urban schools must squeeze time out of overbooked days and have access to properly working technology.
That’s why DCIU said yes when invited in 2016 to be a regional partner for Code.org, a nonprofit building computer science instruction capacity in schools nationwide. By 2020, two-thirds of jobs will require a computer science background, and students exposed to it will have a leg up in a broad range of fields, says Poutasse, who is leading the initiative.
As Code.org’s Pennsylvania partner, DCIU is responsible for:
- Training existing K-5 teachers to incorporate computer science into classroom practices.
- Providing training and community support for a project-based course in middle schools, and a new Advanced Placement computer science principles course in high schools.
The initiative strives for equity through outreach to underserved students and by offering all training, travel, curricula, and materials for free, funded by Code.org. In Year Two, DCIU is partnering with the Pennsylvania Department of Education and other intermediate units to take training on the road, minimizing travel time for participating teachers, especially in rural areas.
In its first year, the initiative trained 241 K-5 teachers and was installed in middle and high schools in 43 districts. On the way toward the goal of exposing every student to computer science, Code.org is upending myths and teaching students how to transport their newfound problem-solving skills from one conundrum to another.
“It’s about thinking skills for students,” says Poutasse. “Computer science is not an individual subject. It’s practiced in teams. Creativity is a big part of computer science.”
The number of English language learners in Pennsylvania is skyrocketing, and Appalachia IU 8 is a leader in equipping schools to meet the challenges faced by students whose primary language is not English. No matter what their background or where they came from, every student of English in Pennsylvania needs expert help, because acquiring English is an arduous process that takes seven to 10 years, says Leonard Shurin, administrator and ESL Program Specialist at IU 8.
Additionally, ESL classes are required by state and federal law, and an ESL class, as a curricular subject, replaces English language arts in the curriculum. "English is the hardest language in the world to acquire," says Shurin. Students who get successful ESL, or English as a Second Language, instruction perform better on Pennsylvania's achievement tests in English and language arts, says Shurin, and an essential element of success is a well-trained and certified ESL teacher.
Appalachia IU 8's ESL instruction program attracts participants from all over Pennsylvania and beyond. Every semester's daytime and evening courses are filled with students, many of them teachers building the credits needed for Pennsylvania ESL certification. IU 8's courses are built around research showing how the brain learns new languages, including the importance of steeping students in vocabulary, and teaching the idea of the alphabet to students from countries such as China with character-based languages.
Teachers must learn strategies for reaching students who come from a broad spectrum of experiences - those who are well-educated and already know some English, or those who are barely literate in their native tongues. Finally, they must communicate with students who were born speaking Spanish, Chinese, French, German, or Gujarati, one of the many languages of India, or any of the world's countless other languages. "Any child in the United States -- citizen or noncitizen -- must go to school," says Shurin. "The best way for a non-English speaking child to achieve and acquire English language proficiency is with the direct daily instruction of a skilled ESL teacher. Otherwise, it's a difficult future for them."
When students at Northwest Tri-County IU 5’s STEM summer camp launched space balloons, they weren’t just competing to see whose balloon could reach a stratospheric 60,000 feet. They were actually conducting STEM exercises deliberately aligned with the educational content that schools must deliver.
“The students are actually measuring the sphere of the balloon,” says IU 5 Assistat Director Nick Paolini. “They’re calculating circumference. How many pounds of helium do I need to put in this balloon to raise a payload that weighs 1,200 grams, in order to reach 60,000 feet? There’s a whole science calculation behind that.”
While schools focus on teaching the STEM skills vital to the economy of today and tomorrow, IU 5 is helping assure that STEM activities aren’t just fun exercises but actually reinforce Pennsylvania Department of Education standards – the “eligible content” that students must master in every subject. Through its Applied Curriculum service, the IU develops standards-based classroom activities that teachers can use.
“We bring the curriculum to life,” says Paolini. “We focus on the standards in science, math, and English language arts to figure out the hands-on projects that can support the eligible content that’s being tested in the spring.”
The STEM summer camp, called ConstrX, is part of the initiative. The space-balloon exercises addressed a long list of academic standards in English language arts for science and technology, including determining the central ideas of a text, carrying out multistep experiments, and writing conclusions using facts to support claims.
In one ConstrX exercise, students were given little direction in a challenge to build controllable blimps with balloons and remote-control cars. Few actually succeeded, but in ConstrX and the Applied Curriculum service, “we celebrate failure, because you learn from that,” says Paolini. “One of the things that’s a culture shock is when we show up on the first day and say, ‘We want you to fail.’”
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