‘Allow Yourself to Be Creative’: Aileen Owens on Leading District Edtech Initiatives

‘Allow Yourself to Be Creative’: Aileen Owens on Leading District Edtech Initiatives

Mary Jo Madda

There’s a feverish buzz about computer science in classrooms, but when it comes to instruction, is it about the coding itself--or teaching students about those soft skills and the “computational thinking” needed to become an expert programmer? To get some answers to those questions, we turn to Aileen Owen--the 2014 Digital Innovation in Learning Awards “Administrator Trailblazer” winner, as well as the recipient of the “Winners’ Choice: Administrator” award, voted upon by all 17 winners of the DILAs.

We sat down with Owens, Director of Technology and Innovation for the South Fayette School District in Pennsylvania, to hear her tips and tricks for taking a K-12 computational program districtwide, “embedding” professional development, and picking the best tools for the job.

Q: Thanks for sitting down with us, Aileen! Let's talk for a second about what brought this program about. Why computational thinking? Why did you choose to embark on this districtwide initiative?

A: I was hired five years ago with the idea “to remake learning.” One thing I looked at was the idea of what our future holds, and it appeared that the most open opportunity is in computer programming; that’s where the future is for our students in any field. What we call “computational thinking” is the new literacy, and we’re not just teaching technology skills--we’re teaching thinking skills, the thought process.

We developed three aspects of what we consider computational thinking to be. One of them is the problem-solving process that engineers and designers use. We’re teaching students to think recursively, abstractly. A second aspect is career vision; we want students to understand the relevancy of what they learn in school as its applied to their field of choice. And the third aspect is habits of mind--those are the characteristics of successful problem solvers, the ability to think openly and imaginatively. I believe there’s 16 habits of mind altogether.

Q: And goals for the program? How do you look to track the progress of your students?

A: Our goal is that every child will graduate with some experience in programming. We originally thought that that we could achieve this by the time they were in 11th or 12th grade, but now, we start students earlier--in 1st and 2nd grade, and every child, by the time they’re in 7th grade, will have their first text-based programming. (When they first start out, they work with block-based programming.)

You’ve asked how we’re tracking the progress. We started out by giving pre and post-surveys. We found last year through the surveys that 88% of our students really loved programming. We also have “career clusters” in high school--students join a career cluster when they hit ninth grade. For example, any student who is considering computer programming or engineering/design, they will join the STEAM cluster. Last year, we had 42 students in the STEAM cluster.

Q: Let’s talk about tools for a second. What computational tools do you see as really changing the game in helping to instruct kids on how to code?

A: There are so many different ones to use, but my bit of advice is that I always recommend using Scratch. There’s no cost. There’s a curriculum guide that was designed by Karen Brennan at Harvard, and we use it. And then, if you’re in Kindergarten, there’s Kodable. That app is very good for K-1. By 2nd grade, we have the students making their own games in Scratch, Jr.

In middle school, we use App Inventor. The students creative interactive cartoons and stories in 3rd, 4th, and 5th, but when they get to middle school, they start to create apps for mobile devices. In 7th grade, we also start using Khan Academy. They learn processing language through Khan Academy.

And then in high school, we have the normal Java 1, Java 2, but the after-school programs include a Python course, in which students last year created their version of the game “Snake.”

Q: Those tools sound great--if the teacher knows how to use them. What about professional development for your educators, showing them how to teach students to code? How are you supporting that?

A: We have used a variety of creative solutions for professional development, but the solutions that work best are those that we identify as embedded professional development.

We brought our high school art teacher and a local artist together for a day of planning where they selected an art and technology project to teach in the classroom. We brought the artist into the classroom to lead the project for the first three days. Our teacher learned alongside the students, and then continued the project on his own when he gained confidence.

We also created STEAM Teacher positions in the elementary school, intermediate school and middle school. STEAM Teachers lead the projects while the classroom teachers learn and then assist the students in the classroom. Classroom teachers then have the ability to bring these initiatives into their curriculum areas, thus extending the learning.

The Grable Foundation has challenged us to make innovation happen in districts in our region. Therefore, I am currently developing a professional development model for STEAM Innovation, which will be offered during our STEAM Innovation Summer Institute with support from The Grable Foundation. The model includes inspired learning experiences that begin with acquiring a skill-set and then applying this skill-set to developing an applied innovation as teachers create a new product. Teachers from different districts will work with collaborative teams to build learning communities as they complete the projects in their classrooms through a capstone project. We will track teachers for a year after the institute to gauge our ability to impact to foster and transform education through innovation.

Q: Do you have any advice for other administrators, looking to launch districtwide initiatives?

A: Based on our discoveries, here is some advice I hope will be helpful.

First, enlist and engage support at every level. Develop a team of committed administrators, teachers, students, parents and experts in the field. Research districts with successful practices that are most like your vision. Don’t recreate the wheel.

With professional development, be creative. Allow yourself to be creative in providing professional development to your teachers by utilizing the talent that exists in your community.

Connected learning experiences are as important as the curriculum itself. Building after-school connected learning experiences, to support the new curriculum initiatives, are vital for building a STEAM pathway for students. Often times we used after-school initiatives as incubator projects to test and gauge the effects on teaching and learning and then made refinements before embedding into the curriculum. After-school initiatives also allow students to develop their passion for a topic, which they might have experienced in the curriculum, by continuing to engage and develop in deeper learning opportunities.

Last, listen to your students. Our students were, and continue to be, the driving force behind our computational thinking initiative. 

EDITOR'S NOTE: Interested in applying for the 2015 Digital Innovation in Learning Awards? Check back here in the early spring for all the details!

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