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TransformED: Making Educational Transformation Possible From Classroom To School To District

29.10.2019 | BY TYLER SAMSTAG
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Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania is known for its hills. The steepest documented road in the United States, in fact, is located in the southern tip of the city. Although sometimes problematic for those who must traverse this landscape on a regular basis, the city’s terrain has spurred, in part, a thriving new industry: the designing, engineering, and testing of autonomous vehicles.

It has become increasingly common to see self-driving cars navigating the streets of Pittsburgh. They are easy to spot, with spinning sensors and other hardware affixed to their exteriors. Although the sight alone of these futuristic vehicles is awe-inspiring, their increased visibility in the city also serves as a constant reminder to the region’s educators that as technology rapidly advances, so too does the need to evolve our craft in order to ensure that students are properly prepared with the skillsets and dispositions needed to succeed in an ever-changing workplace.

The good news is, educators across the Greater Pittsburgh Region have already begun to reimagine instructional practices and learning environments. Underutilized spaces have been transformed into thriving maker spaces and teachers are rethinking traditional pedagogies in favor of cross-disciplinary learning that provides students with opportunities to develop solutions to real-world, wicked problems.

To help spark transformation in schools across Western Pennsylvania, the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, a regional education service agency, created transformED.

Photo: Nico Segall Tobon

transformED connects educators with the professional learning, technology access, peer networks, and grant funding they need to start, scale, and sustain transformational change.  No matter where they are on their journey of innovation, transformED provides educators everything they need to modernize teaching and learning, whether they’re starting in a single classroom or renovating an entire district.

In practice, transformED supports regional educators through four primary programs:

  • Educator Workshops professional learning experiences that emphasize hands-on practice and peer-to-peer support.

  • Catalyst Grants that provide startup capital to spark innovation in public schools.

  • Technology Lending Library that provides free access to the latest education technology.

  • Field Tests that enable early-adopter teachers to work in a trusting and candid partnership with education researchers and technology developers.

Of these four programs, perhaps the most popular are the Educator Workshops, which are attended each year by thousands of teachers, administrators, librarians, and out-of-school time providers. Offered several times per week at no cost, transformED Educator Workshops are radically relevant professional learning experiences focused on an array of topics that include design thinking, robotics, maker education, physical computing, virtual and augmented reality, and digital citizenship.

Although professional development often elicits negative connotation as being compulsory, one-day sit-and-get experiences, transformED’s approach to professional development is learner-centered, inquiry-driven, project-based, and collaborative—just like it should be in the classroom. transformED Educator Workshops emphasize hands-on practice with new ideas, skills, and tools, together with peer-to-peer support that helps teachers return to their classroom confident, capable, and ready to inspire, engage, and support their students.

Educator Workshops are built around four core beliefs. These are outlined below, along with examples of workshops that exemplify each belief statement:

transformED strives to spark discourse around mitigating barriers to educational innovation.  This includes workshops focused explicitly on increasing access to STEAM and computer science amongst historically underrepresented groups.

One workshop, for example, Toy Hacking & Assistive Technology Making: Solder, Switches, & Stuffing, leads participants in “hacking” or altering electronic toys to work with mechanical switches, increasing their functionality for children with physical disabilities. In another workshop, Creating Accessible Learning Environments for STEAM, participants delve into learning and brain sciences to explore learner variability, followed by co-designing flexible STEAM environments that can accommodate individual learning differences. 

Photo: Michael Tarquinio


When Pennsylvania’s Department of Education made a statewide commitment to computer science, many teachers stepped up to the challenge, eager to leverage programming as a way for students to become digital creators in their classes. For some, computer science integration took the form of a supplemental activity, while for others, a full-blown unit of study. To best support educators’ varied needs, transformED offers a continuum of workshops open to teachers, regardless of their content expertise, past experiences, or comfort level with computer programming.

Introductory workshops such as Micro-Computing on a Budget and Introduction to Circuitry with Conductive and Interactive Art provide opportunities for beginners to experiment with interfacing computer programming with the world around them using various micro-controllers.

As a teacher’s comfort grows, they might then opt to attend a more specialized workshop hosted in conjunction with transformED’s higher education and industry partners, including Game Design with CMU’s Entertainment Technology Center, Constructing an Autonomous Vehicle with BirdBrain Technologies, and Visual Programming in Python with Carnegie Mellon University’s CS Academy. By design, transformED offers support to educators when, where, and how they best see fit.


Ultimately, transformED’s Educator Workshops are deemed successful when participants leave with their interests piqued and a desire to continue exploring new ideas when they return to their classrooms. 

This was especially the case for many participants in a series of workshops transformED hosted focusing on emerging virtual, augmented, and mixed reality technologies. In one particular workshop, Create a Historical Augmented Reality Cemetery Tour, participants constructed digital tours of Pittsburgh’s historic Allegheny Cemetery. Leveraging augmented reality software, the final product allowed participants to point a mobile device at notable gravesites, triggering supplemental video, pictures, and text about the lives of those interred below.

Although nearly every participant entered with no prior experience using the technology, many went on to replicate the experience with their students, comfortable with embracing uncertainty and a willingness to learn further alongside their students.


Large-scale change can be triggered by the collective momentum of small actions. This mindset fuels a fellowship offered by transformED in conjunction with School Retool. Designed by Stanford’s d.school and IDEO, School Retool supports school leaders in culture transformation using small, scrappy experiments.

School Retool fellows start by creating student-centered aspirations, develop empathy by conducting “shadow-a-student” exercises, and identify behaviors that they want to see in their school. Using “levers for change”, fellows design small, specific experiments they can do the next day to take steps toward bringing out those behaviors in their school.

Photo: Ben Filio

Southwestern Pennsylvania School Retool alums have seen small shifts lead to noticeable transformation. Small experiments have grown in scope to shape school cultures that are more welcoming to refugee students, provide opportunities to apply content knowledge to solve community-based problems, and encourage students and teachers alike to take risks and learn from failure.

 


transformED’s unique approach to professional development has supported over 3,000 educators in creating transformational change in classrooms, schools, and districts across Pennsylvania. To learn more about transformED, check out their innovation page