Human-Centered Design gives educators durable strategies for problem-solving

Although their projects varied widely, many of the educators participating in Expanding Innovation 2.1 during the fall semester had a similar outcome from the experience. When they gathered to present their work earlier this month, one after another marveled at the utility of the human-centered design (HCD) methods they’d learned and felt certain they’d find multiple ways to use them going forward.

“This is a tool we’ve just seen take off,” said Carlynton Junior-Senior High School Principal Mike Loughren, ticking off four different ways that his staff already has used HCD methods.

Carlynton was one of eight districts that participated in Expanding Innovation 2.1, an HCD training program we offered in October in partnership with LUMA Institute and support from The Grable Foundation. HCD is an activities-based approach to problem-solving that focuses on people above other factors, whether the challenge is making a better product, as is often the case in industry, or finding the best ways to make changes in schools.

“One of the biggest takeaways for us was how simple these strategies are, and even more importantly, how well they were accepted,” said Laurel Highlands School District’s Curriculum Director Randy Miller.

As part of their HCD training, participants in Expanding Innovation 2.1 undertook projects in their schools applying varying combinations of the 36 different methods LUMA prescribes. The methods all are aimed at gathering, sorting and analyzing information and ultimately, drawing conclusions.

At Carlynton alone, educators applied HCD strategies in classroom teaching; in professional development; as an intervention for students with high rates of absenteeism and as part of a Project-Based Learning experience at the high school.

Projects ranged from repurposing library space in Clairton City School District, to reexamining and overhauling an elementary school writing portfolio project Laurel Highlands had implemented 15 years ago.

Laurel Highlands also used HCD at the administrative and Board levels, said Superintendent Jesse Wallace. Like others, he found the methods an effective way to ensure everyone had a voice in decision-making.

Along with Laurel Highlands, Carlynton, and Clairton City, participating districts included Cornell, Deer Lakes, Ellwood City, Shaler Area and Steel Valley.








Allegheny Health Network, Duquesne Light and Covestro host latest immersion opportunities for Educator in the Workforce

Academic and technical skills are important to employers, of course. But participants in our Educator in the Workforce program are hearing time and again that they’re not all that’s important and, sometimes, not even most important.

At Duquesne Light Co., for example, candidates for the Electrical Distribution Technician program must take a math test, but they also must exhibit soft skills. “It’s a team environment,” explained Talent Acquisition Manager Selenna Gregg when the utility hosted our Educator in the Workforce program in January. The visit was one of two in January. The other was at Allegheny Health Network. Both followed a December visit to Covestro.

At Covestro, “I think the biggest soft skills we look for are communication and strong thinking skills — being able to think logically and being able to communicate,” said John Brandt, who serves as Technical Manager with hiring responsibilities for the company.

“Another thing I look for is grit,” he said. “We can’t have people who give up whenever there’s a challenge. Related to that, you have to be a self-starter, a learner…And no matter what job you do, you need to be able to work on teams.”

“We’re asked a lot, ‘What does career-readiness look like’?” Brandt told educators during a site visit. “I have to tell you, it’s changed.”

As much as employers need people who’ve achieved a certain level of mastery in their fields, they also “need employees with soft skills,” he said.

Because hiring criteria have changed, so have interview techniques.

“We do a lot of behavioral-based interviews,” Brandt said.

Many employers looking for soft skills have made the same shift, including Duquesne Light. During so-called behavioral interviews, recruiters ask applicants to recount situations that challenged them — whether interpersonal or task-related — and their own responses.

For example, interviewees might be asked to relate how they react when they find out they’ve made a mistake and give an example.

Educators attending the career immersion session at Covestro peppered Brandt and other hiring managers with questions, wanting to know what makes a resume stand out, among other things.

Before selecting candidates for interviews, Brandt said he and his colleagues look for things that might give clues about a candidate’s dispositions. An applicant who was on a school swim team, for example, might be someone who emphasizes individual performance insofar as it contributes to overall team success.

Finally, he encouraged educators to let students know that cover letters give them an opportunity to mention things that a resume wouldn’t address.










Consortium staffers to speak at SAS Institute Conference

Three Consortium staffers will be presenting at the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s upcoming annual SAS Institute Conference, which begins Sunday, December 8 at the Hershey Lodge & Convention Center in Hershey, PA.

The theme for this year’s event is “Bridging the Skills Gap…A Pathway to Employability.”

In that context, Program Directors Aaron Altemus and Sarah Brooks will present twice on our Student-Powered Solutions (SPS) program, which partners with local employers around learning experiences that help students prepare for the workplace.

Separately, Program Director Christy Kuehn will team up with Jessica Trybus from Simcoach Games to discuss using video games to engage students in career learning.

Altemus and Brooks, who regularly lead PBL training sessions for educators, also oversee SPS, which will be both the focus of a breakout session and one of four PBL programs showcased during the luncheon presentations.

SPS pairs classrooms with companies willing to offer students real-world challenges as the basis for PBL assignments. By working in teams, students executing the projects develop soft skills needed in all workplaces.

Because of the corporate partnerships, SPS also can build opportunities for career exploration into some of its projects. The Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) earlier this year certified SPS projects incorporating career investigation opportunities as meeting state Work-Based Learning Experience standards for “job shadows.”

“SPS addresses career learning at a number of levels,” said Brooks. “We’re looking forward to letting other educators see both the power of this program and its replicability.”

In a separate presentation, Kuehn and Trybus will discuss a suite 36 video games that Simcoach developed for helping students with career discovery and exploration; identification of aptitudes; and/or career preparation and skills development. The company developed two of the games in collaboration with the Consortium.

“This medium appeals so much to kids, it should make the engagement part pretty easy,” Kuehn said.





Employers and educators brainstorm ideas for work-based learning experiences

Educators and employers met at the Consortium in late October to see how they might work together to provide students with work-based learning experiences.

Work-based learning experiences are among three industry-based learning indicators that the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) accepts as evidence students are meeting an important standard for college and career readiness by the time they graduate.

“It’s more than a check-off,” Consortium Program Director Christy Kuehn noted as she briefed attendees on seven state-recognized options for creating work-based learning experiences. “While these are state requirements, it can be so meaningful for students to work with businesses while they’re still in school because it can really have an impact on how they plan their next steps after graduation.”

Schools are facing the new standards, which came into effect last year, just as employers are beginning to feel the pinch of a tight labor market.

The confluence of interests is beginning to inspire partnerships that help students achieve the standards while also acquainting them with the kinds of jobs employers are trying to fill and helping them develop important workplace skills.

For example, Greensburg Salem School District worked with the German American Chamber of Commerce this year to launch a pre-apprenticeship program in partnership with Leybold USA, an affiliate of Germany’s Leybold GmbH.

Leybold’s end goal is creating a pipeline for sales engineers. The pre-apprenticeship is the first step, but interested students can follow a pathway into a full-fledged apprenticeship and ultimately obtain two or four-year degrees as Leybold employees.

Clairton City School District and Kurt J. Lesker Co. have partnered in multiple ways, said Guidance Counselor Maureen Shaw. Among qualifying work-based learning experiences, the company has offered job-shadows.

Lesker also has offered workplace exposures that don’t meet the state’s criteria for work-based learning experiences, but still give students other career learning opportunities that the Pennsylvania Department of Education sets.

All of them help students learn about employment, Shaw noted, adding that some, like the mock-interview opportunities Lesker gives students, help generate artifacts for their portfolios. Artifact is a term the state uses for documentation of a necessary career learning activity.

Business representatives said they found discussions with educators important to moving forward with their own partnership ideas. Among other reasons, some said they came away with a better understanding of state standards and use the information to tailor their outreach programs to meet school needs.



FedEx Ground, Aerotech hosted school year’s first two immersion days for Educator in the Workforce

For Natalie Grattan, a Social Studies teacher at Baldwin Whitehall High School who’s involved in shaping a career learning course, a visit to FedEx Ground provided some needed talking points.

“Coming here today, we have more concrete things we can say” to combat the “traditional mentality that everybody has to go to college,” she said during a debriefing at the kickoff session for our Educator in the Workforce (EIW) program. “We learned about people from all different backgrounds, some who started out of high school and became managers.”

A month later, EIW participants visiting Aerotech, Inc., a maker of motion control systems, heard much the same message.

“One of the big things we’re trying to communicate is that you don’t have to start with a four-year degree to be successful,” Vice President of Research & Development Eric Glaser told educators who attended an immersion session to learn about careers in manufacturing. “The majority of our people are in assembly and they’re not degreed.”

Both the FedEx and Aerotech visits were among the “immersion days” that EIW is offering this year to help educators get an understanding of the region’s employment opportunities so that they can support students trying to plan careers.

Kids just out of high school most likely would qualify only for entry level jobs, unless they had some kind of experience to commend them for other work. At FedEx, they might start out as package handlers. At Aerotech, they often start in the storeroom.

Lest anyone wonder why those jobs might be stepping stones, both give employees a view of the respective companies’ operations from the ground up.

Aerotech, for example, inventories some $30 million in highly sophisticated parts. Handling them is no small matter and learning about them is a great way to understand what the company does before moving to other positions, Glaser said.

Like Grattan, other educators both at FedEx and Aerotech generally expressed surprise at the number of positions available without degrees. Many also were somewhat taken back about by employee benefits available to new hires, including tuition reimbursement, as well as the career potential.

Providing opportunities for “cross training” and advancement “is something we really pride ourselves in,” said FedEx Vice President for Human Resources, Denise Abbott, noting that an employee starting at the entry level, as a package handler, can be promoted to a front-line operations manager, for example.

She said FedEx also has taken the tuition support it offers a step further than many employers, providing the benefit as soon as employees enroll in a course, rather than upon completion. “

“It’s a game-changer,” Abbott said, noting that many entry-level employees can’t front the money themselves.

Similarly, Aerotech employees get perks that few companies offer, including profit-sharing and automatic investments in an employee stock ownership plan.

Aerotech also prides itself on “promoting from within” and providing training, including for skills such as machining, said Mechanical Production Manager Anthony Fazzini.

During both visits, educators and company representatives exchanged ideas for future collaborations. At FedEx Ground for example, Yough High School Principal Brian Sutherland suggested that the company’s New Stanton, PA facility might serve as a venue for students to gain work experience while still in school, mirroring a “work study” arrangement the district already has with United Parcel Service.

At Aerotech, numerous educators expressed interest in job-shadows, noting that they help students fulfill state standards pertaining to work-based learning experience, one of three options for demonstrating career readiness before graduation.

Following Aerotech, the Consortium plans an additional 12 site visits for participants in Educator in the Workforce before the end of the current school year.



























Consortium workshop helps five districts improve student planning

Educators from five districts came together at the Consortium in October for the first of two workshops focused on ways to improve students’ post-secondary planning.

Under state standards, all students must create plans in the eighth grade. But educators attending the workshop want to make sure the plans not only are living documents, but also that they’re serving their purpose and helping students achieve all the standards the state sets for career and workforce education.

Clairton City School District, for example, “wanted to see if our individualized career plan is what it should be,” said Nicolette Bendick, a Guidance Counselor from Clairton City School District. “Is it good? Should we be doing more experiential things or getting students to reflect more?”

With a somewhat different agenda, South Allegheny School District was trying to come up with better ways to help “students in the middle” who often don’t get as much attention as those who are gifted or have special needs, said Kristy Roche, a South Allegheny School District Guidance Counselor.

In addition to Clairton City and South Allegheny, participating districts included Baldwin Whitehall, Greensburg Salem, and Woodland Hills. Remake Learning provided support for the workshop with one of its $1,000 Ignite Grants.

As the basis for presentations and discussions, Consortium Program Director Christy Kuehn, PhD, who organized the workshop, drew on V. Scott Solberg’s book, The Handbook of Career & Workforce Development.

A key premise, both for the book and workshop, is that student planning isn’t so much about much planning per se as it is about engagement. Once they’ve thought about their interests and tried to envision the future around them, students are much more motivated to identify and pursue the steps they need to take to achieve their goals, said Solberg, a Boston University Professor who joined the workshop via video-conferencing.

“Student planning is really about positive youth development,” he said.












Future Ready Alliance kicks off with session on social and emotional learning

Schools across the country have been finding that mindfulness and meditation can help educators more easily cope with classroom stresses and help kids better handle the anxieties and struggles of adolescence.

So when Stephanie Romero saw that the practices hadn’t gained enough traction in the Pittsburgh region, she founded Awaken Pittsburgh. The nonprofit provides mindfulness and meditation training for schools and other clients.

A former classroom teacher whose doctoral dissertation focused on mindfulness, Romero brought tips for using meditation to teams in our Future Ready Alliance in early October when she keynoted their first meeting of the 2019-2020 school year.

By activating the calming, parasympathetic responses of the human nervous system, practicing meditation has been found to help educators expand empathy, reduce burnout and increase job satisfaction.

Among benefits for students, it enhances self-regulation, decreases aggressive behavior and reduces anxiety, Romero said.

“Even for students with ADHD, meditation increases attention,” she added.

Romero said that educators practicing meditation are able to improve their classroom environments by modeling better interactions. Getting students into the practice helps improve their social and emotional competence.

“Social and emotional development is critical to helping students become future ready, which is what our teams are working on” said Consortium Program Director Christy Kuehn, PhD, who helps organize the Alliance. “It’s at the heart of so many of the soft skills students need for success in post-secondary education and careers. It has bearing on adaptability, communications, teamwork, self-discipline—you name it.”

Teams from 18 districts are participating in the Alliance this year. All will be working on projects aimed at helping students achieve the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s standards for career learning and future readiness.

As is typical, the projects teams are planning range widely—from Operation Outreach in South Park School District, which wants to enlist more community partners to enhance career learning for students in 5th-8th grades; to Digital Freshmen in McKeesport Area School District, which is aiming to support 9th graders with web-based career readiness portfolios.




Corporate partners recognized for work with students and schools

Three of the Consortium’s corporate partners were among those honored earlier this month at celebratED, an event The Grable Foundation hosted to bring recognition to educators and others creating innovative learning opportunities for youth in our region. Honored for their work were Covestro, Mascaro Construction Co. and PNC Financial Services Group, Inc.

“We congratulate these companies for their contributions and commend their understanding that school-business partnerships play a vital role in our region’s overall workforce development,” said the Consortium’s Executive Director, Mary Kay Babyak. “All of them are helping to bridge the divide between schools and the workforce.” “These companies recognize the current and future talent in our diverse communities and are opening multiple career pathways for students. They all have been wonderful partners and we can’t thank them enough for the time and resources they’ve dedicated to improving career learning and opportunities.” Specifically, honors went to:

  • Covestro – for enriching STEM learning opportunities and engaging youth in Youthquake 2030 to advance the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in their communities;
  • Mascaro Construction — for helping students find rewarding career paths in its industry and equipping educators with the knowledge needed to guide them;
  • PNC Financial — for taking pre-employment training directly into high schools and helping students learn about jobs that don’t necessarily require degrees to build career paths with opportunities for advancement.

Covestro event kicked off sustainability projects for Student Powered Solutions teams in 13 schools

Less than two weeks after attending Covestro’s Youthquake2030, teachers from 13 schools said students were excited about beginning Project-Based Learning (PBL) assignments pegged to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

“I’ve got to run just to keep up with mine,” said Sue Mellon, Allegheny Valley School District’s Gifted Support Coordinator during a PBL training session for teachers who brought teams of students to the event.

In collaboration with the Consortium, Covestro hosted Youthquake2030 in mid-September to engage students in thinking about how to advance the SDGs in their communities. It was among a series of events that Covestro has organized since launching Thinc30, a corporate initiative aimed at improving sustainability in locations where it has offices and other facilities.

From Covestro’s perspective, bringing youth into those discussions is critical, said Rebecca Lucore, the head of Sustainability and Corporate Social Responsibility. “We want to tap that fresh thinking and show the students that, as the next generation of sustainability stewards, they can not only have an impact, but as citizens, it’s their responsibility.”

From the Consortium’s standpoint, “Youthquake not only gave students a wonderful opportunity to think about sustainability, it also exemplified the kind of school-business partnership that can give students the real-world exposure they need as they seek paths and purpose beyond high school,” said Jackie Foor, Director of Organizational Development.

Youthquake2030 took on relevance for students, coming a week before Swedish teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg’s address to delegates at the UN’s Climate Impact Summit in New York. The talk touched off demonstrations at schools across the country.

Some 100+ students from 13 schools attended Youthquake2030 where they learned about the SDGs from local entrepreneurs and academics involved in sustainability and videos featuring young people around the world who are pursuing sustainability projects and advocacy.

During roundtable discussions, Youthquake2030 also gave students a chance to brainstorm with peers from other schools. They dove into the talks, adding perspectives that they brought from districts ranging from urban to suburban and rural.

For example, Aneesha, a City Charter School student at one roundtable, thought the region could cut its carbon footprint by improving public transit and working to break down what she perceived as a “stigma” associated with riding buses.

At the other end of the spectrum, Alli, a Greensburg Salem student whose family owns a farm, said she thought multiple SDGs—from ending hunger to conserving water with reduced runoff—could be advanced by expanding community gardening.

“Through agriculture, you can connect to almost of the goals,” she said.

At their PBL training session later in the month, teachers said certain Youthquake2030 presenters had planted seeds for possible projects.

A couple of teams, for example, were intrigued by the founder of Fifth Season, a Carnegie Mellon University spinoff that’s creating an indoor, robotic farm in Braddock. But like others, they weren’t yet settled on a project.

Our Student Powered Solutions program, which pairs classrooms with companies willing to pose real- world challenges for PBL, will support teams as the projects unfold through the fall.  Teams will present to Covestro at the end of the semester.






Thinc30 Youthquake aims to bring youthful thinking and energy to regional sustainability issues

Even before school began, nearly a dozen districts already were gearing up to participate in Youthquake, an event Covestro is hosting to engage students in improving sustainability in the region.

Educators from participating the districts gathered at the Consortium in August for training sessions in Project-Based Learning, the teaching method they’ll use as teams of their students identify and tackle sustainability challenges in western Pennsylvania’s communities.

Youthquake takes place September 17th at the Energy Innovation Center in Pittsburgh’s Hill District.  It is one of a series of events Covestro has organized as part of its Thinc30 initiative to advance the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in our region. Thinc30 is shorthand for “transforming, harnessing, innovating, navigating and collaborating for a purpose-driven, sustainable future by 2030.”

The Consortium has assisted with recruitment and preparation..

At Youthquake, student teams will learn about the UN’s 17 SDGs and exchange ideas about ways in which our communities may be falling short of them and how

At their schools, the teams will identify the particular challenges they’d like to address with PBL over the course of their fall semester.

Districts and schools that so far have confirmed plans to participate are: Allegheny Valley, Beaver Area, Blackhawk, Butler Area, Carlynton, City Charter, Greensburg Salem, Imani Christian Academy, Laurel Highlands and Woodland Hills.