Student Powered Solutions project makes Covestro’s sustainability magazine

We’re honored that one of our Student Powered Solutions projects was featured in Covestro LLC’s newly issues sustainability magazine.  A team of Covestro employees working on the company’s Future of Mobility initiative engaged student teams to envision what features would be needed in autonomous vehicles. To learn more look at page 23 of the magazine.

Consortium instructors help TechBoston apply PBL to emergency remote learning

Our Project-Based Learning (PBL) team worked with a group of Boston educators during the spring on ways of adapting PBL techniques to remote instruction at a time when they, along with teachers across the country, were thrown headlong into creating virtual classrooms.

PBL instructors Aaron Altemus and Sarah Brooks, both Consortium Program Directors, gave the latest sessions as webinars to middle and high school teachers from TechBoston Academy, a college preparatory school established in 2002 as one of the Boston Public Schools.

TechBoston participates in a Community of Practice made up of New England schools that a nonprofit consultancy, The Learning Agenda, brought together around PBL earlier this year with support from the Barr Foundation.

TechBoston engaged the Consortium’s PBL team in May to learn ways of “infusing PBL into emergency remote instruction,” Altemus said. “They weren’t necessarily looking to create standard PBL assignments—though some did—but rather to strengthen distance instruction through PBL-related strategies.”

The Consortium’s training followed the PBL model. Participants engaged in small group webinars that focused on specific PBL elements. Each then researched a specific tool or strategy to incorporate into their remote instruction. The educators convened in small group feedback sessions, refined their ideas based on peer feedback and, finally, tested their chosen PBL tools in their remote lessons.

The key PBL elements discussed in the webinars were: driving questions; real-world connections; student voice & choice; feedback & revision; research; public presentation; reflection; and learning outcomes.

While full-blown projects often entail using all of them, each also has its own distinct classroom utility, Altemus said. For example, teachers might make “voice and choice” part of specific classroom lessons to increase engagement or they might build “reflection” into different assignments to help students become comfortable with a practice that’s critical to improvement.

“We don’t think that one-size fits all,” explained Brooks. “It’s not always practical or desirable for teachers to take on all of the PBL elements at once, even in full-blown projects.”

“Sometimes teachers who are new to PBL might want to try out different elements during a regular classroom lesson as a way of getting their feet wet,” she added. “Or, they might have their classes embark on projects using just some of the elements, not all of them.”

“Throughout the training, we found in small group discussions that the TechBoston educators collectively had a great breadth of PBL knowledge,” Altemus said. Working through the process together, and providing one another with feedback not only helped educators refine their instructional ideas quickly, it also fostered new connections and expertise among colleagues.”



An expression of support…

The magnitude of the loss and frustration being felt in our Black community is unfathomable. Words cannot express our sorrow and concern for those who are grieving.

Please know that we love and care for you.

But it’s not enough to express our sympathy. We must act as well. Since the Consortium was founded, equity in education has been a cornerstone of our work, but we must do better. We pledge to listen and learn and challenge our biases. We also offer support, not as a solution, but in our determination to confront and address racism.

Mary Kay Babyak, Executive Director

Consortium to provide curriculum and training for summer youth employment program

In collaboration with Partner4Work, The Consortium will be offering both curriculum and staff training to agencies that provide summer employment for youth as part of the Learn & Earn program.

In past years, as part of a federally-funded initiative that the state administers through contracts with regional workforce development organizations like Partner4Work, local employment providers have created summer jobs to support youth in gaining experience.

Anticipating that workplace constraints related to COVID-19 this year might limit what youth can do within these agencies, Partner4Work has enlisted the Consortium to offer staff training in Project-Based Learning (PBL) and supply a curriculum for teaching work-readiness skills.

“As part of the PBL training, we’ll work with agencies to develop two or three projects that summer employees could do remotely, if need be,” said the Consortium’s Director of Organizational Advancement Jackie Foor. “PBL lends itself to remote engagement because it’s aimed at getting participants to take on assignments with minimal supervision. The level of independence that PBL promotes is intended to help them develop creativity and problem-solving ability.”

Although some agencies have curriculum for working with youth employees, many are looking for a curriculum that they could offer virtually and that youth could complete remotely, Foor added. The Consortium will provide curriculum aimed at helping the young people develop important workplace skills such as communications, collaboration and others that often aren’t formally taught.






Virtual format enabled TFIM to continue career explorations

Virtual presentations and chats with professionals from two disparate fields—wildlife conservation and engineering—provided excellent opportunities this month for interested students to explore those careers. At the same time, the events provided proof of a concept for The Future Is Mine (TFIM).

TFIM, our career exploration program for high school students, piloted Zoom presentations in May with Allegheny Land Trust’s Education Program Director, Julie Travaglini and Penonni Engineering’s Senior Vice President and Director of Strategic Growth, Joseph Viscuso.

The presentations helped TFIM continue offering programming despite business and school shutdowns associated with COVID-19. In doing so, they also demonstrated that technology provides a means for TFIM to expand career exploration opportunities even after schools reopen and employers resume normal workdays.

“The presentations were very well received and showed us that we have an additional option for bringing students in contact with working professionals,” said Program Director Gina Barrett, who oversees TFIM with Jennifer Sethman, also a Program Director.

“The face-to-face encounters and worksite visits that TFIM traditionally has organized can be invaluable,” Barrett added. “But they also can be limiting in terms of the number of careers that can be explored, access to presenters, the number of attendees that can be accommodated, students’ access to transportation and even sometimes the weather.”

Even at the pilot stage and focused on very specific career interests, the Allegheny Land Trust and Pennoni presentations each drew participants from four or five schools. Students from each wanted information that only insiders can impart about careers.

Sethman noted that the virtual presentations also made it possible for interested educators to sit in to expand their own career knowledge so that they can better guide students.

“Our Educator in the Workforce program has made us realize just how many teachers and counselors are looking for ways to stay abreast of career pathways and job opportunities for students and different kinds of training,” she said.

Affirming the value, Ariana, a sophomore in the veterinary assistant’s program at Parkway West Career & Technology Center, said, for example, that Travaglini’s career experiences shined a light on opportunities for further exposure that she otherwise wouldn’t have known.

“I learned about different things that she did, zoos and other places where you can volunteer [to build experience] that I wrote down so that I can look into them,” she said.









Video series fills niche in career learning toolkit; supports remote learning

With a radical shift to remote learning, teachers and counselors now, more than ever, may need new and different ways to help students build career awareness. To support them, the Consortium has launched Career Journeysa series of videos that look at different occupations.

“The series represents one of the ways we can continue helping schools ensure that students are future ready when they graduate,” said the Consortium’s Executive Director Mary Kay Babyak. “While the current crisis has prevented young people from making face-to-face connections with employers, we are excited to provide them with insight into a wide variety of careers and pathways through these videos. We hope they’ll fill an important niche and give teachers and counselors one more tool to enhance student learning.”

The series consists of informal conversations filmed with people in different occupations spanning a variety of industries. Only a handful of interviews are available so far, but over the coming months, we hope to build a library addressing many interests and careers.

Aimed at middle and high school students, the videos “should be helpful in giving at least a glimpse into different careers,” said Debbie Pixton, who is directing development of the series. “The intent is providing enough information for students to decide if they’d like to learn more. Each video gives a 10-minute look into a career from the invaluable viewpoint of an insider.”

Educators can use the videos to stimulate class and small group discussions or as springboards to written reflections that the state requires to document career awareness. The videos also can be used to show the relevance of different academic disciplines in different careers. On the webpage that houses the videos, teachers and counselors can link to support materials for other possible activities.

Although the Consortium launched the series to provide support for career learning while schools are closed, the collection is expected to have value after normal classes resume and will continue to expand.

“In our conversations, educators have been enthusiastic about using them during a more traditional school year to build out a career education curriculum,” Pixton said.


Message from the Consortium’s Executive Director: A tale of two

We know this has been a deeply unnerving time for the schools and educators we serve as well as our community and business partners. We think about all of you daily and hope to continue working with you even amid this anxiety-ridden backdrop of silenced school bells and business shutdowns. Along with you, we are mourning the losses that come with social distancing, the daily interpersonal connections—with students, colleagues, clients or others—that bring warmth and fullness to our relationships and lives.

Mary Kay Babyak

But if ever a time was a “tale of two,” this is it. Our lives have been completely disrupted. And yet, just as “disruptive” innovations create entirely new markets and networks in commerce, so too have they opened new possibilities for all of us in our professional worlds.

Any ambivalence we might have had about using technology in classrooms—much less as classrooms—of necessity, is falling by the way. Some schools already have operated virtually; others soon will follow. All of us will experiment with new media and tools. Whatever reluctance we might have had, many of these will prove invaluable long after our schools and businesses reopen.

At the Consortium, our staff is examining the amazing possibilities new technologies offer for enhancing and expanding our work with you and the resources we can offer not just during this difficult time, but long after it has passed.

Very soon, for example, we plan to bring you some new tools and/or strategies to support career learning, Project-Based Learning, and Human-Centered Design. Watch your inbox, our website, and social media for alerts about these and other resources as we roll them out over the coming weeks. And, as always, please feel free to reach out to us if there are additional ways you think we might be able to help. We can’t promise we’ll be able, but we’ll certainly always try.

Meanwhile, our thoughts and good wishes are with all of you.


Mary Kay Babyak




Finalists for 2020 Champions of Learning Awards announced; Awards reception postponed

Eighteen individuals spanning six categories have been selected as finalists for the annual Champions of Learning Awards that we offer in partnership with United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania.

Finalists are being recognized for the contributions they make professionally or as volunteers to ensure support and outstanding learning experiences and activities for youth across our region. Categories include: Leadership; Community Providers/Partners; Educators, Grades K-6; Educators, Grades 7-12; School Staff; and Volunteers. Names of our finalists appear in the following announcement.

At the same time as we are announcing our finalists, we also are informing all of those who had been planning to attend the awards reception, originally scheduled for May 7 at the University of Pittsburgh, that the event has been postponed.

Because of the uncertainty surrounding the current pandemic, we have not yet set a future date for this event. We will be in touch with you as soon as new arrangements for honoring our Champions of Learning are made.


Schools opened their doors to business reps during Companies in the Classroom  

Sixteen districts across five counties became hosts last month for Companies in the Classroom, an event that gave representatives from nearly 40 regional businesses and eight post-secondary institutions a close-up look at learning in 2020.

After shadowing a student at Quaker Valley Middle School, Covestro Quality Analyst Pam Rozman said the most striking thing about the experience was “the collaboration that happens in the classroom setting.”

“The learning was very interactive, and that was refreshing,” Rozman added during a debriefing that Principal Anthony Mooney held with visitors and students.

At Covestro and many other companies, the kind of collaboration skills she witnessed are an every-day part of the workplace and prerequisite for hiring.

Visitors and educators at some other host sites also remarked on aspects of the day’s learning experience that are particularly valuable in acquainting students with workplace practices.

At Shaler Middle School, for example, participants in a debriefing session discussed the need for students to learn to work together via teleconferences, using Skype or other platforms, particularly if they plan careers with global organizations.

Business guests from PNC Financial Group, Koppers and CGI also shared thoughts on other technologies, including their companies’ insistence that employees use the Microsoft suite of applications for word processing, spreadsheets, and other office needs. Mention of the requirement often takes educators by surprise because so many schools rely on Google Classroom and its set of office tools.

That was exactly the kind of interaction Companies in the Classroom was designed to spark. The event began taking shape last spring when The Grable Foundation organized CEO in the Classroom, an experience that brought industry leaders into schools to shadow students. Companies in the Classroom expanded on it to give more representatives from the business sector and post-secondary institutions an opportunity to visit middle or high schools, shadow students, and find out about their educational experiences and the learning opportunities available to them.

The initiative also was designed to lay groundwork for future partnerships to enhance students’ career learning experiences. Partnerships can take many forms, from classroom visits and lunch-and-learns to job shadows, internships, and more.

Along with Quaker Valley and Shaler Area, districts participating included: Burrell, Connellsville Area, Deer Lakes, Freeport Area, Greensburg-Salem, Hopewell Area, Jeannette City, Laurel Highlands, McKeesport Area, Northgate, Penn Hills, Ringgold, Washington, and Yough.

The Consortium worked with Intermediate Unit 1, Westmoreland County Forum for Workforce Development, and Quaker Valley School District to organize the event.

Youthquake reverberates in projects targeting United Nations Sustainable Development Goals

Students who participated in last fall’s Thinc30 Youthquake reconvened in March to present final projects ranging from plans for a school greenhouse and an urban parks awareness campaign to water bottle recycling and school-based toiletries pantry from youth in low-income families.

The projects all aimed to address one or more of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in their schools or communities.

Teams from eight schools presented them at a poster session Covestro organized to follow up on Youthquake, one of a series of events the company has hosted since 2018 as part of Thinc30. The events are part of a corporate-wide initiative to find ways of addressing the UN’s SDGs in communities where Covestro operates. The Consortium’s Student Powered Solutions program partnered with Covestro to organize Youthquake and support the student projects.

Greensburg-Salem High School’s team took on seven of the SDGs in a single proposal. With plans for a school greenhouse at the core, they aimed to create “a whole closed system where food that’s grown in the greenhouse could be used in our cafeteria or even in cooking classes,” said Kiera, one of the team members.

“Waste from the cafeteria could be composted and the greenhouse could be used for teaching subjects like biology,” she added, noting that she “liked the simplicity of it.”

Inspired by the farm-to-table movement and other sustainability initiatives in agriculture, the project aimed to address SDGs including Zero Hunger; Good Health and Wellness; Quality Education; Sustainable Cities and Communities; Climate Action; Life on the Land and Responsible Consumption and Production.

Along with Greensburg-Salem, schools participating in the poster session were: Baldwin-Whitehall; Blackhawk; Carlynton; City High; Cornell; Springdale and Woodland Hills.

Like Greensburg-Salem’s proposal, most projects aimed primarily at SDGs covering environmental concerns. Teams from two schools—Blackhawk and Carlynton—for example, mounted campaigns to increase recycling of plastic water bottles. Baldwin-Whitehall’s team conceived of a system of canals along waterways to drive electrical turbines; City Charter was mounting a campaign to bring awareness to the importance of urban parks, and Springdale’s team devised an inexpensive answer to improving indoor air quality.

A couple of the teams also took aim at SDGs covering social issues. With a project called P.E.A.C.E. (Pursuing Excellence And Cherishing Everyone) at Woodland Hills, for example, students aimed to reduce violent crime in their communities with a nonprofit that would bolster social supports such as counseling, after-school activities, and career training.

At Cornell, students aiming to address SDGs involving poverty planned a school toiletries pantry that would provide supplies such as toothbrushes, toothpaste, and sanitary products.

“Eighty-nine percent of our student population is from low-income families,” said Nick, one of the team’s members, adding that a survey was used to assess needs.