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This Month’s Learning Innovation: Clairton Robotics

Clairton High School is known for its football team, the Bears, which put together an amazing 66 game win streak. They get a lot of publicity. Lesser publicized -- but growing -- is a program introduced by Industrial Arts Teacher Dennis Beard. Four years ago he introduced what he calls a “smart sport” to the school: Robotics, and especially the BotsIQ program.

“It was something new and exciting for the kids to do to get involved in things other than sports,” Dennis explains. “It’s a smart sport because it helps further their education in math and science – and it’s fun to do because they get to beat things up.”

The robotics program was inspired by the BotIQ summer camp Dennis’ son had attended. There the students learned to build robots, specifically “battle bots,” that compete against each other in gladiator-style combat. In the process of creating these battle bots, students use science, engineering, math, even English. His son loved it, and Dennis, as a long-time industrial arts teacher, thought it would be a great fit for Clairton.

“It started out as an experiment,” he says, with Dennis purchasing the parts he needed on the internet with his own money. When he connected with Southwestern PA’s BotsIQ program, he found guidance and a good fit. The program oversees competitions between schools and offers help in developing curriculum and much more.

At Clairton, Dennis’ students design and build “battle bots,” taking them from the earliest phases through a wooden prototype and then a metal creation. Everything that goes into making the robot is done right there in Dennis’ classroom. But it’s not just about creating the best battle machine: Dennis explains that his students are “Straight A’s and not straight A kids, but they all participate. They’re all going above and beyond, bringing something to the team, some energy.”

In the process they learn how to use metalworking equipment, computer design programs, utilize engineering skills and even get experience in writing and public speaking, because they have to document everything and present their work at each competition. The class has two teams, which work during school time and as an afterschool club.

Senior Eliza Sopka heads one of the two teams. “I began in my freshman year and was hooked,” she says. She likes the competition, explaining that they meet local schools in the arena, like Plum, South Park and West Mifflin. “It’s a friendly competition to see who builds the best robot and has the best binder” containing all the documentation of the building process. “We learn teamwork, hard work, compile data and paperwork,” Eliza adds, “and we gain some real world experience.”

That’s one plus: another, according to Dennis, is the culture in the class. “I see a big improvement with the students. They’re taking leadership. I step back and have the students learning the wiring, how to run the machines in the shop, and I see them learn and teach each other. It’s a big step because now it’s not that they sit in a classroom and get lectured to all the time. It’s hands on, and the rest of the world is hands on. They face challenges and they find ways to overcome them. Every robot is a little bit different.”

Clairton develops winners – and not just on the football field. The robotics team has fielded winners nearly every year since Dennis brought the program to the school. In the second and third years of the program, the Clairton teams went to the local competition held at California University and won such awards as “king of the ring,” coolest robot, sportsmanship and then Grand Champion.

In the process of winning those awards, the team gets judged on everything, including the documentation of the process. “So when I say it’s a smart sport, they have to hit on every one of those aspects and be at the top on everyone to win Grand Champion,” Dennis observes.

Last year, because the team won “Grand Champion,” they were given the opportunity to go to the national competition held in Indiana. But because Clairton is one of the region’s smallest and poorest school districts, money just wasn’t available for little things like parts and big things like money to take the winning team to the nationals. Though Dennis was able to find sponsors, including local companies like Ace Wire Spring & Form and Vangura Tool Co., it just wasn’t enough. Dennis and the school administration put out the call to the community – and their story was picked up by the local media. The team needed $4,000 to attend the nationals; in just a few days, the public responded to their story and sent in nearly $60,000 in donations.

The kids got to go to the competition, and with the money that was left over, we were able to purchase more supplies for the program. We’re hoping to go back this year,” Dennis says, explaining that later this month his class takes their two “battle bots” to the Cal U. competition.

And, he proudly notes, his robotics team is the only Clairton team that participates in national competition, in this “smart sport.”

Clairton City School District
Bots IQ

Tinker Squads Encourage Girls to ‘Build’ Their Skills

The Ellis School, with a HIVE Grant from The Sprout Fund, has partnered with regional connected learning organizations to develop Tinker Squads for girls ages 10 to 13. Based at community centers and at schools, Tinker Squads encourage girls in grades 5 to 8 to develop design thinking, tinkering, and making skills. Connected learning is an educational approach that uses out-of-school learning environments (such as afterschool programs and museums), partnerships, and digital learning tools to increase engagement and ignite curiosity in young learners.

The Tinker Squad Program project team, led by The Ellis School, includes ASSEMBLE, the Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse, the FIRST Robotics Program at the Robotics Institute of Carnegie Mellon University, and Invent-abling. There will be a Tinker Meet on January 14 from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at The Ellis School.

A cross between technology, art and community engagement, Tinker Squads introduce girls in 5th to 8th grade to human-centered design methods, circuitry, the intersection of arts and technology, and engineering design. Tinker Squad girls define and make solutions through hands-on prototypes that address issues students see in their communities. By helping girls build these skills as early as possible The Ellis School hopes to help more girls become interested in STEM majors and careers.

The Ellis School developed the first squad and recruited four other all-girl squads from the Environmental Charter School, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh-Brookline and ASSEMBLE. Tinker Squad teammates help each other through projects, offer critiques, and show their work at Tinker Meets (Faires) where they will earn digital badges and meet other makers in the community. Each of the four founding Squads will host a "Tinker Teach" session at the Tinker Meet to help team members build skills.

>Each Tinker Squad team member is provided with a toolbox she can keep that includes the switches, origami, textiles, and materials kits from Invent-abling as well a poster that explains the Human Centered Design process and method cards from the LUMA Institute. Teams also went on an all-expenses paid shopping spree at the Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse where they acquired materials they could use to build prototypes for the Tinker Meet. The Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse also led a workshop with each Tinker Squad to coach them through the process of sourcing and selecting materials.

“Our goal is to help young people develop the capacity to engage with the world as problem solvers and makers. Our challenge as educators is to create environments in which skills can emerge naturally in the process of making—a process which often occurs in the company of others,” said Dr. Lisa Abel-Palmieri. “By ensuring girls have the opportunity to make and tinker we can ensure they build/practice their creative confidence today so that they have a shot at becoming the successful leaders of tomorrow.”

Two Local Educators Win National DILA Awards

Two area educators have received national awards for digital innovation. Aileen Owens, the South Fayette Township School District Director of Technology and Innovation, and Kris Hupp, 21st Century Teaching and Learning Coach at Cornell High School in Coraopolis, have been recognized with Digital Innovation in Learning Awards (DILA). These awards are given by EdSurge and Digital Promise and celebrate teachers, administrators and ed-tech organizations that demonstrate exemplary practices in using technology to support learning.

After receiving more than 1,500 first round applications and nominations from the U.S. and 31 other countries, and more than 550 video submissions, the panel of 10 DILA judges selected five finalists and then winners in each of the 15 categories.

Aileen received two national DILAs in the Administrator Trailblazer and Winner’s Choice categories. She won in the Trailblazer category for implementing an innovative school model. Over the last four years, Aileen has led the implementation of a computational thinking program that starts in kindergarten and builds at each grade level through high school. Students use Scratch to move from block-based code to text-based code, programming Legos and Arduino boards. Students even develop their own apps. The comprehensive program empowers students to be designers and creators from their first day in school and throughout their educational experience.

Kris Hupp was nominated by the Sprout Fund and won the DILA for “Busting Boundaries.” The Busting Boundaries award "recognizes teachers who inspire students to work in-person or virtually with peers in different geographic or cultural communities."

“Although the award was given to me it really recognizes the hard work of our students and staff and the opportunities provided to our students and teachers by Amiena Masoob and the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh and Tim Devlin at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit,” Kris says. “Through our continued collaboration our students have had the opportunities to collaborate through videoconferencing with their peers around the globe and to interview policy experts.”

Spread The News

Do you have a story of learning innovation? A program, teacher or parent who is making a difference? Tell us about it and we'll share it on our Remake Learning webpage. Submit stories and videos to learning@wqed.org!


Local teen Mirhir Garimella won top prize at the international Google science fair with a robotics project, a flying robot. Recently a video crew from Google’s London office videotaped Mihir at the Carnegie Science Center.

Kindergarteners from Propel East participated in the nationwide Day of Coding in celebration of Computer Science Education Week. Here they use iPads to learn the basics of coding.

4th Graders at The Ellis School are using the Hummingbird Robotics Kit to craft dioramas that deepen their understanding of setting in literature. These projects are based on the book, “Poppy.”

Propel Northside Third Grade students learn some special coding in honor of Computer Science Education Week. They worked with a tutorial program.

Educators gather to discuss Digital Badging at the recent Pittsburgh Learning Pathways Summit, organized by The Sprout Fund.

Propel East kindergarten students learn a little basic computer coding during the nationwide “Day of Coding.”

Educators from the A.W. Beattie Career Center travelled to the Eden Hall Upper Elementary School in Gibsonia to introduce students to STEAM-centered careers.

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  • WQED is pleased to partner with Highmark to bring you these special reports on "Men & Cancer" and "Women & Cancer." Every year cancer claims the lives of nearly 300,000 men in America. According to the American Cancer Society, getting the facts about cancer is an important step in taking care of your overall health.

featured specials

  • WQED is pleased to partner with Highmark to bring you these special reports on "Men & Cancer" and "Women & Cancer." Every year cancer claims the lives of nearly 300,000 men in America. According to the American Cancer Society, getting the facts about cancer is an important step in taking care of your overall health.

featured specials

  • WQED is pleased to partner with Highmark to bring you these special reports on "Men & Cancer" and "Women & Cancer." Every year cancer claims the lives of nearly 300,000 men in America. According to the American Cancer Society, getting the facts about cancer is an important step in taking care of your overall health.