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This Month’s Learning Innovation: MACS tackles etextiles

They’re sewing. And they’re programming something on the computer. Wait, they’re also discussing circuitry and electricity. These fourth graders at Manchester Academic Charter School in Pittsburgh’s Manchester neighborhood are combining all of these very different activities – and in the process creating T-shirts that seemingly magically light up and make sounds.

What they’re also doing is participating in a STEAM activity – combining elements of science, technology, engineering, arts and math into something that’s easily understandable, and for fourth graders – lots of fun. The students in Lauren Javens’ fourth grade class are working with “etextiles,” fabrics that enable digital components and electronics to be embedded in them – in this case, sewn on with conductive thread. Then, the students can go to their computers, use a simple program and create shirts that light up and even play music.

In the process, they’re learning a multitude of skills – computer programming, the basics of electricity and circuitry, even sewing – and seeing real life applications and imagining the possibilities.

Manchester Academic Charter School is one of three schools that are benefiting from the talents of Melissa Unger, the STEAM consultant for the South Fayette School District. As part of a Grable Foundation grant, Melissa comes to three different schools equipped with all kinds of STEAM activities and teaching computational thinking like Scratch and WeDo Robotics and environmental sustainability. She can be found at South Fayette, Ft. Cherry in southwestern Pennsylvania, and at MACS here in the city, working with the teachers on providing fun – and educational STEAM projects.

“We try to come up with projects that give the students the chance to try out these different disciplines in creative ways, “ Melissa explains.

Here at MACS, Melissa works closely with Lauren and art teacher Anne Batyko. Lauren explains that her students have just completed a unit on “electricity where they learned about simple circuits, parallel circuits and series circuits and also a little bit of computer programming, so this is kind of like a big project that ties it all together.

“They love it,” Lauren continues. “I think the most important thing about projects like this is that it just sparks a lot of interest. Not a lot of fourth graders have experience or have been exposed to computer programming, or using circuitry other than getting a light bulb to connect. So when they see it in real world applications like this it really makes them think, oh, maybe I want to be an electrical engineer when I grow up, maybe this is really a career that I should explore more. So I think that’s the biggest thing with these projects. It really sparks a lot of interest.”

Melissa, who visits three very different schools in her travels as the STEAM consultant, explains that “Etextiles is a project designed to teach computational thinking, circuitry, a little bit of programming for the students and gives them the opportunity to design shirts that light up and are programming in the way they want them to be.

“We use t-shirts because they allow the students to use their creativity and practice circuitry, which they’re already learning, then have a wearable object at the end of the unit that they can actually show off their programming skills with.”

Melissa explains that the schools she visits share a similar vision. MACS is an urban school, Fort Cherry School District is a rural district near McDonald, and South Fayette is suburban, but all “the students and teachers share the same enthusiasm and passion for STEAM learning.”

The fourth graders at MACS love the project. “I think it’s really important to start in the fourth grade,” says Lauren. “They’re nine and ten, they haven’t ruled out any careers right now, they’re still very much interested in everything. They are still very much sponges where they pick everything up. So when they see what we’re doing in class and read about it and use hands-on materials and then get to connect it to make a project like this, it just sparks so much more interest. It makes the learning authentic.”

And this really takes learning to a new level. “It gives our students the opportunity to learn about computers and computer programming; it’s also really great for girls especially to get them more involved in programming and design elements,” Melissa sums up.

“This is going to help the students in the future because they’re already being exposed to computer programming concepts and design concepts that they can then use later on in their education.”

(and for a basic etextiles explanation) wikipedia.org/wiki/E-textiles/

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