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W.Pa. schools integrate design, coding into core courses |

W.Pa. schools integrate design, coding into core courses

| Wednesday, April 9, 2014 9:01 p.m
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Pittsburgh Milliones ninth-grader Ania Fairiror works on a project in a mobile apps and Web design class on Monday April 7, 2014.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Pittsburgh Milliones ninth-grader Joshalyn Copeland works on a project in a mobile apps and Web design class on Monday, April 7, 2014.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Elizabeth Forward Middle School's Dream Factory is designed to allow students to be creative while learning art, computer and shop skills. The Dream Factory sign was designed by students at the school.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Elizabeth Forward sixth-graders play a vocabulary game in the school’s small lab during a language arts class on Tuesday, April 8, 2014.

Freshman Zach Taylor, 15, flipped from one screen to another, watching a small blue rectangle disappear on his command. His teacher, Nancy Souilliard, doesn’t know how he coded the Pong-like game. She doesn’t need to, she said, to prove he understands the material.

This semester, Pittsburgh Milliones 6-12 became the latest local school to join a growing trend of integrating mobile technology design and computer programming into math, English and other courses.

If the pilot program is successful, one class will expand to three offered year-round in Milliones and Brashear High School, said Angela Mike, the district’s executive director for career and technical education. Allderdice and Westinghouse high schools likely will try the pilot next year.

“We’re trying to introduce as many potential career paths to our students as we can, especially in these high-growth areas,” Mike said. “If they don’t know what’s out there, they can’t make an informed choice.”

West Allegheny, North Hills, Elizabeth Forward and Pittsburgh Public are in varying phases of starting tech-heavy classes, dubbed Zulama by developers at Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center. Students in Ligonier Valley picked up the curricula this year. Derry Area added a video-game design class last fall.

“This is a field that shows tons of room for expansion,” said Chris Mason, co-founder and CEO of South Side-based app development firm Branding Brand.

“When I initially studied coding, I never thought it would have real-world appeal,” Mason said. “I thought, ‘There are people who like computers and people who don’t.’ But the world isn’t like that anymore.”

The company grew from no coders to 200 in two years, said Andrew Wadium, a company spokesman, “because the need for creative engineers is so huge.”

“It’s not the computer programmers taking a huge interest,” said Mary Beth Wiseman, Elizabeth Forward’s technology director. “It’s our budding designers and storytellers we’re really reaching. It’s a new idea — you don’t have to be a hardcore programmer to excel in computer science.”

Zulama programming, coupled with major revamps to district teaching methods and its high school media center, helped balloon the program from 30 students in 2011-12 to more than 200.

“I was on a TRS-80 as an adult learning basic programs that our elementary students can do now,” Wiseman said. “The opportunities we can give kids, like our one-to-one iPad program, take their education to a whole new level.”

Andrea Ponce, entrepreneurship scholar for Project Olympus through CMU’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, said Zulama is only a tiny piece of the university’s efforts to reach youngsters interested in computers at an early age.

“All these really smart people come to Pittsburgh, either for (the University of Pittsburgh) or CMU, and then they leave again for New York, Boston and Silicon Valley,” Ponce said. “The core goal of Project Olympus is to create this incubator at CMU to give students free space to test their ideas.”

Some students, particularly those who struggle to stay engaged with traditional coursework, engage better through technical training, said John DiSanti, superintendent of the West Allegheny School District.

“You wonder when you first see the classes, ‘Are they really learning?’” he said. “But you see the result immediately; it’s all probability and statistics. Students are responding. They’re raising their hands answering in-depth questions and it all relates back to other skills. Gaming to learn is totally relevant.”

Megan Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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