Coding robot Scarsdale photo

A coding robot helps younger student learn early STEM skills.

Last year marked the conclusion of Year One of the 2019-22 Scarsdale Schools Technology Plan, Year 4 of the new high school STEAM program and Year 8 of the Center for Innovation.

While one would expect the trio of highly successful programs to have fostered increased skills and sharpened student interest, the impact has extended far deeper and broader.

“Technology is power,” Jerry Crisci, Scarsdale’s director of instructional technology, said as he presented a technology update to the school board Jan. 27. Crisci recapped the three-year technology plan and outlined the results and goals of STEAM curriculum and the district’s Center for Innovation.

Crisci also explained how the district’s Strategic Plan is transforming students into empowered learners, digital citizens, innovative designers and computational thinkers.

By helping and encouraging students to fully embrace the potential of technological advances, the school system is, in fact, “empowering the students,” said Crisci. Yet it doesn’t end there: The very nature of the student/teacher dynamic is evolving into something new, different and better.

Teachers are no longer viewed as individuals who impart knowledge and expertise. Instead, said Crisci, “Teachers become facilitators.”

The tech transformation will always be rife with ambiguities and bound to leave people “grappling with uncertainty and surprises,” noted Crisci.

A pair of photos illustrated the point. A car in the high school parking lot is lavishly decorated with painted flowers in a manner reminiscent of a ’60s hippie vehicle. On the window, words scribbled amid a sea of graffiti pronounce: “Add us on Insta.” Another photo shows a pair of gleaming white sneakers plugged into a charging station alongside smartphones. The examples showed how the wonders and riddles of technology may dazzle, baffle and cause consternation, yet the benefits are undeniably huge.

Scarsdale’s Strategic Plan is based on International Society for Technology in Education standards, created in 1998, which state that “Today’s students must be prepared to thrive in a constantly evolving technological landscape.”

At the elementary level, the goal is to help children act as computational thinkers. Thought processes evolve organically when, for example, children create and work with robots. In this scenario, librarians act as partners or instructional constructors.

In grades 3 through 5, students become digital citizens as a byproduct of learning coding and robotics. Students who may someday aspire to enter the C-Suite as future corporate leaders are now enmeshed in the G Suite, the Google platform that forges online connections.

At the middle school level, the platform known as Schoology comes into play. This learning management system consolidates schoolwork in a one-stop shop for homework assignments and establishes a workflow.

In high school, students are encouraged to navigate a wealth of modalities to facilitate learning, often using smartboards, iPads, iPhones and laptops simultaneously. Despite the high-tech options, at times they rely on an artifact: pen and paper.

Meredith Dutra, head high school computer teacher, told the school board that“the device is not the focus, the focus is … learning.”

Lisa Yokana, STEAM coordinator for the high school, presented a segment on STEAM where the goal is to help students become curious, empathic and empowered.

She said curiosity happens when students respond to needs by looking closely, exploring complexities and finding an opportunity for a solution. When students work collaboratively, they discover a synergy that helps them to engage. Feeding off an inspirational spark allows the imagination to operate more fully, and Yokana described the interaction as similar to the relationships that evolve in a co-working environment: a group collectively seizes a challenge that spurs an even greater desire to be a problem solver.

Assessment is key: “If it can’t be documented, it didn’t happen,” said Yokana.

The next level builds empathy. When students help the elderly navigate smartphones, for example, they learn quickly that icons must be large, and texts and backgrounds need to be in sharply contrasting colors.

Yokana reported on a group of students from the advanced AT Entrepreneurship program she runs with STEAM teacher Brian McDonald. She said the students created adaptive clothing for disabled children unable to dress themselves, and she praised the students for realizing that it is “not enough to make stuff, it’s important to make stuff that makes a difference.” Only then, said Yokana, do students become “the game changers of the world.” Students who “learn to be creative and resilient…become empowered agents of change,” she said.

The final segment of the presentation was on the Center for Innovation (CFI).

The primary purpose of CFI, according to Crisci, is to “infuse a traditional, high-performing school district with the desire and energy to change, unlocking the potential of thoughtful leaders and passionate teachers.”

CFI has sponsored renowned speakers to address students and the community and has launched multiple programs including Level Up Village (involving other countries), a high school broadcast journalism program and an initiative called “Learning with Augmented and Virtual Reality.”

Edgar McIntosh, assistant superintendent for curriculum, saying, “theory becomes practice only through site visits,” described visits to NuVu studio in Cambridge, an innovative space that “veers from the traditional,” another visit to MIT and one to the Hynes Institute for Entrepreneurship at Iona College.

Scarsdale School Superintendent Dr. Thomas Hagerman spoke of CFI ambassadors and peer influencers. The ambassadors, 21 from all schools staggered over two-year terms, are challenged to shape, impact and create lasting change. 

The transformation is to be found in “changing long-term, entrenched behaviors,” said Dr. Hagerman. The key is not only in unleashing the teacher’s passion, but in ensuring the teachers know that they have full permission to take risks and even to fail.

School board member Ron Schulhof asked about student feedback. Crisci said interviews will be conducted and, so far, “students develop a facility for whatever we give them.”

Board member Karen Ceske asked about gender equity and enrollments. Approximately 350 students took computer science or STEAM classes over the past year, said Crisci. While classes are not 50/50, Greg Leong, high school computer teacher, said that approximately 25% of his class was female.

Board President Pamela Fuehrer praised the programs saying, “We used to be more reactive, now we’re at a point where we’re ahead of the game. We’re directing what’s happening regionally and nationally.”

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