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This Month’s Learning Innovation: Fort Cherry Grows Great Students

It seems like any typical high school classroom. The students sit in a lab, discussing soil composition and the effects of run-off on the environment. Later, they tackle a little biology, botany, even some animal husbandry. But then, they step outside…into a greenhouse containing a tank of young tilapia raised from hatchlings, or a second greenhouse with everything from seedlings to full grown, gorgeous begonias. Still other students move over to the rabbit hutches and pull out luxuriously furry bunnies, while one lucky young man lifts a hen from its roost to find two warm, just-hatched eggs.

For the students in Jodie Hoover’s agricultural and environmental science classes at Fort Cherry High School in McDonald, it’s all part of a regular school day. “They have the opportunity to study plants, animals and the environment. So they get a little bit of each, agriculture and environment,” through these hands-on classes, according to the educator.

“We’ve expanded over the years,” Jodie, small and animated, continues. “We have two greenhouses. One that has the typical spring plants in it, and another that has aquaponics, where we’re going to be growing plants from the fish waste, we just got that started. We also have a garden out back and we have some chickens that we’re raising. Backyard chickens are very popular right now so we added that to our program. And we have about 15 rabbits that we’re raising and breeding the rabbits so that students get a chance to see them reproduce and market their product.”

Fort Cherry ninth through twelfth graders can take an agricultural science class with Jodie, to not only learn the science behind these disciplines, but gain practical experience. “I know that not everyone’s going into a career in agriculture but I hope that they become better consumers,” Jodie says of her students. “That’s what I tell them a lot of times, that at least they know where their meat comes from, they know where their eggs come from, they know how much hard work goes into it. About a quarter of our students go on to study some sort of agricultural science or environmental science in college or tech school.”

Fort Cherry has made agricultural and environmental science a priority. They actually begin teaching students about these disciplines early – from kindergarten on. “Our ninth through 12th grade program is just one piece of a program that we call Ranger Harvest,” explains Fort Cherry School District Director of Curriculum Dr. Trisha Craig.

“The agricultural science program is one piece, FFA -- Future Farmers of America -- is one piece and our Grow it to Go program, for kids in grades kindergarten through 4, is another. The k-4 program is something new to us this year; in partnership with South Fayette School District and a Sprout Grant, we’re fortunate enough to participate in extending our environmental science program to the younger grades. So we have our high school students who are working with our elementary students to teach them about environmental science as well as sustainability.”

The high schoolers have been working with the younger students “on projects like comparing soil-based learning and growing to hydroponics; they’re growing flowers, they’re growing plants, and they’re having a great time doing it,” Dr. Craig says.

“Our programs incorporate STEAM content (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) in this project-based learning,” Dr. Craig continues. “So as students are learning about the aquaponics system, they have to measure, they have identify the appropriate nutrients; they have to make sure the fish are fed. With our plants, they have to monitor the growth, so you have environmental science aspects as well as leadership. Once the plants grow, they have to determine what they’re going to do with those crops. Some of them may be used in the cafeteria, some of them may be sold to the community, some of them may be just shared with the community.

“And the arts come in because they have to be creative in their sales. They have to actually sell the product to the community, so, it’s a great opportunity for them to exercise their technical skills as well as using their creativity,” she adds.

They also get to use their creative skills in the horticulture class. The afternoon we visited, students were unpacking crates of flowers to prepare boutonnieres and flower arrangements for the next evening’s FFA banquet.

“In horticulture, most of the winter, we study things like soils, how it affects the environment, we talk a lot about run off, and, you know, farmers are responsible for a lot of that so we have to make sure that they’re educated on that. We also have a floral design class that they do a lab almost every day,” Jodie explains. “We’ve done a couple of weddings this year and baby showers and that sort of thing. So they’re picking and choosing what they want to learn more about.”

And they’re having fun. “I’m in a horticulture class so I come in here everyday,” one young student relates as we walk into the greenhouse. “In the beginning of the year we planted all the plants -- tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, geraniums, hanging baskets and impatiens. I like the farm life, but I live in the middle of McDonald, so I’m not in the middle of a farm. This is more of a hands-on class.”

Her words are echoed by student after student. One young man exclaims, “it’s a lot cooler than just a regular class because we get to come down here and do stuff you normally don’t get to do in school.” And as a fellow student bends down in the henhouse to lift a hen and find a freshly laid egg, he says, “it’s different from regular school sitting in the classroom all day. And it’s nice to be outside.”


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.