At the new “dream studio” in the wing of a middle school, students play with digital and physical materials to invent their own iPod speakers. At fabrication labs in the local high schools, teens study digital manufacturing and test out their designs on new 3-D printers.

Elementary students are thinking up their own model cities in partnership with local engineering firms using modeling software, and teachers and students are experimenting in their schools’ robotics laboratory. Storage closets are becoming digital communications stations; music classrooms are morphing into digital production studios and immersive music centers.

These are the classroom spaces of the future. And the future is now in the Pittsburgh region where, thanks to some help from local foundations, public schools are brimming with opportunities for students to experiment with digital, maker, and STEAM learning. And more are on the way.

The local Allegheny Intermediate Unit, with support from the Benedum and Grable Foundations, has awarded $500,000 to 25 area school districts in the Pittsburgh region to integrate science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM) into public schools – with an emphasis on designing innovative spaces and places within school walls for students to experiment with digital technologies in a hands-on way.

Regular readers of this blog know that the DIY ethos of the maker movement is important to today’s learning environments. Hands-on learning is naturally engaging, and the skills students gain along the way– critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, innovation, and collaboration–are those they’ll need in the workplaces of the future.

Photo: Ben Filio

Photo: Ben Filio

Making is so engaging that the U.S. Department of Education is getting behind the movement. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan convened educational leaders last month to explore ways to develop learning experiences that better connect in-school and out-of-school time; better connect students to their passions, peers, communities and careers; and redesign our nation’s high schools to prepare students for a connected world of learning.

In addition to national leaders such as Joi Ito, director of MIT’s media lab and John Seely Brown, we were proud to see Alyssa Dangel, a local Pittsburgh high school student describe the new opportunities she and her fellow students have at her school, Elizabeth Forward High School in Elizabeth, PA.

“Whenever I think of my future, I’m thinking now I could work for a company that makes games,” she told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell.

Alyssa had enrolled in a 3-D modeling course offered through her school’s newly launched Entertainment Technology Academy, a partnership with Carnegie Mellon University.  She said the software has really changed her vision for her future and that the course was a learning experience for her teachers as well.

“Both the teacher and the student are learning at the same time,” she said. “While I was working on 3-D modeling, we would work on it together and fix problems together.”

Twenty-five schools districts received $20,000 in awards. The Pennsylvania school districts were in Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Greene, Lawrence, Mercer, Washington and Westmoreland counties.  Each grant will be used to redesign and create spaces, such as classrooms and library areas, to engage students in STEAM subjects and projects.   These places add to the region’s building boom of new 21st-century digital learning spaces for students of all ages.

This is the fifth consecutive year that the Benedum and Grable Foundations have provided support for STEAM projects in the Pittsburgh region. The grants are distributed through the Center for Creativity, which works to connect the region’s diverse and creative resources with educators in order to infuse creativity into curriculum, instruction, and school culture.  Through the efforts of the foundations and the Center for Creativity, school districts throughout southwestern Pennsylvania have received more than $1 million in STEAM grants since 2009.