Kids’ imaginations make them natural inventors. Students at Avonworth Middle School will soon be tapping into that innate inclination through a new partnership with engineers and product developers from Inventionland, an idea incubator in Pittsburgh. With help from these mentors, students will hone in on a problem, design an idea to solve it, prototype a solution, and “pitch” the idea to Inventionland executives.

The project is made possible by a STEAM grant from the Benedum Foundation, the Grable Foundation, and the Chevron Corporation. Avonworth’s project is one of 28 grants awarded to southwestern Pennsylvania school districts totaling $530,000. Since 2009, more than $2.3 million in STEAM grants have been awarded to schools, all distributed through the Allegheny Intermediate Unit’s Center for Creativity.

The STEAM acronym stands for the marriage of art and design with science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Advocates see this connection as central to preparing the next generation of innovators for the 21st-century economy.

“By investing in partnerships that strengthen STEAM education, we are helping to improve the employability of a skilled workforce that will lead to economic growth—for our business, our partners, and the communities where we operate in the Pittsburgh region,” Trip Oliver, the policy, government, and public affairs manager at Chevron, said in a release.

This most recent batch of grants is just one way the AIU and its partners have bolstered the region’s opportunities for STEAM learning. The Center for Creativity connects educators with scientists, technologists, thinkers, and makers throughout the region to help educators develop the resources students need to succeed.

“Teachers, artists, and higher-education faculty often have inspiring ideas that need only a small amount of funding to put into practice,” James V. Denova, vice president of the Benedum Foundation, said in a release. “The STEAM mini-grant process allows us to test these ideas, the best of which have been validated and replicated across the region.”

Sure enough, with up to $20,000 per grant, there are many educator-created STEAM projects coming down the line. At Chartiers Valley Middle School, students will add the basics of circuitry to their sewing projects to make a night light bookmark and twinkling wrist cuffs. Working as a team, students will learn how to program and add music to a piano made of felt.

Meanwhile, at Mt. Lebanon High School, in the “suburban agriculture” cross-curricular project, students will grow, harvest, and prepare organic vegetables while learning the importance of sustainable foods in a suburban area.

In addition to projects, the grants fund spaces ripe for deep STEAM learning. Blackhawk High School is adding an automation station to its C3 Lab, a repurposed classroom with iPads, 3D printers, and other technology. The new devices will give students the chance to add dimension to their designs and give them life through microcontrollers, servos (for steering robotic contraptions), and stepper motors.

At Commodore Perry High School, the new Maker Space Lab will integrate a computer numerical control (CNC) milling machine (which carves materials based on existing designs), 3D printers, 3D modeling software, and a laser engraver. Fourth graders will even be using pens that “print” 3D creations.

“So in art class, instead of drawing a flower in two dimensions on a piece of paper, you’re drawing a flower coming up into space in a three-dimensional figure,” Kaleb Bowser, technology teacher at Commodore Perry, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Right now, public school educators are putting their plans into action for the great diversity of projects and spaces the grants will fund. Soon, the projects will be up and running, giving kids the chance to stretch their STEAM skills to make, invent, and innovate. The only unpredictable piece? The amazing things kids will come up with.