Last week marked not only the start of a new school year for Shaun Tomaszewski, but the launch of three Pittsburgh Public Schools refashioned as STEAM academies—which he will oversee as the district’s new STEAM coordinator. In a major shift away from single-subject curricula, teachers at the academies will focus on multi-disciplinary, project-based learning that boosts science, technology, engineering, arts, and math education.

Previously a science instructor in the Mt. Lebanon School District, Tomaszewski was hired last February and tasked with building the program from the ground up. Woolslair PreK-5 has been converted into a partial STEAM magnet school, and Lincoln PreK-5 and Schiller 6-8 are now STEAM-focused campuses. The schools have added lead STEAM teachers to their faculties and have new STEAM labs for projects. The three schools are part of a larger effort to emphasize STEAM learning district-wide.

As they transition, the three STEAM campuses are in good hands. A PhD student with a teaching background and love for learning, Tomaszewski is immersed in current pedagogies and loves to dig into science projects with kids.

But how does a 27-year-old, new to the district, get Pittsburgh’s veteran teachers to rework their approach to their jobs?

Empathy and attentiveness, in Tomaszewski’s case.

Photo/Shaun Tomaszewski

“I think it’s just being upfront and sincere with people,” he said. “Continuously pushing and at the same time supporting people. Shifting instructional practices is extremely difficult.” Middle and high school teachers, for example, have often spent years developing lesson plans in just one subject area, while elementary school teachers are more used to working across disciplines.

Teachers are working through these challenges together. Over the summer, Tomaszewski and STEAM school staff got together to develop project-based learning modules. The Schiller faculty for example, developed a cross-subject STEAM curriculum on the environment and human impact. In science classes, students there will learn about the natural and human causes of weather and climate, while social studies curricula will focus on economies of scale and resources.

Tomaszewski said the Pittsburgh Public Schools has a “necessary and ever-present focus on equity,” which he is working to keep front and center in developing the district’s STEAM programming. Brainstorming project-based learning modules, for example, was a great opportunity for the educators to embrace culturally relevant pedagogies.

“We really see the STEAM program as way to engage kids in learning.”

“We really see the STEAM program as way to engage kids in learning,” Tomaszewski said. One simple way to make that happen is by using examples in daily instruction that make sense to and resonate with all students in the district, he said, especially for students of color or others from diverse cultural backgrounds.

That means choosing an engineering lesson that uses both the traditional Ancient Greek examples as well as African innovations, or a music class that highlights Asian composers and South American music theory.

While the STEAM schools are exciting new endeavors, Tomaszewski is quick to point out that they are also platforms for educational values that have been around for quite some time, among them experimentation, inquiry, and critical thinking.

The district is working to extend these opportunities for multi-disciplinary STEAM learning to the district’s other schools as well, in the form of $80,000 “mini-grants” for STEAM projects. The STEAM schools and related initiatives are supported by the school system, the Grable Foundation, and the Fund for Excellence.

Plans are in the works for a STEAM high school that could open as soon as next year. Meanwhile, Tomaszewski and his staff are taking it day by day, trying to leverage STEAM learning to foster environments where kids are comfortable experimenting and teachers are comfortable letting them.

Tomaszewksi sees one of his primary duties as “trying to get teachers to think about how they can facilitate students really persevering through difficult problems and not giving up at the first sign of failure.” It’s in the failure, he said, where there’s real opportunity for deep learning.

For more in this series see Leaving the Lab for the Classroom, Teaching Spanish as a Window to the World, and Perfecting the Art of Afterschool Science.