New Kensington-aligned collaboration receives $300K grant for STEM teaching

November 12, 2014

UPPER BURRELL, Pa. -- Penn State New Kensington, in partnership with 15 local school districts, the CREATE (Community Robotics Education and Technology Empowerment) Lab at Carnegie Mellon University, Westmoreland County Community College and Penn State Electro-Optics Center, is expanding innovative teaching and learning through science, technology, engineering and math, the STEM disciplines.

The Alle-Kiski Best Practices Collaborative CREATE Lab Satellite Network Regional Hub, better known by its acronym ABC CREATE, will serve as a model for the sharing of information and establishing a culture of discovery that utilizes technology and innovation.

Spearheaded by the New Kensington campus, the first phase of the pilot program includes the school districts of Allegheny Valley, Apollo-Ridge, Burrell, Franklin Regional, Kiski Area and Leechburg. Nine additional districts: Armstrong, Deer Lakes, Freeport, Fox Chapel, Highlands, New Kensington-Arnold, Plum, Riverview and South Butle; will be phased in by the third year of the program. When it has its full complement, the collaboration will benefit approximately 40,000 students from kindergarten to Grade 12 in the Alle-Kiski Valley.

Partnering with local school districts is a major component of Chancellor Kevin Snider’s strategic plan for the New Kensington campus. The plan features seven paths to the future, and one of the paths is transforming education by exploring how technology and pedagogies can expand opportunity and discovery. STEM programming is one of the key ingredients in the campus plan, and the campus is engaging the community in this critical area.

Westmoreland County Community College and the Electro-Optics Center are supporting New Kensington’s efforts by providing learning opportunities through higher education, post-secondary technical training and workforce development. In addition, the center will contribute relevant, real-world applications for student learning.

ABC CREATE was developed by regional leaders who have worked collaboratively on education and economic issues for several years. With $300,000 from the Grable Foundation, ABC CREATE is working to identify strengths, resources and needs related to STEM education within individual districts and the overall collaborative. Under the guidance of an advisory board, the program will help to develop teacher advocates and build an educationally-focused collaborative.

“The regional leaders recognized that individual districts had pockets of innovation with high student engagement in STEM and that support from higher education and industry was strong,” said Colleen Smith, STEM outreach coordinator for the campus and facilitator of the new initiative. “By pulling resources, ideas and partners together with an explicit purpose, they could significantly energize and strengthen the educational growth within this geographically concentrated area.”

An educator experienced in developing STEM initiatives, Smith joined the New Kensington staff in July after four years as outreach coordinator for the Electro-Optics Center. As facilitator for the ABC CREATE, Smith envisions a collaborative of geographically concentrated school districts, post-secondary institutions, and industries focused on sharing best practices and master teachers and creating a culture of discovery that utilizes technology and innovation. She holds a master’s degree in higher education from the University of Pittsburgh.

The advisory board, comprising superintendents from the charter member school districts and representatives from the founding organizations, is tasked with guiding the implementation and development of the project. The board’s initial meeting in early September outlined first steps. A tour of Carnegie Mellon’s Community Robotics Education and Technology Empowerment (CREATE) Lab helped the board learn more about the lab’s mission, philosophies and developing technologies. The CREATE Lab advocates robotic technologies as teaching tools and provides teachers with access to creative technology.

The CREATE Lab Satellite Network’s annual retreat was an opportunity for the board to meet network partners from Carlow University, Marshall University, West Liberty University and West Virginia University. The partners will support the Alle-Kiski group by sharing validated best practices related to the use of creative technologies in the classroom.

Led by ASSET STEM Education, a nonprofit organization that provides educators with professional development, hands-on educational materials and consulting services, the Alle-Kiski group began STEM Immersion Planning in October. Forty teachers and administrators participated in two working sessions at the New Kensington campus. The first session was designed to provide school districts an opportunity to discuss their STEM and STEAM philosophies. STEAM is a STEM program with arts and theater added to the mix. The second session featured training for the STEM assessments, which will be completed by each district and analyzed by ASSET. In January, the district teams will examine results, identify strengths and gaps, and determine the next steps for the development of the ABC CREATE technology projects.

“Although this STEM Immersion Planning process demands that the schools slow down to truly examine where they are now and what they need to move forward as individual districts, I think it will be the key in the forging of a successful collaborative,” Smith said. “We are building the foundation with a realistic understanding of both the districts’ perspectives and the needs of the collaborative as a whole.”

Details of the ABC CREATE project will be fleshed out in the upcoming year. In the planning stage is a spring conference, which will bring together teachers from all 15 school districts to learn about the project, regional self-assessment results and technology projects. Districts will identify teacher advocates in each grade level, define technology projects that meet regional needs and plan learning pathways for students.

“I am truly impressed by the excitement and commitment evidenced by the teachers and administrators of the local schools and by all the participating partners,” Smith said. “This kind of enthusiasm and collaborative spirit will strengthen local capacity across participating school districts and through to the region’s workforce.”

Throughout the project, Edward Fuller, associate professor of education at Penn State, will help the districts assess the impact of the project and evaluate the effectiveness of the collaborative process. Fuller, who serves as director of the Penn State Center for Evaluation and Education Policy Analysis, is an expert in educator quality, career pathways, educator preparation, school improvement and charter schools.

The pilot program gives ABC CREATE an opportunity to impact students and teachers in this region, and to develop a project that other regions will be able to replicate to help strengthen communities across the country.
For more about the collaboration, contact Smith at 724-334-6138 or
About Grable Foundation
Based in Pittsburgh, the Grable Foundation supports community and youth organizations in southwestern Pennsylvania. The foundation reflects the philanthropic philosophy of Erret and Minnie Grable, who were strong believers in the importance of education in helping children build productive, self-sustaining and meaningful lives.

The foundation was founded in 1976 by Minnie Grable after the death of her husband, Errett, a Pittsburgh businessman, and a founder and lifetime director of Rubbermaid Inc., which grew into an international housewares manufacturing company. Erret Grable was active on many community charitable boards until his death in 1959.

During Minnie Grable’s lifetime, the major focus of her personal philanthropy was scholarships to help young people enroll in vocational training. She continued her gifts to the foundation until her death at the age of 100 in December 1990, at which time assets from her estate began to be distributed to the foundation.

As longtime residents of Pittsburgh, the Grables supported community and youth organizations in southwestern Pennsylvania and were deeply concerned with the welfare of the Pittsburgh region and all its citizens. In particular, the Grables were strong believers in the importance of education in helping children build productive, self-sustaining and meaningful lives.

The Grable Foundation has a significant history with Penn State New Kensington. More than 2,000 disadvantaged youth were able to attend the Kids in College program for during the past two decades. These camps focus on science, technology, engineering and math programs, and the arts and theater, which integrated science components.

For more about the Grable Foundation, visit

  • ABC CREATE meeting

    Teachers from local school districts brainstorm about STEM learning at the October meeting of ABC CREATE at Penn State New Kensington.

    IMAGE: Bill Woodard

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Last Updated November 13, 2014