Dream. Discover. Design.
That’s the motto of Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy in Oakland, a public magnet school focused on the STEM fields: science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Essentially, the entire middle and high school shines a spotlight on innovation.
“The whole idea is tinkering, so we play, we tinker, we fail, we figure out what we did wrong, and we work again,” said Ann Gollapudi, who teaches physics and computer science at SciTech.
An engineer by trade, Gollapudi left private industry, went back to school and took a paycut to become a teacher.
“The process is not so much as what we created, but the process is what we did we discover along the way," she said.
As part of the school's curriculum, each student chooses one of four different concentrations at the end of their ninth grade year: Form and Function, Computers and Connections, Environment and Energy and Body and Behavior.
Junior Victor Kivuva is taking teacher Edwina Kinchington’s 11th grade bioinformatics class as part of the Body and Behavior concentration.
Students recently were wrapping up a unit on the immune system and were evaluating the results of an experiment with simulated antigens, such as bacteria and viruses, and antibodies, the proteins in your body that help fight antigens.
In front of Kivuva and his lab partner were six different agar plates, which are Petri dishes with growth nutrients in them.
“We plated different antibodies with different antigens on each plate,” Kivuva said. “As you can see on the agar plate, there’s like swirly patterns in here. Or if (you observe) a different color … there’s obviously a reaction taking place. Then you have plates like this where there’s nothing happening, it’s a negative reaction.”
SciTech teachers said this hands-on approach to education is a cornerstone of the school’s curriculum, and whether it’s biology, English, music, or art, science and technology are always at the center of learning.
Matt Ferrante, who teaches music technology, said unlike some other schools where he’s taught, he never feels peripheral at SciTech.
“I always feel like I’m just as much a part of the curriculum, of the pulse of the school as anyone else,” Ferrante said. “Sometimes (at other schools) it’s just like, ‘Well it’s testing time so let’s shut down all the music classes.’ Something like that is never going to happen here.”
In fact, Ferrante gets two full hours with his middle schoolers nearly every day, and 80 minutes with high schoolers.
He said students learn about music theory by actually writing their own music, starting out on the free Mac-based application GarageBand and then moving on to more sophisticated software when they’re ready.
His classroom is much quieter than the traditional band or choir room. Each student sits in front of a computer with a keyboard and headphones attached.
For the most part, Ferrante lets the kids follow their muse, only breaking in when it seems like they might not be grasping the concept he’s aiming to teach.
A recent assignment for his sixth graders was to write a melody using Garageband.
“Now this one you have too many notes, see, that’s a chord, listen to that, chord, three or more notes,” Ferrante said after listening to his student’s work. “So you need to get rid of those notes there, so it’s one note at a time. Melody is one note, not a chord.”
Longer class periods and science and technology centered learning aren’t the only things that make SciTech unique. In addition to the traditional four-year high school track, students who want to set their own pace can get their diploma in either three or five years. It’s also a small school, with about 100 students in each graduating class, so teachers have an opportunity to get to know every student on a personal level.
And because SciTech is a magnet school, kids come from all over Pittsburgh. Unlike a neighborhood school, the students have actively chosen to be there.
“The kids seem to be really interested in learning, so I don’t really have to work too hard to get them ready to go,” Ferrante said. “It’s like here we go, we’re gonna do this, and they’re like ‘Alright let’s do it!’”
That enthusiasm for learning is evidenced by the results of a less than innovative approach to measuring student achievement: standardized test scores.
According to last year’s Keystone exam data, nearly three quarters of high schoolers at SciTech achieved proficiency in algebra by the end of their junior year, and more than 80 percent were proficient in literature.
That’s compared to a district-wide average of 51 percent in algebra and 64 percent in literature. That makes SciTech one of the highest scoring schools in the district. In fact, its test scores are rivaled only by other magnet schools.
It’s hard to say whether these higher test scores are a consequence of a student population that has self-selected to succeed, or whether there’s something about SciTech’s approach that’s actually helping these kids succeed. Likely, it’s a little bit of both.
What is clear is that most SciTech students see their high school experience as the foundation of a career, something that many teens take for granted.
Back in Kinchington’s 11th grade biology class, Imani Walker of Sheraden said as soon as she heard about SciTech, she knew she wanted to go there. She said it’s all part of a plan she’s been working on since she was a kindergartener.
“I want to be a forensic anthropologist, and I would love to go to Cedarcrest,” Walker said.
Walker said one of the best things about the school is the "awesome" teachers, and every SciTech educator interviewed for this story gave glowing reviews of their colleagues.
Principal Shawn McNeil said that's not by accident, but by design.
“I believe that … the greatest factor(s) that indicate whether students will be successful (are) the emphasis on the quality of instruction in the classroom, exposure to different ways of grading students, and exposure to the sciences and math, and making the content relevant to students,” he said.
While SciTech may have some advantages — a small and ambitious student population, a clear academic focus and a dedicated staff — McNeil said he sees no reason why traditional high schools can’t provide many of the same opportunities for students.
However, like many schools in Pittsburgh and across Pennsylvania, there’s a distinct achievement gap between black and white students. Last year less than a third of the black students at SciTech achieved proficiency in biology on the Keystone exam, compared to nearly three quarters of white students.
The school is just five years old, so there is not much data on graduation rates or student success after high school. And because SciTech is so new, it is really still finding its legs, said environmental science teacher Heidi Zellie.
“It’s a challenge," she said, "because we’re kind of building the foundation as well as the pillars and all the stories on top of that.”