Aileen Owens has won national acclaim for her efforts to bring cutting-edge computer science education into K-12 schools. Usually, she’s bubbling with ideas about the future.
But last summer, riding in a van through Appalachia, Owens, now 61, was thinking hard about her past.
Long before she became the director of technology and innovation for Pennsylvania’s South Fayette school district, Owens was a dreamy child in rural West Virginia, bristling at the notion that her horizon stopped at the local chemical plant.
The experience forged her desire to expand notions of what’s possible in the classroom.
“There were not a lot of opportunities where I grew up,” she said. “I understand how important it is to change mindsets.”
Over the past eight years, Owens has done just that at South Fayette. Second graders in the 3,200-student district create their own programmable animals using sensors and circuits, as well as modeling clay. Middle schoolers teach each other Python, the computer-programming language that powers Instagram. Soon, South Fayette High will offer one of the country’s first K-12 classes in machine-learning, a field in which computers are trained to learn without being explicitly programmed.
And now, South Fayette’s approach is spreading beyond the Pittsburgh area and into underserved areas like Pikesville, Ky., where Owens is helping spearhead a “future of work” initiative that includes universities, technology entrepreneurs, teachers, former coal miners, and more.
Owens’ ambition is part of her charm, say the many partners she has enlisted in her efforts.
“She doesn’t worry so much about the practical,” said Mark Stehlik, the assistant dean for outreach at Carnegie Mellon University’s school of computer science. “She wants to create a vision, then find the people and resources to make it happen.”
As Owens leads visitors though South Fayette classrooms, pointing out all the innovations and experiments that are underway, it can be hard to keep up.
Last spring, for example, students in a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) literacy class worked on coding their own video games. The librarian was being trained in “human-centered design.” Inside a large workshop-style space full of everything from iPads to construction paper, nearly 50 students worked in small teams to shoot and edit their own movies.
And that was just the elementary school.
The roots of Owens’ love for imaginative, hands-on projects aren’t hard to trace. Growing up in tiny St. Mary, W.Va., she said, her days were spent building treehouses and digging underground tunnels and putting on musicals for the families on her street.
“I had the most amazing childhood,” Owens said. “I was living in a kind of make-believe world.”
In part, that was because the real world was tough. Jobs were scarce. The outside world could seem beyond reach.
But after she graduated from high school, Owens went to Marshall University to study sociology. Then she became interested in interior design. She moved to Pittsburgh. There were more people living in her apartment complex than lived in her entire hometown. She swallowed her fears, quickly working her way up to a plum position in a local architectural firm.
Then, Owens had children of her own. She stepped away from her career to dedicate herself to being a mother. When her children started school at a well-regarded suburban district, she found herself disappointed.
“There was no focus on creative thinking,” Owens said. “So I went to the principal with an idea.”
It turned into a four-year volunteer effort that Owens called Journeys. After school and during lunch periods, hundreds of students worked alongside local businesspeople, professors, and other experts. One of Owens’ favorite projects: children and physicists working side by side at the local amusement park to make movies using roller coasters to demonstrate the laws of motion.
“I was always like this,” Owens laughs now. “I’ve always been an instigator.”
A Focus on ‘Computational Thinking’
Owens’s volunteer experience eventually led to paid positions at Carlow University (then College), as well as the Mt. Lebanon school district outside Pittsburgh. As she transitioned into the world of education, Owens earned a master’s degree in instructional technology from Duquesne University.
Since being hired at South Fayette in 2010, Owens’ passion has been on cultivating students’ “computational thinking.” That includes coding. But the real emphasis is on helping students learn to problem-solve; to think algorithmically, in step-by-step sequences; to debug and revise; and to work with abstract concepts.
Luminaries such as former Microsoft executive and current Columbia University professor Jeannette Wing, and computer scientist and Code.org founder Hadi Partovi describe computational thinking as a foundational literacy, akin to reading or math.
To fully participate in the future, their argument goes, today’s students will need the skills and confidence to understand and interact with an increasingly digital world.
Thanks to Owens, South Fayette—a well-resourced, stable district that serves mostly professional families—has been at the forefront of figuring out what that looks like in K-12.
The district’s initial focus was at the elementary level. There, thinking algorithmically might mean students giving each other verbal commands to navigate through a classroom maze. Helping 2nd graders connect with their natural sense of awe is just as important as introducing them to child-friendly programming languages such as Scratch and App Inventor.
There were not a lot of opportunities where I grew up. I understand how important it is to change mindsets.
Owens’ approach has helped her emerge as a leader in the regional Remake Learning movement. Pennsylvania’s department of education holds South Fayette up as a statewide model of computer science education. And the district is a key player in the League of Innovative Schools, a national network convened by the nonprofit group Digital Promise, which aims to promote innovation using educational technology.
Among Owens’ fans are such well-regarded figures as Stehlik of Carnegie Mellon.
“She puts herself out there. It’s risky, but it can reap great rewards,” he said.
“Her sequence for K-8 computer science rivals anything I’ve seen anywhere in the country.”
Building a Support Structure
That’s not to say everything has been easy, or smooth.
While South Fayette is working to expand computer science opportunities inside its lone high school, the number of students currently enrolled in such courses is still relatively small.
Owens also must guard against becoming overextended.
“At times, it can seem she is stretched thin,” said Shad Wachter, who works as a dedicated STEAM teacher at South Fayette Intermediate School. “But it’s usually under control.”
One of the big reasons, he said: Owens is committed to empowering those around her.
Students regularly lead professional development, including sessions for educators from across the Pittsburgh region during the STEAM Learning Institute that South Fayette hosts each summer.
Partners quickly find themselves playing integral roles in South Fayette initiatives. Stehlik, for example, spent part of last year substitute-teaching an Advanced Placement computer science course in the district, and he’s tapped a number of his standout graduate students to help Owens develop and pilot new computer science courses for the district.
And Wachter himself said Owens has “changed everything for me and my family.”
When he started at South Fayette, Wachter said, he was a low-level technology assistant, responsible mostly for delivering laptop carts to classrooms and troubleshooting technology problems for staff members.
But Owens recognized his talent and ambition. She helped him get started running an after-school coding club, then pushed for him to be considered for one of the district’s new instructional-technology positions that were recently created.
Now, he said, Owens gets just as excited about his ideas as she does about her own.
“She has a support structure that she can call on at any time,” Wachter said.
“That’s something that real leaders have.”