Montour STEAM Camp keeps students learning during summer  

By Doug Hughey, Allegheny West Magazine


Most kids can’t wait to get out of school for summer. Yet just a week into vacation, about 70 students outside of Pittsburgh returned to Montour School District for its first-ever Summer STEAM Camp June 22-26. Most campers were in grades three through eight.

   The camp, which was funded by a grant from the Pittsburgh-based nonprofit The Sprout Fund, exposed students in Montour and neighboring Cornell School District to potential career paths in the STEAM - science, technology, engineering arts and math - disciplines. At the beginning of the camp, students chose a course of study and then pursued that course during five half days of hands-on activities. Topics included robotics, DNA analysis, forensics, architecture, chemical reactions, graphic design, computer programming and more.

   Montour Superintendent Dr. Michael Ghilani says that STEAM camps are becoming increasingly popular. He says that not only do they help students connect with possible future career paths, but also alleviate the pressures found in traditional classrooms.

   “In the classroom, kids think that if they get a bad score on a science test that they can never be a scientist,” says Ghilani. “Here, they’re not held back by a grade or one test. They might really enjoy architecture and now they want to be an architect. This kind of exposes them to the end product, getting them interested while superseding tests or grades.”    

   At Montour, students at various grade levels gain introductions to STEM - science, technology, engineering and math - subjects thanks to curriculums designed by Project the Lead the Way. The national nonprofit designs curriculums in the STEM fields with an emphasis on hands-on learning. Montour High School students can take up to four levels of PLTW biomedical and engineering courses as electives. The school has also begun teaching PLTW courses at the elementary and middle school levels.

   Dr. Christopher Stone, Montour’s director of education for grades K-6, says that STEAM experiences such as this year's camp encourage, educate and prepare Montour's youth to pursue careers in in STEAM-related fields.   

   “Over the past few years, Montour has worked diligently to establish itself as a leader in STEAM-centered educational initiatives,” Stone says. “We recognize that to be successful in today's workplace, individuals must be creative and use critical thinking skills, which are best developed through exposure to unique learning opportunities.  

   “We will continue these types of opportunities into the school year to challenge students to be real-world thinkers,” he says.  

   The idea for a weeklong camp of interactive learning came about after Amanda Mascellino, a Montour elementary teacher, observed her students’ enthusiasm for a PLTW class she started teaching this past school year titled Stability and Motion: Science and Flight. During the class, students work collaboratively to design gliders. As they test and tweak their designs, they gain an introduction to physics and aeronautics.

   “When they started doing it, they’d say, can we just stay and keep building? We don’t want to go to recess, we’ll just stay and work,’” says Mascellino. “I said, ‘We need to more of this, as much of it as we can.’”   

    Mascellino approached Jason Burik, Montour’s assistant to the superintendent, and they applied for a grant through The Sprout Fund. The organization awarded them a $12,000 Hive Fund for Connected Learning grant, which allowed the school to invite students from both Montour and neighboring Cornell School District to attend for free. Courses were all taught by Montour faculty, and in many cases the school utilized its existing facilities and equipment.

   In one of the courses, students created inventions solving a real world problem of their choice. Working with fifth grade teacher Bill Black, students designed their inventions using 3D software and printed them using the school’s 3D printer. Campers then pitched their inventions, “Shark Tank” style, to a panel of Montour administrators. The panel’s “sharks” consisted of Director of Instructional Technology and Innovation Justin Aglio, Director of Curriculum and Instruction Dr. Chris Stone, Director of Human Resources Terri Testa and Ghilani.

   Among the students in the “Shark Tank” course was 10-year-old Gavin Rawski.

   “Doing Shark Tank at STEAM Camp was a dream come true for me,” says Gavin.We were able to learn and have fun designing our inventions. I loved being part of STEAM Camp at Montour this summer and I can’t want to do it again next year!”

   In another course, campers worked with middle school teacher Rick Barie to construct remote controlled, Moon rover-style robots with Vex Kits. Students designed robots that could pick up a plastic bottle, carry it over rough terrain and deposit it in a container.

   Campers interested in graphic design got to work with high school teacher Braden Jasin. Using Adobe Creative Suite design software, laser engravers and screen printing equipment, campers made backpacks, t-shirts and posters. A number of students remarked that using Photoshop software proved to be the most challenging aspect of the course.  

   After spearheading the idea for the camp, Burik and Mascellino also participated by leading their own courses. Burik, a Lego enthusiast since the age of 7, led a section giving campers a unique introduction to architecture. In addition to fun builds, competitions and interacting with architects, students also built a scaled replica of a new elementary school currently being constructed on the high school campus. Campers used 3,500 Lego blocks and worked directly on top of actual architectural blue prints to build the model, which will eventually go on temporary display at The Mall at Robinson. It will go on permanent display in the new elementary school once the building is completed. 

   Blending the discipline of architecture with the hobby of Legos is nothing new to Burik. He started his own Lego model building business during his senior year in college. He’s since been commissioned to build Lego models by professional sports teams and companies around the world. 

   “We need more engineers, architects, scientists and innovators,” says Burik. “Designing and constructing with Lego blocks allows kids to become creative thinkers and problem solvers.”

   While students working with Burik got an introduction to architecture, Mascellino led a multi-discipline course dubbed Full STEAM Ahead. In it, students built bridges and other structures out of pipe cleaners, then tested their designs using weight and wind forces. They studied chemical reactions by dropping Mentos in soda bottles to make geysers, and polarity by creating their own lava lamps. They even dove into forensics by learning how to dust for fingerprints, identify hair samples using lasers, and conduct DNA and splatter analysis. Students also performed computer programming using BitsBox software, which utilizes a simplified version of Java. Mascellino bought into BitsBox’ Kickstarter campaign so her elementary students could use the software.  

   “It’s a different way for them to learn and problem solve,” says Mascellino.

   She says that during the camp and her PLTW courses, students benefit from hands-on learning and by making mistakes.

    “A lot of our kids, they’re use to us feeding them information and spitting it back,” she says. “With this, they’re actually making their own meaning. It’s nice to see them learn and be independent learners.”

   Aglio says he saw a similar benefit to the camp.

   "The Summer STEAM Camp provided a platform in which students were encouraged to explore, create, and share,” he says. “Through a week-long camp of fun and exciting experiences, students push beyond content to ignite critical and creative thinking, in addition to collaboration and communication."

    Ghilani says that since the camp, he’s heard of students continuing to conduct experiments and engage in activities they learned about during the camp.

   “It’s contagious,” he says. “They want to keep building and experimenting.” 

   Ghilani and other administrators have said that the school intends to hold the camp again.

   “We hope to expand the camp and make it even bigger and better next year,” Burik says.

   A video and more pictures of the camp can be viewed at

For more on Montour School District, visit  

Montour School District Summer STEAM Camp 2015

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