Pitt-Johnstown President Seeds a CODE Smart Community

Tammy Barbin

posted April 19, 2018


Imagine a community in which every child is given the opportunity to change their destiny. 

Imagine a community in which K-12 student looks forward to learning math and science and discovering their ability to engineer solutions and program apps.

Imagine a generation of students with skills that will not only invigorate, but change the trajectory of an economy. 

Imagine a “Rust Belt” community becoming a national hotspot for technology and great jobs.  

This is the vision that keeps Dr. Jem Spectar, president of the University of Pittsburgh Johnstown awake at night and the motivation behind an ambitious initiative to redefine K-12 teaching and learning that he is leading by day.    

“The adverse impact of economic influences in the greater Johnstown community have created a moment of dire urgency – a time for visionary, bold and collaborative leadership.  We have a duty and unique opportunity to write (and right) the next chapter so that our young people are prepared and positioned for the opportunities available to students in other parts of the country and globe.”   

To help guide the greater-Johnstown community through this course-change, Dr. Spectar launched an ambitious 21st Century workforce capacity coding and digital literacy initiative as a call to action to add tech skills to the knowledge base of area students and infuse Cambria County’s talented workforce with techno literacy skills. 

As part of our CODE for Commonwealth and Country project, Pitt-Johnstown has pioneered an effort to promote Computational-learning Opportunities in a Digital Environment (C.O.D.E.) and is working to develop and support CODE-Smart schools in our area. 

C.O.D.E. is an unusual and bold initiative that redefines K-12 teaching and learning as we know it today, integrating processes and curriculums that emphasize problem-solving as an essential skill and arming students with the 21st Century knowledge and skills needed to thrive in a digital and global economy.  Our model engages Code to shift the teaching pedagogy to a learning pedagogy where one asks, “What should my students be able to do with what they learn?” Coding provides a vehicle for students to create content, rather than just consume it.  

When students learn to write computer code, they learn to use a set of concepts and practices, such as abstraction, simulation, and iteration, to process and analyze data, and to create processes and artifacts. They use computational thinking as a problem solving methodology that can be automated, transferred and applied across subjects such as math, science, social studies and language arts. “The power of computational thinking is that it applies to every other type of reasoning. It enables all kinds of things to be done: quantum physics, advanced biology, human computer systems, and development of useful computational tools.”  

Spectar said there is an urgent need to prepare students from the early grades through high school in the essential skills, competencies, and dispositions needed to succeed in a computationally-dependent world. “Unlike the telephone, our educational systems have not changed much from the classrooms of 100 years ago. For education to change, we need to redefine what it means to be a teacher, and we need to understand what students already know how to do. With the availability of the internet and mobile devices, students no longer need to sit in a traditional classroom to learn the same thing at the same time.  

“Coding and design thinking are skills that naturally differentiate by user (there is more than one way to solve every problem), and they help students uncover new opportunities and to learn other important 21st century skills,” said Spectar. 

The C.O.D.E. framework addresses the needs of schools, educators and students alike.  It includes a connected-learning curriculum, innovative teaching and learning methods, and a progressive learning process that inspires educators and students to both see and want to develop their own potential for success in their futures and help them to become confident teachers and learners.    

To date, Pitt-Johnstown has delivered basic coding instruction to more than 2000 students through in-school, after-school and extracurricular programming in a five-county area.  “The working school model of 21st century teaching and learning is important to show other schools in our Johnstown region, our state of Pennsylvania and our Country what 21st century learning looks like and how schools can successfully transform students’ learning experiences to provide for exciting career opportunities and success for all.”  

“With C.O.D.E. Smart schools, we expect to see improved engagement by students in learning and therefore better grades and results on standardized tests. The improvements will be directly correlated to the student’s believe they can learn and they will be developing skills to use technology in ways that make learning fun and give them the challenge that they need and want.” 

The Pitt-Johnstown C.O.D.E. for Commonwealth and Country initiative has the potential to serve as a national model for nurturing computational thinkers and problem-solvers and spark the resurgence of the Greater Johnstown region.  The early success of our signature pilot program has been lauded by funders, industry leaders, Pa. IU8, FIRST Robotics, educators and parents alike, and has resulted in a balanced and robust team of partners who enthusiastically support the initiative. 

“Working together, we have a unique opportunity to write (and right) the next chapter with a forward-thinking, sustainable program that will prepare and position our young people for the opportunities available to students in other parts of the country and globe.”