Pitt-Johnstown President, Partners Building a CODE-Smart Community

Tammy Barbin

posted March 07, 2018

It is an exciting time for us here at Pitt-Johnstown as we continue to build our exciting CODE for Commonwealth and Country community outreach initiative.  Earlier this year, we pioneered an innovative and potentially transformational project titled Computational-Learning Opportunities in a Digital Environment (CODE) in partnership with our local schools. Through the CODE initiative, Pitt-Johnstown seeks to introduce young people to coding as well as how to use coding skills to improve critical thinking and problem solving skills across all areas of learning. A major area of emphasis will be using our CODE method to enhance teaching and learning in math and other STEM areas so as to improve educational outcomes.

To help guide the greater-Johnstown community through this course-change, Dr. Jem Spectar, president of the University of Pittsburgh Johnstown, launched an ambitious 21st Century workforce capacity coding and digital literacy initiative as a call to action to help transform the knowledge base of the future and enhance capacity for adaptation and resiliency in an increasingly complex and rapidly changing world.

CODE is a unique and bold initiative to transform teaching and learning by developing an interconnected and integrative system that also uses computer science and coding as a tool for problem-solving and enhancing critical thinking across the disciplines. Our CODE approach is a learner-centric, which encourages and supports students to explore, discover and apply and create knowledge. 

The CODE 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. 

As University of Pittsburgh Johnstown president Dr. Spectar puts it, “We believe that properly engaged, adequately supported and positively motivated, every child is capable of participating in the joy of exploration, the play of figuring things out and the triumph of discovery as what once seemed puzzling is untangled.  CODE provides a vehicle for students to create content, rather than just consume it and yes, to have fun while learning and being challenged in new ways.”

This initiative is led by computer scientist and math instructor, Roxanne Jenner, who brings a wealth of industry experience as well as genuine enthusiasm for working with K-12 children.  “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,” explained Ms. Jenner. “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.”

Ms. Jenner and her army of 4-C Tutors - “the Coding Corps for Country and Commonwealth” – have delivered basic coding instruction to more than 2000 students through in-school, after-school and extracurricular programming in a five-county area.  The early feedback has been nothing short of stellar and we have been fielding requests to expand the program across the region.  “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 Jenner.  “With CODE Smart schools, we expect to see improved engagement by students in learning and therefore better grades and results on standardized tests,” she added.

In launching this initiative, Pitt-Johnstown president Dr. Jem Spectar stated: “We envision a community in which every child has the opportunity to acquire the tools to become more effective and engaged learners, where children are enthusiastic about learning math and science, where they can develop their critical thinking, creativity and problem solving skills through reading, writing, arithmetic and computer science. This vision animates our ambitious initiative to help rethink K-12 teaching and learning for the 21st century through our Computational-Learning Initiative. Working with partners in local schools in the years ahead, we intend to do our part to help change the trajectory of our region as students become better prepared to thrive in a global digital economy marked by increasing complexity and rapid automation.”

The Pitt-Johnstown CODE 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.   We hope, with additional funding, to continue to work with our partners to spark a revolution in teaching and learning, to successfully transform students’ learning experiences, and to increase student’s readiness and success in a more competitive world.

Together with other community leaders and partners, Dr. Spectar has brought heightened focus to the urgency of developing 21st century workforce capacity particularly in view of the real and impending threat of greater automation and increasing pervasiveness of Artificial Intelligence (AI). “This is a  time for visionary, bold and collaborative, creative and innovative leaders across all sectors to act in concert,  to write (and right) the next chapter so that our young people are better prepared and positioned to leverage  opportunities in a rapidly changing world, shared Spectar.  “It is an issue not just of regional importance, but one of national and global competitiveness.”

The University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown was founded in 1927 and is the first and largest regional campus of the University of Pittsburgh. Pitt-Johnstown is recognized by the Princeton Review as a “Best in the Northeast” college, by G.I. Jobs as a “Military Friendly School,” and by Pennsylvania Business Central as a "Top 100 Organization.” The distinctive combination of Pitt-Johnstown’s people, programs, and place results in exceptional performance in preparing students for career and professional success. Pitt-Johnstown is the regional leader, educating for success in the Real World.