Fueling innovation for education through a year of challenges

By Ryan Kish, Vice President and Treasurer at Arconic Foundation

What if we stopped looking at 2020 as a lost year and started looking at it as an opportunity to find new ways forward? The ongoing restrictions on our education system are challenging, to be sure, but they may also be viewed, at least in part, as an opportunity to rethink how we engage students and deliver programming.

When Arconic and Arconic Foundation returned our headquarters to Pittsburgh, it was important to us that we make impactful local investments to continue our history of strengthening our communities by enhancing education through skill-building learning experiences, promoting environmental sustainability, and advancing social equity. By inspiring youth through hands-on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) activities, we know we can get them excited about learning, build a foundation of problem-solving skills, and expose them to a whole field of careers they might not have otherwise considered.

With that goal and strategy as our guide, we considered who would be well-positioned to help make this a reality. It didn’t take long to discover that United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania, with its capable staff, program experience, and community connections, would be an exceptional partner. As we brainstormed partnership ideas with United Way, ranging from a regional event at the convention center to one-on-one mentoring opportunities, we encountered an obstacle greater than any we could have anticipated: the COVID-19 pandemic. The restrictions and challenges of the pandemic turned our plans upside down and forced us to rethink our approach. At first, the restrictions felt like a burden, but we gradually came to view the situation as an opportunity to catalyze new ideas.

Together with United Way, we quickly pivoted to develop creative solutions to address urgent short-term needs while keeping our focus on students’ education in the long-term. Using the power of technology, the imagination of teachers, the expertise of program partners, and the hard work of volunteers, two innovative approaches were developed that would provide exciting educational opportunities in local schools and have a significant impact right here in Western Pennsylvania.

The Arconic Foundation School Champion program takes three local schools to the next level.

A strong school is the foundation of a good education. The Arconic Foundation School Champion program provides technology support, funds attendance challenges to reduce absenteeism, and ensures college or career prep for every student at Pittsburgh Schiller 6-8, Pittsburgh Morrow PreK-8, and Pittsburgh Milliones University Prep 9-12.

Looking toward a future when kids will again regularly attend school in-person, we are helping schools create state-of-the-art makerspaces to revolutionize STEM education in each of the three schools. We hope that giving students these spaces to explore, build, create, and tinker will inspire their creativity or even lead to a fulfilling career.

United Way’s BE STEMtacular Summit, powered by Arconic Foundation, inspires students to be scientists, researchers, engineers, and more.

After months of sitting in virtual classrooms, we knew any education program delivered remotely would have to be compelling and engaging to convince kids to spend more time in a virtual space. United Way’s Be STEMtacular Summit is a series of fun, hands-on events that introduce kids to the world of STEM through photography, robotics, art, and more. The series also includes a book club for middle school girls to explore stories of women in STEM, learn about coding, and practice creative writing.

Technology is forging the future and this generation is experiencing it like none that has come before it. Today’s youth have grown up deeply immersed in technology, with devices in their hands and screens all around them. Though some would consider the large role of technology in children’s lives as problematic, it is precisely this familiarity and comfort with technology that has allowed today’s students to adapt to the current environment and overcome the challenges they face. Their unique life and education experience and unparalleled technology fluency will power the imagination of this generation of students, propelling them into innovative careers that will shape our world for years to come. It is our shared responsibility to help them derive positive outcomes from this difficult time.

As fellow community members, I invite you to join Arconic Foundation, United Way of Southwestern PA, and many other community organizations in fighting against the defeatism and negativity that has spread alongside the pandemic. Let us work together to support our youth in whatever ways we can and reshape the challenges as opportunities, the negatives as positives, and despair as hope.