Pittsburgh Education Blog Part 1: Back To School


We are thrilled to have two of our 2014 disruptors from honoree city Pittsburgh, PA — Cathy Lewis Long and Gregg Behr — be a part of several of the next upcoming blog posts on the evolving nature of education! 

“Raising the Next Generation of Innovators through Maker Learning”By Gregg Behr, Cathy Lewis Long, and Jane Werner

As they say, everything old is new again. Today, the Do-It-Yourself tradition of garage tinkerers and amateur inventors has taken a digital age twist to become the maker movement—a global phenomenon of people who are marrying technology and creativity to literally make the future.

Pittsburgh has a legacy of innovation that stems directly from the maker ethic—we were a maker city before they had a name for it! But even after our transition from heavy industry to high tech innovation, the hands-on, do-it-yourself spirit lives on in Pittsburgh. From bootstrapping entrepreneurs working in the TechShop, to amateur inventors tinkering away at community maker spaces like Open Floor, Pittsburghers are making new things every day.

A shoe that charges your mobile devices by walking? Pittsburgh makers did that. A robot so simple a 4 year old can program it? Pittsburgh makers again!

The marketplace isn’t the only site of maker innovation—maker learning is bringing hands-on learning and creativity back to the forefront of education. In fact, you might say that making is learning in action. Plus making provides what some advocates describe as the “hard fun” that can help students get excited about learning.

In Pittsburgh and in communities around the country, educators are embracing maker learning not just because it’s a new and fun way to engage learners, but because they see it as a way to build on the basics and help prepare today’s youth with the hands-on competencies and creative problem solving skills they’ll need to thrive as part of a next generation workforce. 

Not Your Typical Shop Class

As Pittsburgh kids returned to school last week, many entered classrooms that most of us wouldn’t recognize from our student days. Public schools all across the Pittsburgh region are integrating maker learning into their classrooms as a way to inspire creativity and engage students in collaborative problem solving.

In the Dream Factory at Elizabeth Forward Middle School, students work on interdisciplinary maker projects that see them moving seamlessly between classes in computer science, studio arts, and industrial arts.

At Avonworth High School, the library has become the 21st Century Collaboration Center complete with a Maker Lab where students can use 3D printers and other modern production methods to design and make their own projects.

Pittsburgh’s youngest students are benefiting from maker learning too. Through the Children’s Innovation Project, students at Pittsburgh Allegheny K-5 are learning to look underneath the surface of things and discover the basic building blocks that make up the world around them. Progressing from kindergarten through fourth grade, students in the program use simple circuitry kits to hack and remix familiar electronic devices and toys and re-appropriate their components for new uses. Along the way, the program curriculum hits on key math and language arts standards, not to mention science and technology fundamentals.

A Hands-on Museum Like No Other

Many maker experiences begin in the MAKESHOP at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. Working alongside crafters, hackers, and inventors, children and youth get to use real tools and materials and experiment with new production methods to explore, tinker, and invent.  Last year, youth and adult makers worked together in MAKESHOP to create a Trebuchet catapult that threw the first pitch at a Pittsburgh Pirates Game.

To give even more youth the opportunity to learn by making, MAKESHOP is now mobile, bringing free and open maker learning programs into schools, libraries, and community spaces across Pittsburgh. Plus, teachers are getting into the maker mindset too through Maker Educator Boot Camps where they work alongside MAKESHOP Teaching Artists to learn new skills and discover ways to implement maker learning practices into their classrooms.

Developed in partnership with Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center and the University of Pittsburgh Center for Learning in Out-of-School Environments (UPCLOSE), MAKESHOP has become a model for family and community maker programs across the country. With the support of the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), the Children’s Museum is helping other museums and libraries create their own maker learning spaces across the country.

Maker Communities in the Digital Age

We shouldn’t forget that Making is a grassroots phenomenon. So it’s no surprise that maker spaces are cropping up in neighborhoods to provide access to resources, tools, and caring mentors committed to helping all kids make their future brighter.

With the motto to “Build Confidence Through Making,” Assemble is a community makerspace in the East End of Pittsburgh that hosts learning parties where youth explore their maker interests in a welcoming and accessible social setting. For those who want to dig deeper, Assemble’s Make It! program offers more advanced techniques like 3D printing, laser cutting, and Arduino microcontrollers.

In today’s digital world, making means coding, programming, and designing for the web. To help spread maker and digital learning practices into more communities throughout the city, the Remake Learning Digital Corps recruits and trains mentors in digital and maker learning practices and matches them with community centers, afterschool programs, neighborhood libraries, and other informal learning spaces.

Making use of the many free and openly available digital tools now available on the web, Digital Corps mentors work with youth at afterschool centers like The Maker’s Place to help them develop skills and competencies through projects that bridge computer programming, crafting, and robotics.

With digital technologies becoming more and more accessible, anybody can be a maker. Communities from Brooklyn to Bangalore are coming together to share skills through Maker Party, Mozilla’s global campaign to teach the web. In Pittsburgh, our annual Maker Party brought hundreds of makers young and old out for a day of exploration and learning with digital and physical making.

Toward a Maker Nation

Maker learning holds great potential not just for today’s students, but for tomorrow’s economy. And we’re not the only ones who think so. Speaking at the first ever White House Maker Faire in June, President Obama said “Today’s DIY is tomorrow’s Made in America.”

To help spur the movement locally, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto has brought together the Mayor’s Maker Movement Roundtable, a group of makers and advocates for maker learning. The first in a series of meetings with innovative community-based movements, the Maker Movement Roundtable laid the foundation for closer collaboration between the city’s makers, educators, and city leaders.

Maker learning is one of the key practices that educators and innovators are using to remake learning in the Pittsburgh region. With the help of the maker movement, children and youth in our region have more opportunities than ever to feed their inner maker, and develop the skills and competencies they’ll need to be confident that the hands-on future is within their reach.

Photos and text courtesy of The Sprout Fund

Angela Brugioni