Remake Learning Remake Learning is a network of people, projects, and organizations in the greater Pittsburgh region that are empowering children and youth by creating relevant learning opportunities through the compelling use of technology, media, and the arts. Sat, 12 Dec 2015 04:59:17 +0000 en-US hourly 1 When Language Gets Lazy Thu, 28 May 2015 16:55:14 +0000 A lot of jargon gets thrown around in discussions about learning. Connected learning; 21st century skills; participatory politics. As we enter a new educational era with a new array of tools and terminology, we naturally apply new labels to ideas and practices. But how do we make sure we are all talking about the same thing?green

Education blogger Will Richardson warns against what he sees as linguistic laziness.

“One of my biggest frustrations is the imprecise ways that we talk about learning, as if everyone defines it the exact way and it therefore requires no context or is without nuance,” he wrote in a post earlier this month.

He calls out Future Ready Schools, writing that he has yet to develop an opinion about the effort because the rhetoric is too hazy for him to fully understand. Most basically, he writes, the leaders never define “learning” in their literature.

Sloppy speech can have troubling consequences, Richardson says. When an activist pushes for a new education policy, or a teacher explains a curriculum to a parent, or an afterschool organization applies for funding, clear communication is crucial.

At Remake Learning, we use learning terminology all the time. This year, we are taking a step back to define what we mean when we use educational buzzwords, presenting our working definitions in a series of blog posts called “Unpacking Ideas.” Here is what we have so far:

Once we are on the same page in terms of language—and often that means acknowledging that there are multiple legitimate definitions—we can communicate. Once we know what we mean by “learning,” we can talk about how to make it happen.


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Peering Into the EdTech Crystal Ball Tue, 26 May 2015 20:03:59 +0000 Remember Stickybear ABC, the 1984 computer game that taught kids letters? Or The Oregon Trail? Or Apple’s 1990 prediction that one day teachers will send “cyberlinks” to each other?

History shows us that technology does not always play out in classrooms the way one might predict. every year, the New
Media Consortium (NMC) gives divining edtech’s future a valiant shot. NMC recently released the preliminary results of its annual Horizon Report, which explores how emerging technologies and trends are intersecting with education, and how lingering challenges will be addressed.

This year, makerspaces made it onto the list as an innovation that will be adopted into the mainstream in “one year or less.” Makerspaces are among the many homes of the maker movement. In libraries, schools, or community spaces, they come complete with tools and software that kids (and adults) can use to build whatever they dream up. As creativity, design, and engineering make their way to the forefront of skills needed for a 21st century economy, the report finds, makerspaces are helping “renovate or repurpose classrooms to address the needs of the future.”

Notably, in Pittsburgh, makerspaces like those at Assemble and MAKESHOP at the Children’s Museum dot the city and serve as places for rich hands-on learning in informal spaces.

Interestingly, last year, makerspaces were barely mentioned in the Horizon report. And while they may have made the short list this year, one of the report’s listed “challenges” worth noting is scaling teaching innovations. “A pervasive aversion to change limits the diffusion of new ideas, and too often discourages experimentation,” the authors write.

A makerspace takes plenty of planning and resources—although some schools have gotten creative with mobile makerspaces on carts. Meanwhile, several experts have critiqued parts the maker movement for a lack of inclusivity and heavy focus on tech. Any movement making inroads in education comes with its fair share of challenges.

Also on the list of edtech phenomena that the report predicts will be adopted in a year or less is BYOD, short for Bring Your Own Device, in which students bring their devices to school and connect to the school network. The report predicts cloud computing, or using apps and programs that make collaboration easier, has a one-year-or-less time to adoption, as does mobile learning, a concept that places no limits on where and when students learn with mobile devices.

The report also cites the rise of STEAM learning and cross-disciplinary learning at schools as other means for edtech to be effective and useful.

Finally, NMC predicts trends that are five years off or more. This year, the report says, microcredit and badges may be used as a way to grant credit for informal learning opportunities. (Some of Pittsburgh’s organizations, like the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, have already done so.) It also predicted the potential of drones for educational use and pointed to a school in Norway where students map out geometric shapes in the air.

Equally fascinating is examining the past and the forces that make educational trends fizzle. The NMC retired games and gamification this year from the list. The CEO of NMC, Larry Johnson, said the trend “is just out of reach for most people” and the developments that gaming experts saw coming have not materialized.

While technology and other promising trends may be eye-catching, questions usually arise once they are brought into the classroom. At the recent CoSN conference, where the preview of the NMC report was released, CoSN’s CEO, Keith Krueger, stressed the importance of considering the context of successful integration of new technologies into classrooms, according to EdTech Magazine.

“Emerging technologies always draw a crowd,” he said. “But as leaders we need to focus on solving real educational problems.”

In Pittsburgh, many organizations keep their fingers on the pulse of what’s new while emphasizing how to use innovations to remake learning. There is really no predicting what the future holds for kids today, but giving them an education that helps them love learning and adapting will prepare them for whatever is next.

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Maker Volunteers Energize Expanding Movement Thu, 21 May 2015 19:09:16 +0000 Readers of this blog know how quickly the maker movement has picked up STEAM in recent years. Yet as more schools and organizations recognize the importance of letting kids tinker and create, educators need the resources and time to work making into their programs and figure out their roles as mentors.

One national initiative is bringing maker education to as many kids as possible. A partnership between the nonprofit Maker Education Initiative (Maker Ed) and AmeriCorps VISTA places volunteers at sites that provide maker opportunities for young learners.

Pittsburgh, no stranger to the maker movement, is the site of one of nine organizations playing host to VISTA workers this year. The two volunteers work at Assemble, a creative community space where artists and technologists of all ages are always busy building and crafting. Located in the Garfield neighborhood, the organization strives to be accessible to local kids and anyone else who wants to take part in its programs or simply drop in—so the emphasis VISTA puts on capacity-building is appreciated.

Not only has it “been really great” to have two new staff members expanding Assemble’s reach, said its director, Nina Marie Barbuto, but it has been invigorating to strengthen ties with others in the maker scene.

“It’s been great to work with other organizations on a national level and to see how we’re not alone,” Barbuto said. “It’s nice to see it’s not only in Pittsburgh. It’s really a national movement.”

No question. A recent white paper from the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Project Zero details the sheer momentum of the movement. Supported by a three-year grant from the Abundance Foundation, researchers with Project Zero’s Agency by Design visited numerous maker education sites.

“This is an important moment for policymakers, funders, and others interested in supporting an alternative narrative for education that focuses on deep and prolonged experiences of learning through making, and results in students developing a sense of agency, self-efficacy, and community,” the researchers write.

Pittsburgh itself is home to renowned makerspaces and, increasingly, infrastructure and opportunities for educators and organizations interested in joining the movement. In October, educators who want to integrate making into their curricula can attend workshops co-hosted by Maker Ed and the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. Shortly after, Pittsburgh gets its first full-size Maker Faire.

“When kids are allowed to pursue hands-on maker-oriented work, they’re able to see what they themselves are capable of.”
One of Assemble’s Maker Ed VISTA volunteers, Sienna Cittadino, got her degree in library science from the University of Pittsburgh. She enjoyed activities in library-based maker spaces and, she said, grew “cautiously optimistic” about the larger movement. She said she was a bit skeptical that the associated jargon was just that—jargon. But, particularly at Assemble, she has come to see maker education as a jumping-off point for some kids and an invitation to others to dive into existing interests.

“I think that when kids are allowed to pursue hands-on maker-oriented work, they’re able to see what they themselves are capable of,” Cittadino said. “They’re able to trust themselves.”

There is a valuable emphasis on exploration, self-direction, and tinkering in maker rhetoric. But whether their roles are more administrative or instructive, mentors like the VISTAs and the Assemble staff figure prominently in successful maker education. In a recent newsletter, writer Annie Murphy Paul pointed out that completely unstructured maker projects can be overwhelming or too mentally demanding for young kids. Adults can provide foundational guidance.

“Once students begin making, we can carefully scaffold their mental activity, allowing them to explore and make choices but always within a framework that supports accurate and effective learning,” she wrote. “The scaffolding lightens learners’ cognitive load until they can take over more mental tasks themselves. This approach actually dovetails with the apprenticeship model that inspired the maker movement: the student learns to create under the guidance of a master, taking on more responsibility as his skills and confidence grow.”

Giving young learners both freedom and guidance is a careful balancing act, Cittadino said.

Sometimes the educator’s role is “figuring out when to let them shoot for something that isn’t going to work,” she said. “And letting go of that control.”

For example? Cittadino recalled students who wanted to make a full-scale, complete version of Minecraft in the children’s coding program Scratch.

“Sometime, they secretly always knew a project wouldn’t work,” but were curious about the outcome anyway, she said. “Or maybe it will work! They’re really smart.”

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‘21st Century Skills’ Made Simple Tue, 19 May 2015 22:39:36 +0000 Advancing technology, globalization, and a demand for higher-skilled jobs mean the modern workplace requires far more challenging skills than it did two decades ago. Responding to these heightened expectations, educators are increasingly finding ways to instill a set of abilities that will prepare kids for the world ahead, commonly referred to as “21st century skills.”

But when you hear the term “21st century skills,” keep two things in mind: People have more of them than they realize, and with focus and learning you can develop many others.yellow

Generally speaking, 21st century skills refers to the demands and expectations placed on students, teachers, employees, innovators, and others as they strive to succeed and prosper and in a competitive, multidisciplinary, and technology-driven world.

While the term is widely used, it is not always defined consistently, which can lead to confusion and differing interpretations. Every classroom and workplace is unique, and no one can have every skill needed to succeed in every situation. What they can have, specialists say, are work habits and knowledge foundations that will help them learn how to learn and adapt to new situations quickly and creatively.

Here is a compilation of the wide variety of skills that often fall under this “21st century” umbrella:

  • Critical thinking, problem solving, reasoning, analysis, interpretation, and the ability to synthesize information.
  • Research skills and the ability to ask sharp questions.
  • Creativity, curiosity, imagination, innovation.
  • Perseverance, self-direction, planning, self-discipline, adaptability, and initiative.
  • Oral and written communication, public speaking and presentation, and the ability to listen.
  • Leadership, teamwork, collaboration, cooperation, and the adaptability to be productive in virtual workspaces.
  • Digital literacy.

Andrew Rotherham, cofounder of Bellwether Education Partners, wrote several years ago in U.S. News & World Report that none of these skills alone are suddenly important to success in the digital age. People have always needed to collaborate and think critically in order to get anything done. What is new, though, is the level at which our economy demands these skills.

“What’s new today is the degree to which economic competitiveness and educational equity mean these skills can no longer be the province of the few,” he wrote. “This distinction is not a mere debating point. It has important implications for how schools approach teaching, curriculum, and content.”

Even with the increased emphasis on these skills, many employers say they are having trouble finding people with the essentials. For at least a decade they have been calling for “higher standards of workforce excellence consistent with the demands of the 21st century.”

In Pittsburgh we’re working to build an education ecosystem to help our students build these critical skills—one in which libraries, makerspaces, and after-school spaces have the flexibility to let kids follow their own interests, make mistakes, and problem-solve for hours on end.

Many of Pittsburgh’s schools are leading the way in providing kids with the experiences that instill these types of skills. Pittsburgh kids are flexing their problem-solving smarts in new ways, and embarking on the path to 21st century thinking.

For example, last winter a small team of students at South Fayette High School designed and built an app that would text parents when their elementary school students hopped on and off a bus. The process was filled with problem solving the bumps in the road that students had to solve, working as a team and researching what was important to their potential users.

If humans make it to the 22nd century, we’ll still need collaboration, communication, and problem solving—just as the scientists and engineers who cured smallpox and built the hoover dam did in the 19th century. But fostering these skills in kids today doesn’t just heighten chances for their success. Today, these skills are critical, and Pittsburgh is proving a prime place to grow them.

Kathleen Costanza and Tom Mashberg contributed to this story.


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‘Make’ the Most of Summer With Online Camps Thu, 14 May 2015 22:21:21 +0000 As the academic year wraps up, many parents fret over an impending summer “brain drain.” With schools closed and textbooks tucked away, how will the kids exercise their critical-thinking muscles? Online digital-learning summer camps may put some parents and teachers at ease. The programs swap out campfires for computers, but they don’t sacrifice the camaraderie and collaboration typical of traditional camps, or the learning that happens at school. Here are three options for kids who want to spend the summer of 2015 making, coding, and tinkering with new friends.

CONNECTED CAMPS Last year, three self-identified “girl geeks” had an idea for a digital summer camp that would foster creativity and problem-solving through the game Minecraft. Mimi Ito, Katie Salen, and Tara Tiger Brown were not sure at first whether there would be interest in a virtual “camp,” but when they launched a test run in 2014, 250 kids signed up immediately. The Connected Camps program is available around the clock, so campers can choose to work with a counselor or take a more self-directed approach. Participants must purchase their own Minecraft accounts, but there are some brick-and-mortar pop-up camps that meet in community spaces as well.

The camp, created in partnership with the Institute of Play, is designed for kids ages 9 to 13 who want to receive weekly Minecraft challenges. Some are creative, like recreating a famous landmark. Others are group challenges that require collaboration and teamwork. In a video testimonial, 2014 camper Lisa delighted in her summer accomplishments. “I built a cruise ship,” she said. “I feel more creative when I use Minecraft because I’m physically blocked off from building in real life, because I’m only eight.” Campers can opt for an additional coding camp, where they learn the Lua language for programming computers and robots in Minecraft.

The camp runs from July 6 to August 2 and costs $150 per week, or $50 for the coding camp. Register on the website.

MAKER CAMP Back for its fourth year, Maker Camp promises another jam-packed schedule of hands-on learning and fun for teenagers. From July 6 to August 14, Google and Make: magazine will offer a free camp. The program is accessible via internet connection and is more structured, with daily Google+ Hangouts and virtual field trips. Participants get sneak peaks into the processes and projects of all kinds of makers. Last year’s roster included high-tech miniature golfers, motorcycle makers, fashion designers, and the White House executive chef. The summer opened with a digital trip to NASA, where campers watched the live assembly of a telescope.

Each Maker Camp lesson comes with a craft project campers can make at home. Many libraries and community spaces host in-person sessions. Sign up for the 2015 camp and check out this year’s themes.

CITIES OF LEARNING Each year a handful of cities take on new identities as summer camps. Dozens of organizations come together to offer educational programming all over the city. Most of the activities are not online, but like the two opportunities mentioned above Cities of Learning programming often includes self-directed and digital components. Pittsburgh’s 2015 City of Learning website goes live in June with an online directory of participating programs. Some organizations offer kids the opportunity to earn digital badges, which recognize their new skills and accomplishments.

Digital learning is never confined to the classroom, so it follows that there are a number of flexible and fun summer options. Envious parents need not feel left out: sign up for the Connected Camps Online Grown-Up Camp and play along with your kids. Throughout the summer, we will continue to highlight the many local learning opportunities in Pittsburgh.


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Learning to ‘Speak’ Tech Mon, 11 May 2015 20:28:26 +0000 Amidst all the playing, programming, and tinkering we wrote about for our story on the Remake Learning Digital Corps last month, the work going on at El Círculo Juvenil de Cultura stood out. The Carnegie Mellon University-sponsored program caters to Spanish-speaking youth. Their mission:  To familiarize young students with their heritage and, increasingly, to provide them with digital learning opportunities.

While working to bolster the kids’ literacy in both their native languages and in English, El Círculo staff has recently added digital literacy to its agenda.

Many of the 6-to-12-year-olds who attend the program have access to cell phones or iPads, said director Felipe Gómez. “But beyond being users, what we’re interested in is giving them some idea of how to create the technology and how to explore their own identities with technology,” he said.

El CírculoHe is describing a perennial task for educators, who know how savvy their students are as consumers and users of technology and want to leverage this interest and acuity for educational or civic ends. The challenge is even more pronounced in bilingual populations, Gómez said. The kids he works with often attend under-resourced schools and come from families who may lack the resources to facilitate digital education.

Findings from the Pew Research Center corraborate Gómez’s anecdotes. Along with their black peers, Latino youths are no strangers to technology, using digital devices even more than their white counterparts. Thirty-two percent of Hispanic teens report going online “almost constantly.”

But professor S. Craig Watkins who studies young people’s digital behavior, finds that digital prowess on its own does not equal digital empowerment.

“While digital media is more widely distributed than ever before, not all learning ecologies, literacies, and pathways to digital participation are equal,” he wrote at the Connected Learning Research Network.

While bilingual students might miss out on some of the digital education that their native-speaking peers are more likely to receive, they are also in a powerful position if they have access to scaffolding and guidance.

We call them digital literacy and coding languages for a reason. Technological agility is another means of communication, one that is increasingly valuable in professional and civic settings. If bilingual students can add this third “language” to their repertories, they are poised for a wealth of opportunities.

Isabel Gordillo, a Digital Corps member and volunteer at El Círculo, is a good example. A native of Ecuador who started learning English as a teenager, and who also speaks Czech and French, Gordillo uses her multilingualism in her career as a translator and court interpreter. Her tech savvy has come in handy when using translation software—and when securing the Digital Corps gig.

“We’re trying to foster the idea that bilingualism is an advantage,” Gordillo said. “And on top of that, if you can combine it with literacy in terms of how to think critically about solving problems with computers and programming and design, I think that makes a very strong set of skills these kids are going to have later in life.”

Thoughtful educators of bilingual kids, in and out of school, try to cultivate digital and linguistic literacy in tandem.

Some use digital tools to help non-native-speaking students settle into classrooms or social settings. One preschool teacher helped a boy who spoke only Chinese use a digital storytelling program to introduce himself and his background to his classmates.

“With the connection of seeing and hearing about his home, the communication began to flow,” wrote Diane Bales on the National Association for the Education of Young Children website. “The children worked together to find other ways to communicate, and the boy’s English skills grew quickly.”

Educators should be aware of the specific needs and existing skills of dual-language learners when it comes to digital literacy. When kids are given opportunities to develop bilingualism and tech skills, it makes for “a very powerful combination,” Gordillo said.

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Community Corps Brings Digital Education to County Kids Thu, 07 May 2015 22:01:46 +0000 El Círculo Juvenil de Cultura, a bilingual after-school program that teaches Latino kids about their heritage, was looking to add a digital literacy component to its curriculum. The students it serves are part of a population that is less likely to have access to digital literacy education, said Felipe Gómez, co-founder of El Círculo.

Hispanic youth actually use the Internet more than their white peers, according to the Pew Research Center. But language barriers and cash-strapped schools often mean they cannot get the guidance and scaffolding they need from adults to learn from their technology use.

Gómez said many of his students have used computers and have access to cell phones. “But beyond being users, what we’re interested in is giving them some idea of how to create the tech,” he said.

“Beyond being users, what we’re interested in is giving them some idea of how to create the tech.”

Enter the Remake Learning Digital Corps.

Like El Círculo, organizations across the educational spectrum are recognizing the urgency of digital literacy education. But many of them lack the bandwidth, knowledge, or equipment to provide it. The Digital Corps aims to meet some of this need by recruiting, training, and deploying digital learning experts to after-school programs throughout Allegheny County. The program is now wrapping up its fourth series of workshops.

The goal? “It’s not just about jobs or school, though those are predominant and really important factors,” said Digital Corps manager Ani Martinez. “But also just about knowing how the world around them functions, how people communicate.” The Sprout Fund designed the program to train host-site staff, as well as the young participants, in digital literacy.

Digital Corps members, who include local software engineers and technologists, artists, and teenagers, come to their host sites equipped with a variety of digital literacy tools designed for kids: Scratch, Thimble, and Hummingbird Hummingbird to name a few. These programs aim to teach the building blocks of the web, and to demonstrate that the digital tools kids use every day are created by people just like themselves. What each educator does day to day—teaching basic coding, gif-making, robotics—is similar, but they have had to figure out how to adapt the curriculum to work well at sites with differing needs and demographics.

When Gómez first heard about the Digital Corps, he thought he would never find the triple-threat he needed at El Círculo: a tech-savvy Spanish speaker who has worked with kids. When previous El Círculo volunteers got trained as corps members, he ended up with two that fit the bill.

Corps instructor Yolanda Isabel Gordillo, a professional translator who works at El Círculo, worried that the kids would not have the attention spans for the long lessons. Not only did that prove to be false, the students also continued the work off-site on their own.

“It’s fantastic to see how these kids express this knowledge so fast,” Gordillo said. “They say, ‘Oh and I told my friends about this program I’m making and sent them the link.’ ”

And when put together, foreign language skills and tech savvy make a “powerful combination,” she said.

El Círculo, run by Carnegie Mellon University, is fortunate to have plenty of tech equipment. Other Digital Corps sites are not so lucky.

At the Northern Area Boys & Girls Club, the tech tools are less plentiful and more finicky. But staff member Caitlin Zurcher said the participants still get a lot out of the program, sharing computers, playing with the hands-on robotics materials, and setting up accounts on sites they can log into elsewhere.

“The great thing about the training I received at The Sprout Fund is many of the activities were very easy to do with a low budget,” Gordilla said. Her students loved one completely tech-free coding activity, where they pieced together paper puzzle pieces labeled with HTML tags to make a logical string of commands.

The Hazelwood branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, a veteran site now enjoying its third series with Digital Corps members, faced a different challenge: How to fit the sequential lessons into the library’s drop-in programming for teens, where they never know who might show up.

So Corps members worked with the librarians to adapt the digital literacy curriculum to be less structured and function like a weekly “menu of challenges.” Librarian Michael Balkenhol said he still thinks kids get a lot out of the program even in the less-structured environment. “We let anyone that walks into our teen space just jump in and play around a little, and hopefully enjoy themselves and make a point to come back,” he said.

There has been a range of reactions among the youth participants. “Sometimes it’s frustration,” Balkenhol said. “It’s not always easy to just jump into something new.”

Then there are the kids who come to every single session.

For the stretched staff at the library, the Digital Corps members have been a tremendous help. And even when Corps instructors are not around, the students have the basic skills to explore tech tools on their own, whether that means building a website or mashing up YouTube videos.

The program “inspires different ideas, and then you try to help out a teen or kid move forward with whatever they want to accomplish,” Balkenhol said.

The kids’ personal interest is often what drives the success of the Digital Corps program. At the Boys & Girls Club, some of the students were video-game fanatics, so they jumped at the chance to learn to make their own.

“Some of the kids who do it wouldn’t be friends if they didn’t have this video game interest,” Zurcher said. “This forced them to work together. They never hung out here at the club together.”

The organizations serve different populations with different circumstances. But the low-budget, flexible programming has allowed instructors to engage all the participants, and help them shift from tech consumer to tech creator.

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When Designing EdTech for Schools, Get Back in the Classroom Tue, 05 May 2015 17:03:55 +0000 Last month, the federal Office of Educational Technology published “The EdTech Developer’s Guide: A Primer for Developers, Startups, and Entrepreneurs,” a free guide written by educators, researchers, and developers. The guide is a Rosetta Stone for entrepreneurs looking to succeed in the über competitive and fast-changing educational technology (edtech) marketplace. Plus, it includes nitty-gritty details on how districts make purchasing decisions, updates on data privacy laws, and other information.

More importantly, the guide points to opportunities for engineers to design technology that can have a true impact on teaching and learning. The guide outlines 10 specific opportunities, among them improving educators’ professional development and helping students plan for future education opportunities. The 67-page document underlines the fact that better, more useful products emerge from collaborations with teachers and students.

“Assuming you were not recently a teacher yourself, I suggest that you work hard to get inside the school, inside the classroom, inside the day-to-day lives of the educators you want to help,” writes Steven Hodas, former executive director of Innovate NYC Schools. And, he says, that can mean bringing pizza to the teachers lounge, cleaning up after lunch, and attending school board meetings.

“Until you’ve done these things, it’s arrogant to write code, let alone attempt to sell,” Hodas explains. “Unless you’ve done these things, the likelihood that you are aiming at something big is small.”

As we wrote earlier this year, several technologists and entrepreneurs in the Pittsburgh region have echoed the importance of collaboration among educators and students when designing edtech products. The RemakeLearning Network facilitates these connections by hosting events where educators and tech developers can rub shoulders and swap ideas.

“There are people who are developing technology for a classroom that have never set foot in a classroom,” Courtney Francis, cofounder of the Meetup group EdTech PGH, which connects technologists and educators, told us in January. “Working on the tech side, I’ve seen clearly that there needs to be 360 degrees of support for developing this kind of technology.”

The guide points out issues that developers need to consider long before beta testing. Schools cannot use products that are not accessible to differently abled kids. The guide explains that when developers design with accessibility in mind, they “facilitate school district compliance with civil rights laws” while also making apps more user-friendly. Ensuring that the text on a site is legible to a visually impaired student using a screen reader, for example, helps that student while improving the searchability of the entire site.

The guide identifies 10 ways for edtech developers to close the opportunity gap. Schools with slower internet access, for instance, should be able to use the same apps as schools with cutting-edge technology.

“The best companies are those that engage in conversation with teachers,” writes Vicki Davis, a Georgia teacher and blogger. “Add your moving part to the engine of positive change rather than trying to siphon off valuable resources for a need that doesn’t exist.”

The EdTech guide does not map out an easy route to success for technologists. It is filled with extra steps that take time and might require a change in course. Technologists who pay attention, though, will succeed in resolving persistent problems in education technology.

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TeacherQuest Case Files: Mod Squad Remixes Classic Games Fri, 01 May 2015 13:23:48 +0000 In this series of articles, we check in with teachers from TeacherQuest—a unique professional development program focused on games and game design.

Through this 11-month program, which includes a summer intensive followed by a series of online design challenges, teachers learn to design and use games to develop 21st century skills.

Board games are back in style, and it’s more than just nostalgia fueling the renaissance. The games we played as children were teaching us English, social studies, critical thinking, and other essential lifelong skills.

At Avonworth Middle School in Pittsburgh, two 8th grade teachers are taking classic family night board games and turning them into collaborative learning experiences that the whole school can enjoy.

How Avonworth Incubates Innovative Thinking

When Mike Hall, principal at Avonworth Middle School, found out about the inaugural TeacherQuest program in Pittsburgh, he alerted Emily Hickman and Samantha Abate to the opportunity. They had already been a dynamic duo when it came to developing fresh new ways to engage the students, and they seemed like the perfect fit for the program.

Both teachers had already successfully incorporated game-based learning into their respective subjects. They are also practiced collaborators: Emily, an English teacher, and Samantha, learning support teacher, clicked from the moment they met, and were working together on everything from lesson plans to teaching methods.

Emily and Sam are supported by an administration that highly values collaboration among school staff. Each day at the school, an entire period is dedicated to interaction, where teachers from each grade level meet to discuss challenges, successes, strategies, techniques, individual students, new initiatives, and just about anything else relevant to the classroom.

“Teacher partnership is so important,” says Emily, about her professional relationship with Samantha and daily meetings she has with the other teachers in her unit. “We can be very honest with each other and offer constructive criticism to the group. It’s great to see how our classes intersect and how we can support other teacher’s learning objectives. We can build off of what each of us are teaching and use the same activities to teach different subjects.”

Playing, Modding, Exploding…Oh my!

As learning support coordinator, Sam works with every teacher on the 8th grade team almost every day. She serves as a partner for educators as they plan lessons, align with district curriculum, and implement new learning techniques.

Even before enrolling in the TeacherQuest program, Emily and Sam saw the benefit of playing games with students. They tried some old classics like Clue, UpWords, Scrabble, and Boggle, with the idea of strengthening English, spelling, and critical thinking skills, as well as learning how to follow instructions and work together.

Since TeacherQuest, Emily and Sam’s experiments with games and learning have taken on a new rigor.

On any given Friday, Emily can be found playtesting and modding games with students in her “exploratory” period where she can try new games and get student feedback. Since the beginning of the school year, the class has explored many different games, both classic and new. During one particular session, she and her students were creating new variations on Tic Tac Toe to make the game more challenging. They talked about decisions and strategy, as well as actions and rules. The most popular mod was increasing the grid size. The students were using math without even realizing it.

Sam and Emily have done their share of creating their own games too. Following the TeacherQuest Summer Intensive, Emily created a spin on the party game Scattergories that she called Scatterwordies, to help students in her English class learn about prefixes, suffixes, and root words.

Perhaps the most in-depth game Emily developed was a version of The Game of Life for a civics teacher at her school. Every year, Emily’s students work on an advertising project in their English class, for which they earn a salary. Then, in civics class, the students spend their salary by making certain life choices, with the help of a packet of worksheets. This year, Emily and the civics teacher wanted to shake things up and make the project more game-like. Starting with sticky notes on a wall, the pair designed a mod of the popular board game LIFE, and took their game through numerous playtests with fellow teachers and the Friday “exploratory” game design group to get feedback and make iterations. In the end, the project was very successful and the students said they enjoyed the game much more than the packet.

TeacherQuest Supports Future Initiatives at Avonworth

While the student feedback has been overwhelmingly positive at Avonworth, that isn’t the only measure of success. “Using games in the classroom is only going to be successful if it helps accomplish your learning goal,” said Emily. “You have to lead with your objective and work backward, and find games that support what you’re teaching.” Emily was able to see growth in three major areas as a result of games in class: engagement, interaction, and leadership.

Principal Hall sees growth in these same areas for Avonworth’s teachers. “Our educators want to try new things, they want to think differently, and they are encouraged to take risks,” he explained. “The group is really open to incorporating gaming into their lessons, and they are intrigued to hear what Emily and Sam are learning in the TeacherQuest program. We have a great team and they accomplish a lot together.”

What makes a game successful? “Keep it simple and accessible,” Emily says. Well, the same is true for professional development. As Emily explained, TeacherQuest was the most helpful PD program that she’s ever taken part in because it closely modeled the kinds of experiences she wants to create for her students. “We didn’t just sit there and learn passively by having information thrown at us,” she said. “We actually learned in the way we would teach our students. I like how active it was. It was really intense but I learned so much.” She also said she would definitely recommend this program to other teachers who are interested in gaming.

Recently, Emily was shifted from the English department to the school’s resource center, as the new 21st Century Research and Media Specialist. Her new position also acts as a librarian. She’s excited to spread her ideas about gaming to Avonworth’s middle and high school teachers. Along with Sam, Emily continues to create more games – including a mod of Monopoly and something brand new based on the Pittsburgh Marathon.


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Why ‘Connected Learning’ Is Catching On Wed, 29 Apr 2015 19:19:09 +0000 ...Continue reading »]]> Young people today grow up fused to their digital worlds. And yes, being a screen zombie has its downsides. But instructors who harness students’ passion for social media can open their minds to a dynamic theory of education called “connected learning.”

At its core, connected learning capitalizes on a young person’s immersion in digital technology and online networks to encourage curiosity, deeper study, and self-education. With good guidance, learners tap into a vibrant network of teachers, like-minded peers, mentors, and role models. Before they know it they are absorbing crucial academic knowledge while engaged in enjoyable discussions, experiments, and accomplishments.

blueTake Patrick, a teen participant at YOUmedia’s ARTLAB+ program in Washington, D.C. Patrick was always passionate about art, but he saw his creative pursuits as a personal hobby unrelated to his future. His introduction to the digital tools at YOUmedia (a network of connected learning spaces with a presence in Pittsburgh), and his contact with digitally attuned educators who took his work seriously, gave him a fresh career outlook.

“I see myself wanting to create video games or probably doing advertising in marketing for big companies,” Patrick said in a YOUmedia report. “I’ve developed an interest in stop motion and music since I’ve come to ARTLAB+. I already had an interest in games. I just never really found a place to really get into it until I came to ARTLAB+.”

Adult mentors can play a critical role in helping youths connect their natural passions to an academic or professional path.

“So much of learning occurs in the context of relationships,” said psychologist Jean Rhodes on Connected Learning TV. “And when kids are pursuing their interests and going deeper into a topic, having a more advanced thinker [to] help them scaffold that interest can be key to whether they go deeper into it or move away from it.”

In Pittsburgh, our unique network of schools, museums, libraries, and universities offers an ideal staging ground for connected learning. In February 2015, experts here unveiled a model “learning pathway” to help local youngsters advance their interests in media making. Students might begin their journey in a stop-motion animation class at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, then move on to a digital-photo workshop at Pittsburgh Filmmakers. From there, they could head to WYEP’s audio workshop.

It is easy to imagine that pathway for, say, youngsters who have been into robots since childhood, or spend afternoons playing video games, or love to read and be heard.

In a Q&A with Remake Learning in 2014, cultural anthropologist Mimi Ito, one of the originators of the connected learning theory, put it this way: “When you talk to people who are doing things they love in their lives, they can generally point back to a learning experience where other people validated the thing they love and gave them opportunities to be recognized.”

The Key Principles of Connected Learning

  • Interest Powered: Builds and expands on youths’ own interests
  • Peer Supported: Encouraged by peers who also provide help and feedback
  • Academically Oriented: Recognized by teachers and supportive of success in school
  • Production Centered: Involving making, production, or performance for an external audience
  • Shared Purpose: Adults participate alongside youth in a common endeavor in which youth have a say in the goals and structure of the activity
  • Openly Networked: The infrastructure, focused on digital media, that creates easy access to tools and expert guidance needed to pursue interests


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It’s Elementary: Playtime Equals Learning Time for Young Children Mon, 27 Apr 2015 21:24:57 +0000 ...Continue reading »]]> With elementary schools nationwide adapting their curricula to jibe with the Common Core, some parents and teachers argue that the littlest learners should be better prepared for the academic standards they will soon be required to meet. Others counter that increasingly structured schooling makes it even more important for younger kids to have some time to play, explore, and get messy.

Earlier this month, some educators told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that this debate is misguided. They argued that those who pit play against formal education create a false dichotomy—an either/or that does not, or at least should not, exist.

When preschool teachers talk about “play,” they are talking about behavior that spurs neurological and social development, said Roberta Schomburg, early childhood education professor at Carlow University.

“Children are learning about math every day when they play and they’re probably learning about it in a more solid way than if they were manipulating symbols,” she said.

One obvious example is playing with blocks, where kids fit geometric shapes and angles together and experiment with size and quantity. But in all kinds of play, kids are counting, solving problems, and dividing toys among friends.

Psychologist Alison Gopnik has studied how imaginary play helps young children explore real-life situations and cultivate social skills and empathy. A study from her lab at the University of California, Berkeley, also suggests that playing “pretend” often engages kids in scientific thinking.

Most preschools strike a balance where activities are structured, but they are structured so that students have opportunities to explore and discover. Carol Barone-Martin, executive director of early childhood education for Pittsburgh Public Schools, told the Post-Gazette that her curricula are deliberately designed “so children can play, but they can play in a way that develops certain outcomes.”

Other teachers make a conscious distinction between unfettered free time and structured academics but make sure to offer both. When kindergarten became a full-day affair in Bellingham, Wash., the district required all classes to include 60 to 90 minutes of play per day.

Writing in USA Today in 2009, Lisa Guernsey, director of the early education initiative at the New America Foundation, agreed that play and education were not diametrically opposed. “We have to find ways to relieve the pressure on kindergarten without reaching back futilely to the early 20th century,” she wrote, “when expectations were lower and the urban and rural poor were virtually ignored.”

Guernsey suggested that teachers needed more support and training to help blend play with effective learning. She also emphasized the need to make preschool more affordable for working families and to build a “bridge between preschool and kindergarten” to allow the experience to be better integrated for teachers and their students. It is advice that needs to be heeded today.

In Pittsburgh, out-of-school organizations have joined forces to preserve play in the daily lives of our city’s children. Distressed by the decline of free play nationwide, the city, the county, arts and health nonprofits, and foundations formed the Playful Pittsburgh Collaborative to support one another in pressing for more opportunities for play.

Neuroscientists and educators have spoken: play is critical in younger years. But a focus on play does not necessitate the exclusion of academic learning. Instead, play can facilitate learning, whether kids are let loose in a costume box or on a playground, or guided by thoughtful instructors in semistructured settings. Presenting play as the antithesis to academics can only hinder us from creating the best environments for learning.


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Digital Learning Where It’s Least Expected Wed, 22 Apr 2015 05:07:43 +0000 At most hospitals, patients’ leisure time is limited to sleeping, watching TV, and visiting with relatives during prescribed hours. This can be hard on chronically ill children who may be cooped up in small rooms for weeks at a time. But at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt University, those patients have an enriching new option. A graduate student in education, Gokul Krishnan, brings around a metal cart packed with engineering and craft materials, a 3D printer, and a tablet, and encourages young patients to tinker.

The mobile makerspace is not just an artistic diversion. It’s a real-life lesson in design thinking, reports MindShift. The patients are encouraged to identify something that is missing or frustrating in their environment, and tinker with the tools until they solve the problem. A 17-year-old patient named Emily, for example, was getting annoyed by the nurses who would show up in her room unannounced. So, using wire, switches, and tissue paper from the maker cart, she fashioned a functional doorbell.

Hospitals are not the only unlikely locations to become makerspaces. Here in Pittsburgh, the Millvale Community Library hosts a weekly maker meetup for both toddlers and kids, providing circuits, electronics, musical instruments, drawing tools, and sewing supplies. A former electronic repairs shop, the building has a long digital legacy.

The mobility of technology makes for ideal learning tools. A restless patient like Emily may not be able to go to the library, but she can summon its digital equivalent on an e-reader from her hospital bed. Maker materials can be wheeled into libraries, cafes, churches, parks, and any number of accessible community spaces. And we recently wrote about the new app from Storycorps, which enables kids to learn about history and culture from family members and new friends on the go. Thanks to this portability, learning is not confined to the classroom or a specific six-hour chunk of the day.

By capitalizing on the flexibility and adaptability of digital tools, educators and communities are not discounting the value of learning in traditional and formal settings. In fact, some of the most interesting initiatives in the Pittsburgh area are products of collaboration between established educational programs and less conventional spaces featuring different sets of tools.

In the South Fayette School District, campus gardens function as outdoor classrooms and living STEM labs. Part of a program called Grow It to Go, the gardens are settings for hands-on lessons in biodiversity and sustainability. Another Pittsburgh project turns an agricultural bounty into maker tools, bringing the farm to science classes, and students to the farm. Digital Salad participants might spend an afternoon slicing fresh vegetables, then scanning images of them to use in Photoshop collages before they cook the “materials” in a stew.

A hospital, a farm … so where will the next contemporary “classroom” show up? With portable devices and a mobile maker scene, it could be anywhere.



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Maker Manager: Catching Up With Rebecca Grabman Mon, 20 Apr 2015 17:21:31 +0000 In October 2011 the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh opened MAKESHOP — an exhibit space where kids and adults can tinker with tools, a mix of materials, and the latest in digital media. As one of the country’s first museum-based makerspaces, MAKESHOP has become a national model for museums around the country.

Rebecca Grabman has been at MAKESHOP since the beginning, rising in the ranks from summer intern to manager. Grabman grew up in Anchorage, Alaska, and has a master’s degree in entertainment technology from Carnegie Mellon.

What’s new at MAKESHOP?

Right now we’re exploring the theme of “outer space” as a jumping-off point for activities. All month we’re using outer space as our inspiration and as an excuse to explore different materials and methods, asking visitors to help us transform our exhibit with objects and ideas. Currently we’re making planets out of cardboard, wool, rock, whatever we can find!

And later in the month we’ll be collaboratively building a “command center.” The plan is to invite visitors to help us write some simple computer programs in Scratch, and then also build ways to interact with the program using an invention kit called MaKey MaKey and simple circuits. We also discussed adding some fun nondigital “command” elements, like lights, switches, or maps. It’s one of those fun projects that should change and morph depending on what visitors bring to it.

MAKESHOP has been at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh since 2011. What is the shop’s biggest accomplishment so far?

I’m not sure if I can choose a “biggest” accomplishment, because we place so much value in the small steps that impact us every day. Everybody involved in MAKESHOP is constantly pushing themselves, and one another, to learn and try new things. Whether it’s figuring out how to explain a complicated process to a young child, trying something ourselves for the first time, or reading an interesting article about education, every discovery we make pushes us to be better and do better work.

Grabman hanging out inside a circular rug woven on bent yardsticks.

Grabman hanging out inside a circular rug woven on bent yardsticks.

What are you most proud of?

That we’ve become a true embodiment of the museum’s mission: to inspire joy, creativity, and curiosity. When MAKESHOP began there were huge questions that we had no idea how to answer: How would visitors respond to activities? How would we manage the numbers of people? What could we expect young children to be capable of? We are now recognized as a national leader in our field, helping other museums, libraries, schools, and community spaces think about how to integrate making into their communities and learning experiences.

What’s the toughest part your work?

Between running the museum space, teaching classes, brainstorming new ideas, planning after-hours events, and staying connected to the wider conversations about making, MAKESHOP has a lot of things happening all the time. It’s all a blast, but it certainly keeps me busy. For me the toughest part is making sure that we’re keeping track of everything, and that the team has the resources and support they need — it can get pretty complicated when there are over 40 teachers, librarians, and other educators hanging out with us, taking 26 workshops over four days!

When I’m working with visitors or school groups, the toughest part is always trying to navigate the complex relationship between expectations, intentions, and outcomes, because there are always multiple stakeholders involved: a child and parent, a teacher and student, time limits, and a learning objective. Finding the pathways to balance those things can be complicated, but it is also extremely fun and challenging, and always rewarding.

What is your favorite thing to do in Pittsburgh on a Sunday afternoon?

Since I’m at the museum on Saturdays, I like taking it slow on Sunday afternoons. I usually get brunch with a friend (it’s a personal goal to eat every waffle in town) before either strolling around Schenley Park, poking around the main branch of the library, or working on one of the many half-finished projects cluttering up my apartment. This Sunday I’m actually thinking about stopping by work on my day off, just to check out our guest maker from the Pittsburgh Glass Center.

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Learning Competencies: Digital Badging with Meaning and Relevance Fri, 17 Apr 2015 14:50:36 +0000 The Remake Learning Network is excited to unveil a shared set of competencies for learning in-school, out-of-school, and on-line. In conjunction with the creation of Pittsburgh City of Learning, a city-wide digital badge and experience discovery platform launching this summer, these competencies will serve as the foundation for dozens of community partners as they create individual knowledge, skill, and disposition badges for their unique programs.

Over the past eight months, more than 100 local subject matter experts, informal and formal educators, youth workers, and program managers were engaged in working groups to develop the 103 competencies, which are organized into 7 centers of programmatic excellence within the Pittsburgh community: Career Readiness, Coding & Gaming, Design & Making, Media Making, Robotics, STEAM, and Early Childhood Education.

In addition to the competencies themselves, we also published detailed information and supporting materials for the methodology we used as a community to reach the results.

We hope that organizations in Pittsburgh and beyond will find these competencies useful building blocks when developing criteria for digital badges that recognize young people’s learning accomplishments both in and out of school.

This work was made possible through the generous support of the Henry L. Hillman Foundation Opportunity Fund and led by the staff of The Sprout Fund.

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Pittsburgh Public Schools to Open STEAM Magnet Program Tue, 14 Apr 2015 23:11:12 +0000 Once at risk of closing, Pittsburgh Woolslair PreK-5 will become a partial STEAM magnet school next year with the aid of nearly $900,000 in foundation grants to support STEAM learning at several schools in the district. The new STEAM programs are part of an ongoing movement in the region’s schools and informal learning spaces to improve access to STEM learning as well as to integrate the A in “art.”

The Pittsburgh Public Schools Board considered closing the small school of about 110 students in 2013 to help narrow the district’s budget deficit. But last September, the board approved a plan to turn the school into a partial STEAM magnet school, meaning kids from all around the city can apply. The school will also stay a neighborhood school, and the STEAM program—which stands for science, technology, engineering, art, and math—will grow one grade level per year.

When the district approved the plan in the fall, funding for the program was still up in the air. On Wednesday, the district announced the plan would be funded with $480,000 in grants from the Grable Foundation and $391,000 from the Fund for Excellence, a consortium of foundations.

Foundation support will also help to develop STEAM curriculum at Lincoln PreK-5 and Schiller 6-8, two other schools in the district. The district is also planning a STEAM program for Perry High School.

“Our current vision for STEAM education is to provide experiences where kids will eventually not just participate in the economy as consumers of things, but have the capacity to really be makers of things,” district STEAM coordinator Shaun Tomaszewski told local radio station WESA.

The district plans to hire two new STEAM teachers who will lead the program at all three schools and collaborate with teachers on projects. The schools will also turn spaces in each of their buildings into STEAM labs with plenty of spaces for hands-on projects.

At the news conference announcing the STEAM programs, students from Schiller showed off levees they’d built in plastic shoeboxes with materials like sand and sponges. Though the details are still developing, teachers throughout the district will be also able to seek mini-grants for innovative STEAM projects with the new funding.

Although the Pittsburgh region has always had long history of industry and engineering, the new shift towards combining art and design sets the programs apart.

The STEAM movement is growing in the Pittsburgh region. The Allegheny Intermediate Unit, one of 29 intermediate units across the state that are part of the public education system, has poured over $2 million into STEAM grants for 150 schools across the region, ranging from robotics to coding and game design. At the C3 Lab at Blackhawk High School, students use 3D printers to design and print parts for broken equipment. Meanwhile, students at Crafton Elementary School have been known to use the STEAM Studio, a dedicated room with technology and equipment, for projects during lunch.

And although the region has always had long history of industry and engineering, the new shift towards combining art and design sets the programs apart and helps prepare kids for an economy that requires divergent and creative thinking.

“Some of the things you’re seeing going on at universities right now, [like at] Carnegie Mellon, are pulling together people who are engineers, who are artists, designers. That’s the kind of thing we see going on out in the world,” Superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools Linda Lane told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in an article about the Woolslair plan last September, before it was finalized. “I really like that kind of blending.”



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Changing School to Fit a Changing World Mon, 13 Apr 2015 19:19:15 +0000 Finland is often lauded for having cracked the education code, producing students who are successful by every definition of the word. But even in educational utopia, leaders know the system needs to adapt to meet modern demands.

Finland has announced that, beginning in August 2016, the country will abandon some of its subject-based schooling in favor of an interdisciplinary “phenomenon”-based approach. Less history and math; more history of math.

“We are often asked: Why improve the system that has been ranked as top quality in the world?” said Irmeli Halinen, head of curriculum development on the Finnish National Board of Education, in a filmed announcement. “The answer is, because the world is changing around the school.”

The new national curriculum is a response to the “challenges of globalization, development of technology, and to the challenges of sustainability,” Halinen said.

It’s an effort to prepare kids for the standards of the 21st-century workforce while creating a “space for joy of learning in schoolwork,” she said.

So what does this all look like in action?

The Independent took us to a Finnish elementary school that already employs the new approach.

“It’s an English lesson, but there is a map of continental Europe on the whiteboard,” the author wrote. “The children must combine weather conditions with the different countries displayed on the board. For instance, today it is sunny in Finland and foggy in Denmark. This means pupils combine the learning of English and geography.”

But in addition to melding traditionally autonomous topics, there’s a new emphasis on student participation and collaboration. The curriculum was developed after heavy input from students, Halinen said.

It’s naïve to think the answer to educational woes in the United States is to simply mimic a system like Finland’s. The United States has different philosophies of education (more focused on individualism, for starters) and a different—much more diverse—student body than much of Europe has. But thoughtful educators and administrators here have long understood the benefits of interdisciplinary learning.

The effort aims to prepare kids for the standards of the 21st-century workforce while creating a “space for joy of learning in schoolwork.”

In March, we wrote about the “artificial line between art and science,” as Loretta Jackson-Hayes, a chemist and professor, described in a Washington Post op-ed. She wrote that her most successful science students are the ones who can communicate their research at conferences or write about it coherently in publications.

Take, for example, the STEAM movement. STEAM education infuses creativity into engineering, and it teaches mathematical thinking through art projects. In Pittsburgh, many educators, in and out of schools, have embraced STEAM.

The Allegheny Intermediate Unit has provided $2.1 million in STEAM grants to schools in western Pennsylvania for projects that meld science and art, including creative tech labs. At the Pine-Richland High School STEAM center, students used 3-D modeling software to design a fully functional electric guitar. At The Labs @ CLP, teen visitors to the Carnegie Library can hang out at the media labs where they have access to creative digital tools and musical instruments.

But it’s not enough. Too many students in the U.S. are bored and disconnected from school. Making the connections across subjects, like in Finland, and making connections between what students learn in the classroom and what goes on outside the classroom are critical. A 2006 study by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation found that 81 percent of those who drop out of school claim that “opportunities for real world learning” would have helped them stay in school. Only approximately one-third of students who dropped out left because they were failing.

Finland may be, well, Finland, but it’s worth watching as a model for learning that re-engages kids and teachers.

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Pittsburgh Students Rise to the Challenge of Addressing World Water Crises Mon, 13 Apr 2015 18:51:30 +0000 In March, students from four Pittsburgh area high schools came together for a two day Water Design Challenge. Hosted at the University of Pittsburgh‘s William Pitt Union and supported by a Hive Grant from The Sprout Fund, students were asked to brainstorm to raise awareness about real world water crises. Emily Stimmel shared this story on the Kidsburgh blog.

The problem: raising awareness about real world water crises. The problem-solvers: 55 students in grades nine through 12 from four local high schools.

In March students from Chartiers Valley, Elizabeth Forward, McKeesport and Mt. Lebanon high schools participated in a 2-day Water Design Challenge at University of Pittsburgh’s William Pitt Union. The activities were designed to inspire students to think as local and global citizens and consider the social and environmental implications of something most of us take for granted—water.

Though the project was multidisciplinary in scope incorporating social studies, world language, science and technology–and drawing faculty and students from all four schools–it was pioneered by Mt. Lebanon High School social studies teacher Tina Raspanti. After reaching out to Veronica Dristas, the assistant director of outreach at Pitt’s Global Studies Center, for help in developing a global studies program geared to high schoolers, she felt inspired.

“She told me to dream big,” Raspanti says. So, with a team of likeminded Mt. Lebanon High School teachers, Raspanti approached The Sprout Fund for a grant from its Hive Fund for Connected Learning and the group immediately got to work setting the project in motion.

With funding, Raspanti and her team were able to cover the costs of food, transportation and overnight accommodations offering an “equal playing field for all school districts.” Because no single school was responsible for footing the bill, students from the four schools had equal access to the Water Design Challenge leading to a more diverse, innovative pool of ideas. “It was great to see how they melded together,” says Raspanti, noting that “think globally, act locally” became the teams’ shared motto.

Students engaged in brainstorming sessions and evaluated their ideas using the concepts of human-centered design thinking championed by the event’s facilitator Pete Maher of LUMA Institute. Ultimately, the judges selected two winners—one presenting a local solution and the other a global one.

Make it Rain, the winner in the category of local solutions, promoted a rain barrel system that offers tax credits to residents who use it to water their lawns, encouraging conservation through financial incentives. In the global category, Women 4 Water created a detailed website describing how far women in developing nations walk to retrieve potable water. The average distance was six kilometers, so the all-female team chose a 6K race as the vehicle for raising awareness of the issue while generating funds to support these women.

Students weren’t instructed to use specific tools or methods for awareness-raising, but they naturally gravitated towards social media with most of the groups setting up simple websites and mock online fundraising campaigns.

They also weren’t asked to recruit the next cohort of participants, but they’ve eagerly taken on the task. Though the pilot project focused on water, the essential element of the Challenge is uniting a diverse group of students to collaboratively solve a problem. With Water Design Challenge as a model for future Challenges, the teens who participated in the pilot project are brainstorming the next topic and spreading the word to their peers. With additional funding, Raspanti hopes to develop the project into an annual event uniting diverse groups of students from schools across the region.

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Storytelling App Is Powerful Learning Tool Wed, 08 Apr 2015 17:11:45 +0000 A 9-year-old boy approaches a man in a small-town Texas park. When they start chatting, the man gets an idea. He pulls out his smartphone, equipped with a new app from StoryCorps, and starts interviewing the boy.

The beginning of the conversation is unmemorable, if amusing. (What was the happiest moment in the boy’s short life? “My first sushi.”) But it takes a poignant turn when the man asks the boy how he’d like to be remembered. I’d like to stop racism, he answers, without hesitation. The middle-aged black man is clearly startled by the white boy’s response. What started out as a casual chat between strangers morphs into an encouraging cross-generational conversation about prejudice, history, and compassion.

The app that prompted this unusual interaction just made its digital debut. But StoryCorps has been active since 2003, facilitating some 50,000 interviews. Founder David Isay had been a radio producer who, while working on an audio documentary about the Stonewall riots, discovered the power that comes with wielding a microphone.

“The microphone gave me the license to go places I otherwise never would have gone and talk to people I might not otherwise have ever spoken to,” Isay told a captive crowd at TED2015. He quickly learned that his sources felt empowered, too. He recalled one exclaiming “I exist!” when he saw his photograph and story published.

“Over and over again, I’d see how the simple act of being interviewed could mean so much to people,” Isay said.

With StoryCorps, Isay set out to give both the interviewer’s power and the interviewee’s platform to regular people, who he knew to hold fascinating narratives and wisdom. Until now, all interviews have been confined to StoryCorps booths, which have permanent locations in three cities and on a trailer that tours the country.

“Over and over again, I’d see how the simple act of being interviewed could mean so much to people.”
Now, thanks to a TED prize, support from the Knight Foundation, and the expertise of Pittsburgh-based MAYA Design, anyone with a smartphone can access a virtual “booth.” On the free app, users are given simple instructions for recording an interview and uploading it to the public online archive and to the Library of Congress. The app works on iOS and Android platforms and allows users to share interview excerpts on social media.

“We’ve found a way to use technology to preserve an experience that is extremely personal, without being obtrusive,” said Greg Gibilisco, MAYA director of visual design, on the firm’s website.

Dozens of stories are already on the site. Many of the interviews mirror those told in the booths: oral histories of elderly relatives and moving conversations between close friends. But some of the participants, like the man in the Texas park, take advantage of the new mobility to strike up spontaneous conversations with people they find intriguing or different. Others tell stories in unconventional settings, like the back of a speeding cab.

Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 3.58.27 PM

Screen Shot/ StoryCorps

Those who work with young people are probably already thinking about the app’s implications for learning.

Pittsburgh’s Hear Me is founded on the premise that storytelling—particularly of the digital variety—empowers and effects change. At Hear Me, a CREATE Lab initiative, teenagers use digital tools to record both personal and political stories. Their voices, often ignored in other settings, are amplified.

With projects like Hear Me and the StoryCorps app, kids might be drawn in by the fun technology or the spotlight, but in the meantime they develop a slew of other skills. Interviewing, of course, requires active listening. Being interviewed requires clear communication. Both roles demand collaboration and confidence.

The online archive is key. Teachers who lead digital storytelling units where student pieces are published have spoken about the effect of an audience.

In a National Writing Project report, educators commented on “the creativity and innovation that emerge when young people face challenges in conveying their interests to a wider audience.”

Back at the Texas park, interviewer and interviewee are wrapping up their session. The boy has segued into considering the dangers and merits of medical marijuana. The man, who had no expectations when he decided to open his new app, has been rendered nearly speechless by the kid’s precociousness.

“I don’t think anyone is going to believe this was unscripted!” he says, laughing on the recording.

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What Would Technology Look Like if Our STEM Workforce Were as Diverse as Our World? Mon, 06 Apr 2015 22:49:25 +0000 If you’re African American and want to text an emoji that looks like you to a friend, until now you’ve been out of luck. But that’s about to change, thanks to the Unicode Consortium (the group responsible for standardizing and developing emojis). It announced last February that users would be able to select from five skin tones for any emoji that looks human. Considering emojis have entered into people’s daily lexicon, and given that several emojis exist for something as simple as a car, it’s about time users have faces and hands that look more like actual technology users throughout the world—faces that are black and brown, as well as white.

The tech industry’s lack of social diversity isn’t breaking news. Major tech companies have announced their numbers and the largest tech giants are nearly 90 percent white and Asian, with a predominantly male leadership. But the lack of diversity shows up in more than company stats—it shows up in the products millions of people use and depend on in their daily lives.

Another example: Apple didn’t include a way to track menstrual cycles in its HealthKit app. Sure, HealthKit will help track your sodium and copper intake, but what if you’re in the half of the population that needs to pay attention to when they are menstruating, the single-most trackable measure that affects multiple aspects of women’s health? You’ll have to download a separate app (which, apparently, may also have been made by a man.)

The quest for emojis (and apps) that are as diverse as technology users.

But technology’s whiteness and maleness isn’t a problem only because the products like emojis or apps often don’t reflect the needs or interests of all their users. It’s also a problem because of what we’re missing. What kind of devices, products, or amazing wondertools of tomorrow don’t we have because only a sliver of society controls the tech world?

“We don’t even know what the world would look like if we gave girls the leverage and the power of technology,” said Reshma Saujani, Girls Who Code founder, in a MAKERS video. Girls Who Code is a program aiming to teach computer science education to 1 million girls by 2020. “Their ideas are so different than if I was teaching a group of 20 boys. And all their ideas are centered around changing the world.”

If we want to find out what the world would look like, we need to open up more opportunities for STEM learning and build skills in technology among the rest of the population early on. As several writers have noted, it’s not simply a “pipeline” issue—there are still problems in hiring practices and company cultures that impede a diverse workforce. For example, Hastings College of the Law Professor Joan Williams’ research has delved into some of the ongoing biases that push women out of the STEM workforce. But STEM in schools is certainly a place to start.

As Catherine Rampell explained in the Washington Post, “Few [schools] teach any tech skills beyond how to consume, rather than create, technology. Which is understandable, to an extent; if you’re a struggling public school, you’re not going to invest resources in computer science when your funding depends on not leaving children behind in math and reading.”

But changing public school curricula is a slow process, which is why out-of-school programs and informal learning spaces may be a critical way to help kids get these kinds of experiences.

Here in Pittsburgh, middle school girls at Assemble’s Girls’ Maker Nights use the easy coding programming language Scratch, work together on monthly maker projects, and meet local STEAM experts.

And last fall, teen mentors in a program called Tech Warriors from the Neighborhood Learning Alliance (NLA) taught elementary schoolers in underserved neighborhoods how to build robots, code, and create animations.

“We’re giving inner city youth exposure to the technology education field and leadership skills in the classroom by having them be role models to younger students,” Cole Hoyer Winfield, program coordinator for the NLA, told NEXT Pittsburgh. “It provides them with opportunities and exposures they wouldn’t otherwise have.”

Providing underrepresented groups the same kinds of opportunities to pursue STEM learning isn’t only fair and just, but the untapped potential and talent will inevitably improve the potential of technology for everyone.

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April Fools’ Day: Laughing at the Earliest in Edtech Wed, 01 Apr 2015 16:10:04 +0000 Looking for the latest in edtech? You’ve come to the right place. We’ve heard word of a new computer game whose goal is to build a “kicking machine.” And another where the player types a letter of her choice and watches a nearly static illustration appear just moments later.

Um . . . April Fools’! Next to the 3-D printers and lifelike simulations of today, these products may sound like jokes. But just a few decades ago, they were at the cutting edge of education technology. In honor of the most humorous of holidays, join Remake Learning on a trip down edtech memory lane.

STICKYBEAR ABC Stickybear ABC, a game released in 1984, conformed to a popular picture book structure: It aimed to teach the alphabet by pairing each letter with an illustration of an item that begins with it. A? Apple. B? Baseball. The machines of the 1980s offered a new level of interactivity that the analog format lacked. To play Stickybear ABC, a young person typed a letter of his or her choice, prompting one of the corresponding pictures to appear on the screen after several seconds of suspense. The illustrations were mildly animated and typically featured the titular character, a cartoon bear who’s still stars in contemporary software.

LOGO In the past few years, increasing numbers of schools and organizations are teaching coding to kids. But programming for the younger set is hardly a 21st-century invention. Back in 1967, Logo entered the scene. In the following several years, the educational programming language gained widespread use in schools. When students entered basic commands, a turtle-shaped icon responded. Players could direct the turtle to design various geometric shapes, hopefully picking up some math skills along the way.

Word Munchers, another early educational game. Photo/Ken Fagar

ROCKY’S BOOTS In Rocky’s Boots, a critically acclaimed game from 1982, the player’s avatar was an orange square. The player/orange square had to design a series of logic circuits. The end product? A “kicking machine,” or a mechanical boot that gave the boot to various objects on a conveyor belt. The logic circuits ensured the boot kicked only the desirable objects. When the player succeeded, an animated raccoon materialized and did a dance.

TYPO ATTACK When teenagers today are tasked with designing video games, they come up with complex narratives and stunning graphics. In 1982, kids had decidedly less to work with, but one 17-year-old managed to create a program on his ATARI Home Computer that earned him a $25,000 prize and was eventually used in schools. In David Buehler’s Typo Attack, users eradicated enemy letters by typing the correct key as they fell down the screen.

LAPTOPS IN SCHOOLS? It’s common these days for schools to instate one-to-one laptop programs, providing take-home devices to all students. In 1990, a class of lucky 10-year-old girls in Melbourne, Australia, pioneered such a program. When the fifth-graders at Methodist Ladies’ College received their laptops, they weren’t allowed to take them home for two weeks. First they had to learn maintenance and basic skills, like entering the date and time. An author who documented the experiment noted that one girl gleefully tricked her machine into thinking the date was different. Once the students were comfortable with the computers, the teachers got to work convincing their parents of the educational value of “using high-tech stuff.” 

In 1982, “The Kids’ Whole Future Catalog” was published. The delightful document was packed with predictions for the 21st century, including prophesies for education. The authors saw teachers inevitably replaced by robots. Of course, we’re far from such a scenario, but the rapid integration of digital tools in learning environments these days certainly raises fascinating questions about the roles of educators and parents in a quickly evolving ecosystem. We know the value of games-based learning (at least when the games look a bit more sophisticated than the programs described here) and equipping kids with STEAM skills and technical expertise. But technologists like Illah Nourbakhsh talk about ensuring digital learning sparks, rather than stifles, interpersonal connection and opportunities for educators.

Our last treasure from the recent past is a 1990 Apple promo video that envisions the classroom of the future. In it, teachers videochat and send each other “cyberlinks” to their lessons. It’s a surprisingly realistic portrait of the kind of fantastic fusion of education and technology we see today.

And one wonders what contemporary gadgets and games will end up on the April Fools’ Day blog post—or brain chip imprint—of 2050.

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Young Learners Need a Neutral Net Mon, 30 Mar 2015 17:51:24 +0000 Many internet users (i.e., people) cheered when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted net neutrality rules in February. But the so-called open internet has its critics, too. As net neutrality faces threats from some internet providers and lawmakers, proponents of equitable education are weighing in on the importance of these protections for young learners.

The new FCC policy prohibits internet service providers (ISPs) from giving preferential treatment to content creators or companies that are willing to pay more for their data to be distributed faster. Likewise, ISPs can’t slow traffic for those who don’t pay. The FCC says ISPs must serve as neutral channels for all information, without regard to who is supplying or receiving it, the nature of the content, or how much data a website uses.

In the education world, we’re well aware of the barriers some communities and kids face in accessing digital content. But regardless of the kinds of devices they have (or don’t have), most teens are connected to the internet in one way or another. When Pew researchers surveyed teens in 2012, they found 95 percent were online. In Slate’s blog Future Tense, Vikki Katz and Michael Levine discussed their study, which revealed the lengths to which low-income parents go to get their kids connected to the web.

But what happens when the internet itself is stratified?

When net neutrality suffered a major blow in a January 2014 court decision, many speculated that companies, when charged to distribute their content, would push the new costs onto consumers. Net neutrality advocates usually use Netflix to illustrate this point. The popular website, which uses massive amounts of bandwidth, would likely be charged for this privilege by ISPs and would likely let consumers pick up most of that tab. But educational sites would be just as vulnerable as major online repositories of TV shows—and they may be less equipped to handle new costs.

Formal and informal learning spaces depend on unfettered access to digital content. In many cases, schools, afterschool programs, or libraries are the only places kids can access the ever-expanding trove of online information. A school librarian made the case for net neutrality in Wired last year. “School, public, and college libraries rely upon the public availability of open, affordable internet access for school homework assignments, distance learning classes, e-government services, licensed databases, job-training videos, medical and scientific research, and many other essential services,” Barbara Stripling wrote.

Threats to digital learning don’t concern only schools. At Remake Learning, we’re fans of connected learning, which encourages young people to bring their personal interests into the classroom and forge connections between their interests at school, home, and online. In addition, many schools are trying flipped classrooms, where students watch lectures at home and do “homework” in class.

Educators shouldn’t have to field obstacles to reach an eager audience of learners

Stripling underscored what the lack of net neutrality would mean for young learners’ creativity and preparation for a modern-day workforce. “The fact is that many of the innovative services we use today were created by entrepreneurs who had a fair chance to compete for web traffic,” she explained. “By enabling Internet Service Providers to limit that access, we are essentially saying that only the privileged can continue to innovate.”

Education is a content-creating field. Net neutrality ensures educational content providers enjoy the same freedoms as their counterparts in other industries do—and that independent educational companies are allowed the same exposure as those with more financial backing.

“It’s not hard to imagine . . . a network where the video for courses from the University of Phoenix or Coursera run quickly, but those from edX and your local community college run at slower speed and lower resolution,” California State University’s Michael Berman told Campus Technology. Katz and Levine pointed to Spanish language education and news websites that would likely be relegated to the “slow lane” of internet traffic without FCC protection.

These educators know net neutrality is an equity issue. Young people deserve equal access to all information, and educators shouldn’t have to field obstacles to reach an eager audience of learners.

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Parenting for Technology Futures Wed, 25 Mar 2015 20:54:59 +0000 Illah Nourbakhsh was in high school when the first Texas Instruments scientific calculator came on the scene. The device, whose predecessor is now commonplace in math classes, was a huge boon to education—and it sparked a new debate on appropriate technology use in the classroom.

A few decades later, the implications of integrating digital technology into education are much broader. Whereas the calculator was simply an efficiency tool, digital technology today has the potential to positively transform social interactions and interdisciplinary learning. Meanwhile, concerns regarding digital privacy and appropriate digital technology use have grown.

Photo/Ben Filio

In his book “Robot Futures,” Nourbakhsh acknowledged the inevitable rise of robotics, and he wrote that society has to act fast to harness the technology’s immense power and use it for social good. The professor of robotics and director of CREATE Lab at Carnegie Mellon University has just published a second book, “Parenting for Technology Futures.” In it, as he did in “Robot Futures,” Nourbakhsh recognizes the advent of digital education as certain and full of opportunities for new kinds of learning. But he advises parents to ask, “How do I give my child the best possible preparation for a post-human future powered by technology?”

Kids, the author warns, are at risk of becoming passive “techno-consumers.” Adults in their lives should “prepare our children so well that they influence the robot future.”

Technology’s rapid rise has created a rift between youth and their adult mentors, Nourbakhsh claims. “The gap has to close,” he told Remake Learning. “The only way our children will be competitive in a hyper-technical future is if parents and teachers work together with children, as a unified team, to create the best possible circumstances for learning and personal empowerment starting right at birth.”

Although “Parenting for Technology Futures” is aimed at parents, the book is a good primer for anyone interested in the best use of technology in both formal and informal education, or in the role adult mentors can play in young learners’ lives. Nourbakhsh reminds readers that children spend only 20 percent of their waking hours at school, so it’s crucial to explore opportunities for learning during nonschool hours.

“You cannot depend on school as a first introduction to the joy of learning and discovery,” he writes.

Throughout the book, Nourbakhsh cautions against blindly embracing what he calls “silo STEM.” Many schools are heavily propping up the STEM disciplines and consequently sacrificing fields that involve more communication and creativity, he explains. As a technologist himself, he does not discredit the value of STEM or ignore our dire shortage of students prepared for careers in the field. Instead, he criticizes the view that each STEM discipline is an autonomous entity most valuable when pursued to the exclusion of other fields.

“The inspiration to bring knowledge from multiple disciplines together to solve any problem confidently will always have value,” Nourbakhsh writes. “STEM has already morphed in many circles into STEAM—this is a healthy move because it incorporates Arts back into the family of core learning sensibilities, where it belongs.”

Nourbakhsh’s accessible book is packed with these kinds of thoughtful musings on the future of technology and learning, as well as with online resources and practical suggestions for those in the thick of it. He praises the “gamification” of education and business, citing the immediate feedback, healthy competition, and social interaction facilitated by games-based learning. He tells parents to let their kids take them on a “digital tour” of the devices and games they use. Kids will feel proud of their technological prowess, and adults will be brought out of the dark.

Having worked with a range of students himself, Nourbakhsh sympathizes with the adults who are simply overwhelmed by the range of digital tools on the market. When picking an educational product, “ignore the business hype and focus on the track record,” he advises. And be conscious of scale; what might be right for an individual at home might not work in the classroom.

Nourbakhsh’s CREATE Lab is a testament to the benefits of hands-on, collaborative digital learning. At CREATE Lab, kids and scientists alike are encouraged to use technology to further pursue their passions and to discover new areas of interest. The aim is to foster community-minded technologists. Whenever possible, the organization makes its creations available to local people and partners. Past projects include the BowGo, an expertly engineered pogo stick that jumps up to 4 feet in the air; Can Pals, a modernized tin-can telephone with which kids can record stories that others can listen and respond to; and Energize Haiti, which brought energy-monitoring software to a hospital and energy-generating equipment to a playground.

Nourbakhsh knows that technology is a powerful and often daunting force. In his books, he lays out clear steps kids and adults can take together to become agents, not victims, of change. When employed wisely, digital tools can be extraordinary catalysts for collaboration and creative growth.

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Bearing Witness: Catching Up With Hear Me’s Jessica Pachuta Mon, 23 Mar 2015 19:32:20 +0000 Jessica Pachuta is project codirector at Hear Me, a youth empowerment and media initiative at Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab. As Director of Hear Me 101, Jessica trains teens in Pittsburgh high schools to create documentaries and bring their messages to decision makers. She spoke with us about what she’s learning from spending so much time hanging out with politically engaged young people through Hear Me.

Remake Learning: What’s new with Hear Me?

Jessica Pachuta: Hear Me just wrapped up its fall/winter audio campaign on school funding. We partnered with the Campaign for Fair Education Funding coalition because they wanted to hear from students in schools across Pennsylvania about the way school funding impacts their educational experiences. The stories are all online. For our current campaign, we are partnering with Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy to ask students to explore the role that hands-on learning outdoors could or should play in their education. Interviews from this campaign will be shared with educators around the region, including the Pittsburgh Public Schools and local charter schools to inform decisions on environmental education initiatives. We also just started working on the Hear Me 101 video documentary project this year with our partners and students at schools in the Mon Valley.

What do you consider Hear Me’s biggest accomplishment so far?

Long term, that’s easy: the Hear Me 101 interns! Each year, we select a student from each of the Hear Me 101 partner schools to work with us for six weeks over the summer. They create action plans for their documentaries and receive training in youth voice strategies, messaging, and connecting their media to audiences. It’s the best part of our summer—hanging out with engaged young people who believe in their voices, then seeing them go back in the fall and take those attitudes and sense of empowerment back to their schools.

How many teens have finished the program so far? What else are they up to?

So far, there have been eight young people who’ve finished the program and they’re going to do big things in Pittsburgh. Just wait. 

The toughest part—and sometimes the most valuable part—is bearing witness to the reality of how many young people just aren’t served by the institutions put in place for them.

Recently, we got together with some really smart people in Pittsburgh to plan a Media Empowerment Student Summit (#MESSpgh). So, in November, some adult allies in Pittsburgh planned a day for high school students to come together to learn and share skills in media making and activism. There were workshops on stop-motion animation, audio production, a history of student activism, and -isms and their effects on us, and there was a panel of youth activists and live performances to end the event. It was a really high-energy day. The most rewarding part for me was seeing students from different parts of Greater Pittsburgh, who probably wouldn’t have the chance to meet otherwise, discussing youth organizing work they’re doing and getting excited about meeting peers who are also passionate about youth-led media initiatives in Pittsburgh.

What’s the toughest part about the work you do?

The toughest part—and sometimes the most valuable part—is bearing witness to the reality of how many young people just aren’t served by the institutions put in place for them. Also, when they can’t make sense out of—or feel powerless in—these institutions. It’s very enlightening and humbling to realize that sometimes us adults can’t make sense of these institutions either. Those are the stories that I think are really important to deliver to decision makers—the ones that say, “Please listen to us! Help us!”

How have you connected with other members of the Kids+Creativity Network, and how have the relationships influenced your work?

Our relationship with the K&C network is interesting because everyone is a potential collaborator. The network includes people who are really inspiring, push each other, and share practices, and now it includes youth in the network.

What’s your favorite thing to do on a Sunday in Pittsburgh? 

If it’s not football season, I’m either volunteering with Women in Film and Media Pittsburgh, doing homework for my MBA program, or on a nice loooooong bike ride on the Great Allegheny Passage.

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What Would Fred Rogers Think of Today’s “Screens”? Fri, 20 Mar 2015 18:54:20 +0000 Today, Fred Rogers would have celebrated his 87th birthday. The world is very different from what it was in 1968, when “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” first aired and thousands of children tuned in to sing along or watch the trolley chug along to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.

In many ways, though, we’re still looking to him for guidance in this frenetic, screen-saturated world. His advice still presents a calm, balanced, and thoughtful voice.

Being a father of two young girls, I have a love-hate relationship with our devices just as many parents do. Steve Jobs famously banned his own iPad from his kids. But in dismissing these apps and devices, are we overlooking a new window for learning and growing?

Fred Rogers was not a fan of television for children. But he also realized that it wasn’t going away, so he asked: What good can we do with it?

And when Fred spoke of technology he said, “No matter how helpful computers are as tools in the classroom (and of course, they can be very helpful tools), they don’t begin to compare in significance to the relationship between the teacher and the child that is human and mutual.”  

We at the Fred Rogers Center take Fred’s approach seriously. We believe the conversation should not just be about screens and screen time, but how we can use them to help our children grow and develop. Media and technology use is a fact of life for families and children, so how do we make the most of our opportunity and use these tools appropriately?

Here are some answers we are developing with the help of parents, educators, and researchers:

  • Media can help young children learn, but only when these tools are used intentionally, with parents and educators sharing the experience and in ways appropriate for each child’s stage of development. For how we interpret Fred’s message as it applies to present-day technologies, please read our position statement with the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
  • Time with adults still matters most. Learning is most likely to occur when children are having warm, meaningful interactions with their adult caregivers. That goes for media, too. It doesn’t mean you can’t sit your child in front of an iPad or “Caillou” while you make dinner, but it does mean being careful not to allow technology consumption to replace human interaction. As my colleague Michael Robb said, our iPhones, computers, tablets, and digital cameras are here to stay. But, relationships still matter most.
  • Don’t insert technology when a real-world experience will do. Preschoolers need tactile experiences: digging in the dirt, experiencing the natural world, and reading physical books. If you can do an activity just as well without technology, you should consider whether you need it at all. Technology should be used to enhance what’s already going on in children’s lives and in their classrooms, not supplant it. Or as Fred said, “a computer can help you learn to spell h-u-g, but it can never help you know the risk or the joy of actually giving or receiving one.”

So how can we achieve this delicate balance where screens can be windows to wonderful experiences, especially when coupled with warm, supportive interactions with adults? We feel we can start right here in Fred’s neighborhood of Pittsburgh, where we are fortunate to be part of a team of researchers, game designers, early education professionals, and many others working together to support early learning with new media for young children. This tight network of colleagues in the region allows us to brainstorm, share innovations, and learn.

One of those innovations, for example, started from a simple question: How can technology improve children’s learning and growing in classrooms? Melissa Butler, a kindergarten teacher at Pittsburgh Allegheny, and Jeremy Boyle, a resident artist with Carnegie Mellon’s CREATE Lab, took the question to heart and developed simple circuit blocks to teach 5-year-olds about noticing details, being precise, and being persistent in a very hands-on way.

The experiment has since grown and branched out to become the Teachers’ Innovation Project—a partnership among the Fred Rogers Center, Carnegie Mellon University, Carlow University, Clarion University, Pittsburgh Public Schools, and The Sprout Fund –in which researchers from our Center and partnering universities are documenting the exemplary teaching practices in the project to further professional development with digital media.

This is but one example. Many more are happening in Pittsburgh, and that is one reason why we are very excited to be a part of the Remake Learning Council. The commission, composed of leaders from the education, government, business, and civic sectors, is committed to helping all kids in our region acquire the knowledge and skills they’ll need to navigate lifelong learning in the digital future. The networks in Pittsburgh allow all of us to dream bigger and find passionate and committed people to support new ideas—ultimately putting the children first and advancing positive change.

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Picturing a New STEM Workforce Wed, 18 Mar 2015 03:40:29 +0000 Close your eyes. Now picture a scientist. Do you see a white man, maybe cloaked in a laboratory coat, with his hair in wild disarray? If so, you’re hardly alone.

In 1957, Margaret Mead and Rhoda Bubendey Métraux had 35,000 high school students write essays describing their perceptions of a scientist. Nearly everyone’s descriptions matched the one above. Then in 1983, David Wade Chambers developed the Draw-a-Scientist Test (DAST), which asked participants to do just that. In the initial study, 5,000 students were tested, and only 28 girls drew a female scientist. In the last three decades, the test has been administered many times to participants of different ages, races, genders, and nationalities. The results are almost always the same.

In reality, science and other STEM fields are not quite as homogenous as they are on DAST paper. The presence of women and people of color is thankfully a bit higher than it typically is in these studies. But not by much. Last year, Google released its demographic data, confirming suspicions about the makeup of its workforce. As of June 2014, Google employees were 70 percent male and 91 percent white or Asian. A US Census Bureau study from 2011 found that although women composed almost one-half of the nation’s workforce, they composed only one-quarter of STEM professionals.

How do prevalent images of scientists—in our minds, on paper, in the media—relate to the reality of STEM fields?

“Inoculating the perception of a scientist is tantamount to fixing the leaky STEM pipeline,” wrote Ainissa Ramirez in Edutopia last month. Her claim is a bold one, and it’s not quite substantiated. Nobody can say for sure whether our stereotypes of scientists are caused by—or help perpetuate—the demographic makeup of STEM. A child asked to draw a particular type of professional will produce an image of the type of person she, consciously or subconsciously, believes belongs in the field.

Some studies suggest exposure to diversity in a field positively affects perception and stereotypes. A DAST study in 2014 involved undergraduate students taking a class on science education methods and graduate students studying science education. The scientists in the graduate students’ drawings were less likely to be white (66 percent versus 95 percent) or male (70 percent versus 90 percent) than those in the undergraduates’ drawings. The graduate students were immersed in the field, and their awareness of female colleagues may have influenced their perceptions.

In 2013, two researchers compared the gender makeup of those enrolled in high school physics (a nonmandatory, higher-level science class) with that of STEM workers from the same communities. They found that “the male advantage in high school physics is significantly smaller or nonexistent in schools situated in communities where more women are employed in STEM professions.” Again, they acknowledged there’s no evidence for causation here, but they wrote, “In communities where a higher percentage of working women are employed in STEM occupations, larger gender stereotypes at the societal level may be subverted by a picture of what is possible that differs from that typically associated with more traditional gender roles.

More role models and other women working in STEM fields might be a powerful “fix” to the imbalance. Research has shown that when people fear they’re living up to stereotypes of them—such as “women aren’t good in math”—it affects their performance. First identified by C. M. Steele and J. Aronson in 1995 in a now famous study, “stereotype threat” causes members of a group to worry that their poor performance will confirm the perceived negative stereotype about their group. This threat can cause stress that undermines performance. Further, consistent exposure to stereotype threat, like that of women in math and science, can lead them to no longer value the subject or choose not to pursue it further. The resulting poorer performance induced by stereotype threat can create a feedback loop that convinces girls that, indeed, they are not smart enough for STEM courses.

In Pittsburgh, many organizations have long worked to combat disparities in STEM by introducing students to role models and pathways into STEM fields. The Carnegie Science Center runs Tour Your Future, a program that introduces girls to female professionals in a range of STEM careers. STARTup SOMETHING, a program through Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Pittsburgh, pairs at-risk youth with mentors at tech companies. In addition, high school students throughout the region join Girls of Steel, a competitive female robotics team that has competed in international tournaments. Hosted and supported by Carnegie Mellon University, the team welcomes applicants of all financial levels from the Greater Pittsburgh area.

Scientists—and engineers, mathematicians, and technologists—look alike, on paper and on TV, as well as in most offices and laboratories. Groups like those in Pittsburgh are working hard to show our future professionals that this doesn’t need to be the case.

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