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. Mon, 16 May 2016 03:59:35 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Six Things Any Budding Network—In or Out of Education—Should Know Tue, 28 Jul 2015 21:49:41 +0000 If you’re in the education world, it’s likely you’ve heard about Pittsburgh. At Maker Faires and in early-childhood classrooms, the city has been on the leading edge of experiments in education both in school and out. Behind those innovations is yet another innovation: its learning network.

Networks are in vogue these days as top-down hierarchies lose their luster and centralized planning shows it is not nimble enough to address fast-changing facts on the ground. Learning networks are rooted in the economic development strategy known as “cluster development,” which taps into the power of regional concentrations of firms, workers, and industrial know-how to form a hub of talent and expertise. Doing so enhances the competitiveness of individual firms and regional economies. Just look at Cleveland with medical device manufacturing or St. Louis with biomed.

Now cluster approaches are being applied in other realms, like energy networks or education, including Pittsburgh’s Remake Learning Network.

Today, the Remake Learning Network includes more than 200 organizations and 2,000 educators and professionals who are building a learning ecosystem—a bit like a coral reef of learning and education. Its success has won recognition from the White House and many other places.

How did a city come together to build an education ecosystem?

Below are a few lessons learned during the process, as well as our playbook, which offers more details on the strategies we’ve used to build our network.

  1. It takes a design.

Though the Remake Learning Network grew organically, it wasn’t all serendipitous. In 2011, The Sprout Fund stepped in to formalize the network and make it more sustainable through a web of funders, including the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

What happens if an effort doesn’t have an intentional design? A few years ago, Joseph South, deputy director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Education Technology, and several others realized that Utah had serious potential to become an education innovation hub. But after a successful conference in Salt Lake City with educators, entrepreneurs, and government officials, efforts stalled.

“We didn’t have the answer to this question: How do you motivate people with mutual interest in education innovation but divergent missions and incentives to work together when the exact benefits of doing so are unknown?” South wrote in a blog post. “We didn’t even know what to call what we were doing. And it wasn’t like there was an instruction manual to tell us what to do next.”

South realizes now that he was trying to begin an education innovation cluster, but each piece felt too disparate to make an impact.

“It’s not only the professionals, it’s the university students, community college students—it’s everybody who can be mobilized,” Michele Cahill, vice president of the National Program at the Carnegie Corporation of New York, told me last year about networks for education. “But it does take a design. I don’t mean it’s only one type of five-year plan, but it takes intentionality.”

In a decentralized network, someone or some organization must still call the plays.
  1. A “quarterback” is essential.

The Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco’s David Erikson, when talking about complex community change, said a quarterback is needed to shepherd diverse groups, articulate the project’s vision, marshal the resources, and manage multiple partners to execute that vision. In a project to rebuild disadvantaged communities in 11 cities, Purpose Built Communities plays that role, for example, or in a project spanning five Midwestern states, IFF is the quarterback. In a decentralized network, someone or some organization must still call the plays.

  1. Cultivate leadership at many levels.

As the Monitor Institute reports, in the RE-AMP energy network, funders, consultants, facilitators, staff, and members have at various times taken on leadership roles. This shared leadership created resilience and greater effectiveness, as the network could push forward on multiple fronts.

  1. Don’t Reinvent the Wheel.

When Pittsburgh was thinking about a network, it first turned to examples of networks around the country that have employed similar strategies.

“When we were first starting out, we learned about a bioscience science cluster in St. Louis,” said Ryan Coon, program officer for the Sprout Fund. “We have no interest in biosciences, but we read all about it.”

  1. Leverage your community.

While learning from other successes can inform a network’s efforts, a cookie-cutter approach won’t work. As we describe in our recently released Remake Learning Playbook, which chronicles many more strategies and lessons learned in building networks, a network has to play to each community’s authentic strengths.

Cleveland, for example, had a history of high-tech manufacturing from its years as an automaker supplier. It also had a deep pool of health care expertise with the Cleveland Clinic and other hospitals. So it tapped its talent pool to become a different kind of manufacturer—of high-tech medical equipment.

Pittsburgh leveraged its strengths in robotics, gaming, and maker learning. And as the Playbook points out, it’s easy to see how Los Angeles could hone in on entertainment or media making, and Houston on space and engineering.

  1. Find common language to ensure communication.

It may seem trivial, but if you want to share ideas, you have to speak each other’s language. One network that is bridging public health and community development has found CDC means two different things—Centers for Disease Control to public health officials and Community Development Corporation to community developers. Equity means one thing to financial investors but quite another to racial justice advocates. Confusion can ensue.

Though our playbook tells the story of a network focused on education, its lessons are far-reaching to other sectors hoping to leverage many assets toward a single goal.

Barbara Ray contributed to this story.

]]> 0
The STEM Gap Starts Early Wed, 22 Jul 2015 17:27:26 +0000 Our STEM workforce is no bastion of balance when it comes to race or gender. We’re reminded of this each time a major tech company is pressured to release its employee demographic data. But the inequity doesn’t start with the hiring committee. Instead, as a new study reaffirms, workforce issues reflect childhood disparities.

The National Center for Education Statistics has followed a group of 20,000 students since they entered their freshman year of high school in 2009. The latest update to the study, released in June, looks at the graduating students’ transcripts. The data reveal the differences in academic credits earned in STEM subjects—and interest in pursuing further studies in the fields—among genders and races.

Despite their wide gap in the workforce, male and female students earn about the same number of STEM credits in high school, with girls tending toward math and science and boys toward computer science and engineering. However, when asked about their goals beyond high school, more than twice as many male students wanted to major in a STEM subject.

The study also looks at the average academic credits earned by each racial group by the time the students graduate from high school. Asian students earn an average of 20.3 credits, white students earn 18.7, Latino students earn 17.6, and black students earn 17.4. The number of STEM credits earned follows a similar pattern: Asian students earn 8.5, white students earn 7.8, black students earn 7.4, and Latino students earn 7.3.

While the transcript study illuminates clear differences—and in some cases similarities—in STEM education, it leaves many questions unanswered. The researchers followed students at 944 high schools, and the results are representative of schools nationally. But they do not dive into the course offerings at each school. Given that male and female students take equal numbers of STEM courses despite later career disparities, it is easy to wonder whether the wider racial gaps at the high school level are partially a result of unequal opportunities at schools with different demographics. U.S. Department of Education data show there is indeed racial disparity in access to math and science course offerings. Other factors, like the availability of mentors, confidence, and encouragement or lack thereof, likely play a role in widening the gap. 

Programs in Pittsburgh and elsewhere are trying to make STEM education accessible and appealing to those students least likely to get exposure otherwise.

“This is squandered talent,” said Change the Equation COO Claus von Zastrow in U.S. News, commenting on the students who miss out on advanced STEM courses.

Studies like the one by NCES do not uncover the root causes of the disparities they highlight. But they do speak to the need for change. Programs in Pittsburgh and elsewhere are trying to make STEM education accessible and appealing to those students least likely to get exposure otherwise.

Take Sisters e S.T.E.A.M. The afterschool program in Woodland Hills provides an applied, age-appropriate science curriculum (think Hair & Cosmetic Chemistry or Thoughts & Bots) to mostly low-income black female students. The material is designed to align with rigorous standards and to inspire confidence and peer-to-peer mentorship. The Neighborhood Learning Alliance also has a program, Tech Warrior, designed to equip black and low-income youth with tech and maker skills and tools. Both programs are responding to the dearth of enrichment opportunities for low-income students.

We know by now that STEM education does not begin and end with the school bell. Both classroom and informal opportunities for exploration in science and technology are important for kids’ development. In Pittsburgh, educators in and out of school are working to close the gap. During the school year, Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy, a Pittsburgh Public School 6-12 campus focused on STEM, gives preferred admission to students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Likewise, the STEAM camps at Assemble waive the summer camp fees for kids who live in the Garfield neighborhood, where the organization is located.

And each summer, a cohort of high school students from disadvantaged backgrounds get hands-on experience (and a stipend) working in a science research lab at Duquesne University. For many, it paints a fresh picture of what life after school could look like.

“We have them interview one of their professors to see what their career path was like,” chemistry professor Jennifer Aitken, who heads the program, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “They may find out that not everyone had parents who went to college or knew what they wanted to do.”

Most teens, in fact, don’t know for certain what they want to do after high school graduation. That is why it’s important that all students have the opportunity to explore STEM subjects—and why, when early gaps exist, there are efforts to ensure they are not foreshadowing the future of the field.

]]> 0
In the Digital Age, Young Teachers Need Tech Support Too Thu, 16 Jul 2015 20:27:46 +0000 Nichole Dobo of the Hechinger Report was covering the 2015 conference of the International Society for Technology in Education in early July when she met Lauren Midgette, a 25-year-old teacher from Hartford, Connecticut.

“I’m the youngest one in our group,” Midgette told her, “and I am the least tech savvy.”

As Dobo described it, Midgette’s situation might not be especially unusual. A survey from the Software and Information Industry Association found that older teachers were more likely to say they felt ready to use data from digital learning tools while younger teachers rated themselves as less ready. But across the board, teachers reported feeling “inadequately prepared” to use technology to enhance teaching and learning.

The survey measured how teachers described themselves, not how often or how well they integrated technology or data. It did not tease out causes for the age gaps, and similar research finds mixed results.

But the survey reinforces a key point about meaningful technology integration in classrooms: it’s not just knowing how devices and apps work. If it was, younger teachers might have a leg up on those less familiar with smartphones and tablets. Rather, powerful technology integration comes from a pedagogical foundation that supports hands-on, interest-driven learning—something that takes backing, education, and resources for teachers from all age groups and experience levels.

Powerful technology integration comes from a pedagogical foundation that supports hands-on, interest-driven learning.

A recent EdWeek story found that this kind of integration remains rare in American classrooms. Another story reported that although 43 states have adopted the Common Core State Standards going back five years, a lack of core-aligned material poses an added challenge for teachers trying to adapt to the standards while also incorporating digital tools.

The lack of material has fueled the “open education resources” movement, in which teachers around the world share lessons and curricula online, often for free.

Here in Pittsburgh, teachers helped BirdBrain Technologies build a library of lesson plans involving Hummingbird robotics kits that address specific Common Core standards. From dancing dog robots to robotic theater, the lessons give step-by-step instructions for guiding students through their creations.

Although both EdWeek stories highlight the obstacles teachers face, educators in Pittsburgh and elsewhere are tackling the challenges one by one to integrate technology in more powerful ways.

In a recent interview, Derek Long, an English teacher at Pittsburgh Perry High School, described how his school uses technology to help students reach core standards that require collaboration.

“I think [we are] being more focused and intentional about why we are using the technology,” he said. “We are focused on not just using [iPads] to watch videos and read text on the screen but actually using the apps and websites to create, which aligns to Common Core and allows the kids to collaborate.”

This deliberate approach to technology, which does not simply take analog activities and transfer them to screens, is a goal of the Allegheny Intermediate Unit’s TransformED space. With professional development workshops and unstructured “play time,” the space lets teachers explore how technology can spur deeper learning. Through the summer and fall, TransformEd is hosting “Tech Up Your Teaching K-12” events, where teachers can practice redefining traditional lesson plans to bring in digital tools “with pedagogical insight.”

The phrase “digital native” cropped up a few years ago to describe kids who never knew a nondigital world. But the term is used less often now as educators realize that knowing how to work the technology does not mean students have an innate ability to turn it into something more powerful.

The same applies to younger teachers, who also need help to transform technology into powerful learning tools.

]]> 0
Badging Goes to College Wed, 15 Jul 2015 17:10:50 +0000 Digital badges have been gaining traction as a tool for recognizing the learning that happens outside structured, formal environments. Institutions and organizations can issue them for myriad accomplishments—learning to build a robot, say, or interning for the city government. The idea is that educators and employers will be able to track the skills and experiences that most young people are already amassing outside school.

Many institutions that cater to kids and teens have embraced badging—the Pittsburgh Public Schools are starting to look at the role of badges through Cities of Learning, for example. But one realm of learning is less charted: higher education.

Advocates would like to see badges weighed alongside grades in the college admission process and granted to college students to signify the informal learning that continues through college (and beyond). As young adults enter the workforce, badges could offer evidence of a wide range of skills and learning experiences that are not reflected on a resume. Some educators think colleges should adopt badges to help the practice take hold nationally.

The Badge Alliance, an offshoot of Mozilla and the MacArthur Foundation’s Open Badge initiative, has a Higher Education Working Group tracking and encouraging the use of badges after high school.

“Higher education admission is one of the biggest hurdles for widespread adoption of open badges,” the group has said. “This group is finding ways to get badges included in the admissions evaluation process for higher education as well as [for] credentialing course content and informal learning experiences.”

The working group has compiled a list of higher education institutions using badges in some form. Each case is quite different.

Colorado State University, for example, use badges in online coursework. DePaul University in Chicago has said it will soon look at applicants’ badges during the admissions process.

“Badges give you a better idea of who the applicant is,” said Nichole Pinkard, a DePaul Computing and Digital Media professor, in 2013. “They give you a stronger sense of quality and a stronger sense of context of what that person has done in the real world.” But Pinkard noted that the applicant’s academic record will still take precedence.

At the University of California Davis, a new undergraduate Sustainable Agriculture & Food Systems major involves badges. Some align with predefined “core competencies,” or requirements of the major, but students and faculty are invited to design personalized badges, said the program’s learning coordinator, Joanna Normoyle, in a Q&A.

“It’s up to students to choose which experiences are relevant and to make sure they get recognition for what matters to them,” Normoyle said, adding that the process encourages communication between faculty and students.

The University of Michigan also issues badges, intended in part to help undergraduates with the post-college job search.

For badges to catch on in higher ed, many parties will have to sign on. There are the administration and faculty, the students themselves and, eventually, employers or graduate institutions.

The Education Design Lab (EDL), a Badge Alliance partner, is in the middle of a nine-month study to determine how ready the world is for badges on campuses. EDL released initial findings, which involve seven universities in the Washington, D.C. area.

The researchers’ conclusion? “Students sort of get it.” The young adults in the study express interest in badging for personal development but are not yet convinced of their relevance for employment.

Their skepticism may stem from the fact that employers and universities have not yet embraced badging. What would it take to get businesses to consider badges during hiring? The EDL researchers believe the trend will catch on once a couple of big names get in the game.

“Employers say, ‘If you can get our competitors to do it, we’ll do it, too,’ ” EDL writes. “Get two or three giants among the stakeholders to try it first, like Starbucks and Arizona State University.”

It will take a lot of clarity before badges can stand out in the murky waters of workforce credentials. Some critics wonder whether it is even a good idea to add badges to the mix. Researchers at the Center on Wisconsin Strategy, for example, have questioned the unstandardized systems of credentialing jobs in the green economy. “After two years of discussion and research, we’ve concluded that not only is developing a comprehensive, comprehensible map of ‘green’ credentials impossible, it isn’t worth doing if it doesn’t get us closer to a coherent national system,” they wrote in a 2010 report.

But if chaos is avoided, “employers value nationally recognized credentials as they seek to hire new employees at any level,” according to the New York State Department of Labor. Badges could offer employers a reprieve from the confusing mix of credentialing, as companies or industries could develop their own tailored to their unique needs.

The Badge Alliance working group, which has a community discussion group, researches challenges and boons to the international standardization and widespread acceptance of higher education badges. The members are developing a campus policy framework. It is unlikely that badges will be mentioned in the same breath as SAT scores any time soon, or that students will be earning them for all their informal endeavors. But the Badge Alliance’s running list reflects curiosity across a solid spectrum of higher education institutions.

]]> 0
Gamerpreneur: Catching Up With Zulama’s Nikki Navta Wed, 08 Jul 2015 18:09:05 +0000 Nikki Navta is the founder and CEO of Zulama, a Pittsburgh-based edtech company that offers blended-learning coursework in game design to high schools. Zulama’s courses are used in more than 50 schools in the United States and internationally, including several high schools in Pittsburgh.

Remake Learning: What’s new at Zulama?NikkiNavta_Pic

Nikki Navta: We just expanded our product line by releasing a set of Zulama short courses. Some of the titles are “Games From American History,” “Storytelling in Games,” and “Math Game Design.” They reflect the same educational experiences as our regular, semester-long courses, but they are designed to be completed in much less time.

The short courses are perfect for summer camps and after-school programs, and potentially will give us a chance to work with informal learning spaces, like Assemble here in Pittsburgh.

What are you most proud of?

As we expand into more schools, the diversity of students taking our courses is increasing. We’ve started receiving letters from students whose Zulama studies inspired them to pursue higher education opportunities that they never would have considered before. We’ve seen autistic students in Zulama courses getting so motivated to work on their games that they overcome socialization challenges and are thriving as leaders of their design teams.

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

As an entrepreneur, no matter how productive I am on any given day there’s always more to accomplish. It’s hard to turn work off, but I’m learning how to take breaks. Seems simple, but it’s actually not that easy to get up and walk away from my desk and phone. The last few months my staff and I have started letting off steam and getting our creativity flowing during Taco Tuesday and game-playing lunches. There’s still a tiny element of work involved during those lunches, because we post reviews of the games we play on our blog—but that’s what we call “fun work!”

How have you connected with other members of the Remake Learning Network?

Almost every day we interact with someone in the network. Whether it’s interviewing a teacher or educator for our podcast, asking for advice on an education issue, or commiserating with one of my fellow edtech entrepreneurs about our successes (and failures), my staff and I tap into the Remake Learning community all the time.

Humans are simple—a good collaboration needs to be a win-win situation with equal effort and equal benefit from and to both sides.

In your mind, what makes a collaboration successful?

Humans are simple—a good collaboration needs to be a win-win situation with equal effort and equal benefit from and to both sides. One of the latest examples is my collaboration with Tom Lauwers from BirdBrain Technologies. He introduced Zulama to some of his favorite customers, and I did the same for him with our most innovative schools. Now those districts are using BirdBrain’s Hummingbird to introduce programming and robotics as well as Zulama for game design and advanced programming.

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

In the springtime I enjoy tending my community garden plot. Summer is best for lounging outside, either with neighbors on our stoops, or at one of the dog-friendly outdoor cafes like the Beer Market on the North Shore. Fall is my favorite season. I usually go for a long run on Sundays, exploring different Pittsburgh neighborhoods and the wonderful riverfront trails.


]]> 0
Has EdTech Truly Changed Teaching and Learning? Mon, 06 Jul 2015 19:37:45 +0000 Today’s classrooms might be filled with computers, smartphones, and tablets, but that does not mean teaching and learning have been transformed. So says a recent Education Week article, “Why EdTech Is Not Transforming How Teachers Teach.”

Edtech proponents (and companies) predicted technology would help teachers give students control of their own learning, connect them to the world beyond the classroom walls, and turn them into creators rather than simply consumers of media and technology. Education Week finds much of that utopic vision is unrealized.

For the most part, EdWeek writes, educational technology is most often adopted to make teachers’ work more efficient—not to change the dynamics of the classroom.

But the article also discusses the root causes for why meaningful technology integration continues to be such a difficult challenge:

Researchers have found, for example, that even innovative teachers can be heavily affected by pressure to conform to more traditional instructional styles, with a teacher as the focal point for the classroom. Newer teachers inclined to use technology in their classrooms can also be deterred by experienced teachers who feel differently.

And the current test-based accountability system isn’t exactly supporting the transition to student-centered, technology-driven instruction, said Ms. [Wendy] Drexler of ISTE. “We’re telling teachers that the key thing that is important is that students in your classroom achieve, and we’re defining achievement by how they do on [standardized] tests,” she said. “That’s not going to change behavior.”

 Perhaps the most obvious—and overlooked—barrier to effective edtech use is that totally changing the way you do your job takes a ton of time and work.

Despite the slow pace of change, there are many teachers who are doing amazing work integrating technology into their classrooms in ways that impact learning. And there are a number of teachers doing that here in Pittsburgh, where technology is just part of the educational innovation happening in schools and informal learning spaces.

Edutopia recently highlighted Hampton High School in Allison, Pennsylvania, just north of Pittsburgh, for the way educators have tapped all kinds of technology to engage students. For a trigonometry “assessment,” teachers created an activity called “Disaster Mission Relief.” Students in one room took the role of air traffic controllers with cellphones and headsets, giving “pilots” in the school gym directions using angles to tell them where to go next. Everybody on each team received the same grade, encouraging collaboration and teamwork.

Hands-on learning with technology is about to become more widespread throughout the region. The Allegheny Intermediate Unit recently announced 28 STEAM grants, totaling $530,000, which will fund projects and spaces that integrate educational technology in ways that go far beyond simple use of tablets and projectors. (STEAM stands for the fusion of science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics in the classroom.)

For example, Montour High School in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, plans to use its STEAM grant for a Virtual Immersion Lab created with a type of virtual reality computer called zSpace. While wearing 3D glasses, students will be able to pick apart organs and pieces of complex human anatomy that appear to float in midair.

But as the EdWeek story pointed out, those pockets of innovation do not mean change is widespread.

That’s one reason we created the Remake Learning Playbook. The recently released playbook focuses on the successes and lessons learned in building Pittsburgh’s learning innovation ecosystem. Through a network of more than 100 schools, museums, libraries, afterschool programs, community centers, higher education institutions, private sector businesses, and philanthropic organizations, educational advocates in the Pittsburgh region are working together to support learning wherever it happens. The playbook is a field guide full of ideas and resources for supporting learning innovation networks like the one here in Pittsburgh. It is filled with practical and actionable information to help other communities build on the Pittsburgh model.

Edtech may not have transformed teaching on a large scale yet. But that does not mean there aren’t early adopters in Pittsburgh and around the country already doing great work and paving the way. Hopefully, with the right support and guidance, these learning opportunities reach all kids soon.





]]> 0
What I Learned from an Old Kickboard and Dental Floss Tue, 30 Jun 2015 18:45:46 +0000 I was in second grade and had just been given an extraordinary assignment: build a boat.

Each kid had a month to construct a small boat out of any materials they could get their hands on. There were no rules, no instructions—it was the wild, wild West of homework. All we were told was that at the end of the month, there would be a competition. Our teacher was going to drop washers into each boat, one by one, and the boat that held the most washers without sinking would win.

Like most of my classmates, I went completely nuts for this project. I obsessed over building practice boats out of cardboard and milk bottles. I was desperate to get hold of a hot glue gun.

Progressive educators have adopted project-based learning like this in their classrooms for decades—long before the phrase “maker movement” entered the mainstream. Project-based learning encourages kids to investigate real-world problems, design solutions, and collaborate. Projects are often open-ended and there is not just one right answer. As kids learn through every step of the process, they are building the kind of design-thinking skills experts say are more important than ever in a knowledge-based economy.

Though the maker movement is often associated with things like 3D printers and circuits, it is really a fusion of newly accessible technology with old ideas about how we learn best.

“The excitement about these new technologies will reanimate the best traditions of progressive education in classrooms, of learning by doing, of working on meaningful projects, of developing agency and becoming lost in the flow of something you care about,” Gary Stager, co-author of “Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom,” writes.

Whether we call it maker learning or project-based learning, deep learning experiences like these happen in the Pittsburgh region every day. There are more than 100 makerspaces in schools throughout southwestern Pennsylvania.

Take math teacher Nick Tutolo’s sixth-graders at the Environmental Charter School in Pittsburgh. Last year, he tasked them with building a small car that would protect an egg when it crashed into a wall. To heighten the challenge, the students had to use algebra to stick to an imaginary budget, even incorporating shipping costs and taxes and immersing themselves in real-life applications of algebraic expressions.

Nick Tutolo’s sixth graders test out their “egg cars.”

They also learned to design their cars on basic 3D modeling software. “Some of the designs that the students were able to produce on a pretty low-end 3D modeling program really surprised me,” Tutolo said.

Students considered every scenario—even figuring out ways to protect the egg if the car flipped. They used sponges, pipe cleaners, bottles, cardboard, and more. One team built a car with no wheels. Tutolo said students were in a constant state of redesign, building and rebuilding, learning from their own mistakes and those of their peers. In the end, only one egg broke completely when it rushed down the hill and hit the wall.

“One of the students who was particularly engaged in the process told me, ‘Mr.Tutolo now you’re going to make me think about this all summer,’ ” Tutolo said.

Those experiences are not only happening in Pittsburgh classrooms. They also take place in dozens of informal learning spaces across the city. In late June, kids at the Children Museum’s MAKESHOP were given the challenge of building forts, making bags out of duct tape, and creating flotation devices in a “survivor” themed Youth MakeNight. Later in July, garden experts will take kids on a hunt for bugs and help them build “bug mansions” using what they learned about bug habitats. And the museum is partnering with Kickstarter to help bring makerspaces to even more area schools.

These projects stick in our memories not simply because they are fun. Getting lost in the challenge of making something work—something you care about—is a learning experience that sticks with kids and, it turns out, adults.

I’m pretty sure my boat—a combination of an old kickboard and dental floss—lost its balance and wobbled, catching water and sinking to the bottom of the tub in last place, ruined. I don’t think it even mattered. All I remember is wanting to go back, try again, and build a boat that actually floated.

]]> 0
Learning STEAM in Style Mon, 29 Jun 2015 17:16:01 +0000 Some Pittsburgh youth are truly model students. The participants in TekStart’s Beauty of STEM program are spending the next eight weeks in the studio, sewing, dyeing, and tinkering with technology-enhanced jewelry. When the program ends, they will don their creations and strut down the catwalk.

Other local kids intrigued by fashion can dabble in design by completing the Cities of Learning “Intro to E-Fashion” activity. Participants “learn to make fashion that lights up a room” and earn a digital badge in the Basics of Electronic Circuits along the way.

Fashion design is a natural companion to the maker and STEAM movements. It calls for risk, creativity, and technical precision, and there is plenty of the latter when it comes to e-fashion. Last year, Remake Learning profiled 10-year-old Amya, a budding designer who used basic coding skills to upload a digital portfolio and play around with lighting for a fashion show.

“It’s easier to use the computer to adjust sizing and modify patterns,” she told us.

In Chicago, the Digital Youth Network’s Digital Divas initiative is aimed at immersing girls in STEM through their interest in fashion. The divas learn to make electronic circuits and to program e-textiles, producing electronic jewelry and illuminated shirts. The young women leave the program poised to become the next technological trendsetters.

“This is my design for my bracelet,” says one of the participants in a Digital Youth Network video, holding up a sketch. “The red stands for positive and the purple stands for negative. Both of them together will power my LED light. As you connect the buttons, the LED light will come on.”

Program leaders know that many kids already have a passion for fashion or an eye for style. They may simply need a bit of studio space or direction to figure out how to turn their interests into a more formal endeavor. Once they do, it can be highly empowering. When a kid creates anything, there is a sense of pride that follows, and even more so when it has her personal creative mark on it, or when he can wear it to school the next day.

At the Bronx Academy, a photography teacher demonstrated as much by setting his fashion-forward boys loose on either side of the lens. As models, they struck both playful and prideful poses, expressing themselves through the outfits they assembled and trying on adulthood through ties and bowler hats. As photographers, they confidently gave direction to their peers, and used their technical knowledge to shoot beautiful photos later featured in a spread in the school’s magazine. The students received tutorials in many of the professional opportunities in fashion, conducting editorial interviews and reviewing classic poses in magazine shoots.

Some view fashion design as a mere hobby or frivolous passion. But drop into any of these youth programs and you will quickly see the value of a field that lets young people be their most inventive and expressive. A kid who can wield both a sewing machine and a 3D printer could easily end up on couture’s cutting edge. Plus, with “wearable tech” lagging behind when it comes to stylishness, electronic fashion classes let learners experiment with designing less embarrassing sartorial applications for new technology.

]]> 0
Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh Kickstarts Maker Projects in Local Schools Wed, 24 Jun 2015 16:14:05 +0000 On any given day, The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh’s MAKESHOP is a flurry of sewing, sawing, and circuitry. But educators here say these experiences need not be relegated to a once or twice a year visit to this special place.

The museum, which already has a robust outreach program, has just announced a new partnership to bring maker projects to 10 Pittsburgh schools through professional development and fundraising support.

Many formal learning institutions are eager to integrate making into their curriculum, but lack the necessary funding, space, or professional development. The Kickstarting Making in Schools project aims to remedy this by helping schools develop, implement, and fundraise for maker projects.

The online fundraising platform Kickstarter is serving as an educational partner on the project. Representatives from the company will train the participating educators on crowd-funding for maker projects. Museum staff will guide the schools in developing feasible projects and redesigning physical spaces on campus if necessary.

Project Manager Teresa DeFlitch said Kickstarting Making is an experiment in scaling the museum’s existing educational outreach programming. “The project is looking for a sustainable model in which we could work with different kinds of schools in the region to integrate making, but to do so in a way that would be financially sustainable,” she said.

The idea was to choose six schools to participate. But 24 applications later, the museum narrowed it down to 10.

In the application, candidate schools were asked to reflect on how they would integrate making into existing curricula, rather than to propose a specific project. Now, more concrete plans are beginning to take shape.

For example, several schools are developing math maker projects, trying to use making as an engagement tool during traditional math lessons. At Ligonier Valley High School, educators are considering how making fits in with the school’s entrepreneurship focus. And the Yeshiva Schools in Pittsburgh plan to weave maker projects into their particular fusion of traditional and religious education.

Next week, educators from the selected schools will convene for the first time at the museum, where they will learn about Kickstarter. All the money for the projects will come from Kickstarter campaigns, which will launch at the start of the academic year and close shortly after the Pittsburgh Maker Faire October 10-11. Any money raised that exceeds the maker project budgets will go to the schools.

Throughout the year the museum’s research division will conduct surveys on the projects’ challenges and successes in order to devise a national model that can help other informal learning institutions host similar projects in communities around the country. Conversations have already begun, DeFlitch said.

“We’re lucky here in the museum in that we can dedicate a significant amount of time to researching making as a learning practice,” she said. “Schools, obviously, do not necessarily have the time or resources to do that. While we’re doing that within the informal setting, we’re able to take what we learn here, and then through these dynamic partnerships with schools, learn how to localize it to the school settings themselves.”

DeFlitch said, in her experience, educators crave support for integrating making into established lessons and settings.

“Schools do want to transform the spaces and they do need the right equipment, but they need the professional development as well,” she said. “That’s the big thing. Not just the advice and the spaces, but the person-to-person relationships.”

]]> 0
Getting to the ‘End Game’: Talking With Former West Virginia Governor Bob Wise Mon, 22 Jun 2015 17:13:02 +0000 ...Continue reading »]]> As the president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, Bob Wise has been leading the charge to make schools “future ready.” The Alliance, along with U.S. Department of Education, is sponsoring a series of Future Ready Summits for district leaders and school superintendents across the country. Wise is also the former governor of West Virginia and an advocate for deeper learning, digital learning, and adolescent literacy.Bob Wise (USE THIS FOR JPEG) #28 - smaller

We spoke with with Wise in preparation for Pittsburgh’s Future Ready Summit, which is being held on June 22 and 23.

Remake Learning: So what does being “future ready” mean to you?

Bob Wise: To me, being future ready means preparing a student with core content knowledge but also with the ability to think critically, solve problems, and manage their future learning. In other words, they’ve learned how to learn. That’s the end game. But what’s important is, How do we get there?

To me, one of the ways we get there is to personalize learning so every teacher has the ability to meet every student where they are—rather than having to teach one size fits all.

The only way we can do that on a wide scale is through the effective use of educational technology. The Future Ready Summits are about working with superintendents and school leaders to develop a plan for how they’re going to reach these higher learning goals and how they’re going to use technology to assist them in reaching them.

What does getting to that endgame look like in a classroom?

You can’t just slap a tablet on top of a textbook. You won’t have any change in outcomes. It’s not only about the devices, it’s also about the culture and process you’ve created. Ultimately, technology is about enabling human beings to be more effective—not about replacing human beings. That’s what the summits are about—building a plan that creates a culture so teachers, the most important element, know how to use technology to reach those desired ends.

You’ve said before that the decisions superintendents make in the next two or three years will shape education for the next 20. Why is right now a critical moment?

I think this is the most epic moment in American education in at least a century. There are four factors for that. First of all, every state has adopted much higher standards for their students. Number two is constrained state budgets. So there’s a demand for higher quality with less money to deliver it.

Three? The changing role of teaching. We’re asking our teachers now to use very sophisticated techniques to identify each student’s learning needs and then adapt to them.

The fourth piece is the rapidly changing education technology that can help the teacher meet these challenges.

Every school superintendent in the country has to make decisions in the next two to three years about how to address those factors—and they have to address them all at once. That’s what makes this an unprecedented time.

In Pittsburgh, the Remake Learning Network is building a web of hands-on, informal learning opportunities for students across the city and region. Why are these out-of-school learning opportunities as important as the learning that’s happening in school?

Learning is a 24/7 experience. What I have observed in my own life but also through data is that we learn through doing. A maker lab, a HIVE program, and any other learning environments that attract students are critical because that gives them the engagement to be successful in school as well. 

Technology is about enabling human beings to be more effective—not about replacing human beings.

In a perfect world, these opportunities [in and out of school] mesh. The school system is in tune and aware of other learning opportunities and is supporting them and, whenever possible, coordinating them. 

Superintendents have been sharing all kinds of takeaways from the summits on Twitter. What have you taken away from the summits you’ve attended?

I’ve been impressed by the commitment. First a district signs a pledge, then the superintendent commits to attending personally and selects a team of up to three other people. They’re willing to spend a day-and-a-half interacting and sharing with their peers and to put themselves out there, even say, “Maybe I’m not as far along as I thought I was.” That struck me.

The second thing was the wide differences, in a positive way, between where districts are. We’re seeing some of the most sophisticated districts in the country in terms of technology implementation and digital learning. And we’re also seeing districts who are saying: “I don’t know how to get there. Let’s get started.” They’re able to work together, there’s a synergy that’s developing. We’re going to work on developing that further with the Future Ready Leadership Network, which is what we’ll be talking about in Pittsburgh.

]]> 0
Pittsburgh’s Makers Go to Washington Thu, 18 Jun 2015 20:57:25 +0000 The National Maker Faire, held June 12 and 13 in Washington D.C., was a buzzing weekend complete with a giant Rube Goldberg machine, a cardboard T-Rex, and signs that cautioned folks to look out for falling rockets.

The nearly 40 makers and educators hailing from Pittsburgh probably felt right at home.

“People kept saying: ‘Oh, of course you’re from Pittsburgh! There are so many people from Pittsburgh here,’ ” said Megan Cicconi, director of instructional innovation at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit.

A slew of the city’s leading organizations traveled to D.C. for the event, which kicked off the National Week of Making. Among them were representatives from The Sprout Fund, The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, district school superintendents, and folks from local community arts organizations like BOOM Concepts, which made mini-murals to display in the Garfield neighborhood.

Cicconi, whose new role at the AIU has her promoting exploratory learning throughout Allegheny County, brought her own mobile maker cart. She said she visited nearly every booth, helping people “bling out their clothes” with LED lights. She said she often ended up talking with folks about Pittsburgh and the southwestern Pennsylvania region, which has become a national hub of making with more than 100 makerspaces in schools and dozens more informal spaces. Those conversations often led to people asking her questions on everything from how kids learn the specifics of circuitry to how the making scene Pittsburgh grew into what it is today.

“It was important to not just to be sharing those stories,” Cicconi said. “It was important that we were also helping people make new stories.”

Cicconi wasn’t alone in wanting to help spread some of Pittsburgh’s knowledge. After all, the whole Pittsburgh crew did not just come to check out a 3D printed Benjamin Franklin. They also came with a mission: to help others learn from the successes, strategies, and challenges the Remake Learning Network has faced. The Remake Learning Network brings together more than 200 organizations, among them libraries, museums, and afterschool programs, to collectively rethink education and build a vibrant “ecosystem” of learning opportunities.

At the faire, the Network released the new Remake Learning Playbook, which documents the processes, outcomes, resources, and lessons from the region’s early work building networks to support learning in the Pittsburgh area. It includes case studies that explore how the Network has made an impact, a look at the Network’s structure, and strategies leaders have used to sustain the Network.

“These are starting points–to be useful, they have to be really authentic to the local practice,” Cathy Lewis Long, co-founder, executive director and president of the Sprout Fund, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about the playbook. “It’s like a recipe. It’s a guide. You might choose to add a little bit more salt or a little bit more vinegar.”

Several attendees presented at the Faire, including Bart Rocco and Todd Keruskin, superintendent and assistant superintendent of Elizabeth Forward School District, which is nationally known for its technology integration and learning spaces.

Cicconi also presented on the many aspects of AIU’s work, including the $2.3 million it has awarded in STEAM grants to public schools since 2009. The 28 recent STEAM grantees will be documenting their work with videos in order to share what they learn with educators around the country. Cicconi said the Network’s goal is to expand the pockets of learning innovation throughout the region to create broader, systematic change.

On Monday, leaders from Remake Learning Network were invited back to the White House to take part in a Maker Education Roundtable. There, Tom Kalil, deputy director for Technology and Innovation at White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, gave a shout-out to Pittsburgh for the city’s commitment to making.

“It represents our dedication in a wonderful light,” Cicconi said.

Though the National Week of Making is over, the Pittsburgh attendees are back home keeping making alive year-round for kids and their families.

]]> 0
Mindful Making Tue, 16 Jun 2015 19:27:34 +0000 Exciting things happen in makerspaces, including learning to think critically about oneself as a maker and about the social responsibilities that come with making. In the world of Human-Computer Interaction, this is called critical technical practice, or critical making. From this perspective, making is about more than creating objects, learning STEM principles, or how to code; it is also about understanding the process, thinking critically about oneself and the role that one’s values and assumptions can have on the objects one makes, and the effect that one’s creations might have on others.

Minful_MakerWith the help of Sprout’s Remake Learning Fellowship, I launched the Mindful Making project, with the goal of exploring critical technical practice in makerspaces for youth. We went into Pittsburgh-area makerspaces to look at the kinds of critical and self-reflective questions that makers–novice and expert–ask themselves when they create technical artifacts, the idea being that questions can help learners stop and think, and can guide them toward deeper thinking. Questions are a simple and portable language tool that mentors can use to scaffold deeper thinking and a disposition toward mindful and critical technical practice.

Youth makers usually begin a project by asking themselves, What do I want to make? That’s a good starting point but what happens next? Are there questions that can guide makers toward a critical technical practice? With the help of teens and mentors in Pittsburgh-area makerspaces, the Mindful Making project came up with a starter list of questions to help guide deeper thinking. The questions are below and you can find them at the Mindful Maker website:

  • What resources do I have and need? Mindful makers want to know what resources will serve as a muse to their imaginations. It is important to understand the properties of materials.
  • What will inspire me to give my time and effort to a project? Sometimes we lack the necessary skills to complete a project and need to make an effort to learn. Mindful Makers look for interesting projects that will keep them engaged and motivated (for example, music, sports, or a special cause).
  • What do I know? Mindful Makers ask themselves this question throughout the making process. That way they can figure out what they don’t know and take steps to learn.
  • What will make me happy? Mindful Makers are aware of the emotional connection between the maker and the objects they make. If the item makes you happy then you can have fun.
  • Can I let myself make a mistake? Mindful Makers understand that mistakes are okay and can make a project better. Sometimes this leads Mindful Makers to ask another question: What ways beyond the ‘right’ way can I make something?
  • Who is my audience? Mindful Makers understand that some of their projects will be viewed, used, and shared by other people. Who are those people? Mindful Makers think about how their own interests and ideals interact with the needs of the potential audience.
  • How will my creation affect other people? Mindful Makers think about how their project might affect people. Will it interest them? Will they learn something? Will they have fun? Will it make them happy or sad?
  • What kind of maker am I? Maker self-awareness helps us anticipate the best way to tackle a design/build problem.

If you want to give these question prompts a try in your own makerspace for youth, download and print the poster from the Mindful Maker site.

Many thanks to the young people and mentors from the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, and Assemble, who participated in this project.

Leanne Bowler, an associate professor at the School of Information Sciences, University of Pittsburgh, studies youth interactions with technology.


]]> 0
This Summer, Pittsburgh Becomes a Citywide Campus for Learning Mon, 15 Jun 2015 18:42:28 +0000 Pittsburgh schools closed their doors last Monday, but the city got a running start on summer opportunities the weekend before. At the Cities of Learning (COL) launch party, on the sunny lawn at the Carnegie Library, local kids and teens learned about their dizzying array of options for discovery and exploration.

Sound familiar? It isn’t Pittsburgh’s first conversion into a living campus, but it is the largest. After a trial run last summer, and armed with a new grant from the MacArthur Foundation, the Sprout Fund tweaked and expanded COL to ready the initiative for 2015.

Whether a budding filmmaker or an amateur bike mechanic, a Pittsburgh child or teen will find a slew of (mostly free) activities in the Cities of Learning roster that will help build on his or her passions. The more than 40 participating organizations help youth develop expertise in their interest areas, figure out links to academic and professional pathways, and document their accomplishments with digital badges.

http://www.pghcityoflearning.comPittsburgh, which joins Chicago, Dallas, and Washington, D.C., in the national initiative, was an ideal candidate for COL.

“There are many things happening in summertime but they can seem kind of fragmented, disconnected,” said Sprout Fund Executive Director Cathy Lewis Long. “It definitely takes a network approach to begin to gather and collect and lift up the incredible opportunities.”

The organizers capitalized on Pittsburgh’s existing network of formal and informal institutions and educators to present a cohesive “campus.” This year, the community is further integrated, with Pittsburgh Public Schools serving as a major COL partner. The schools’ Summer Dreamers Academy is participating, awarding badges to students.

“We’re interested in creating a more connected environment between their formal school life and things they’re doing outside of school,” said Dustin Stiver, Sprout program officer. “So the Summer Dreamers opportunity was a great chance to sort of test the notion of badges in a school environment but also during the summer.”

Over the past year, Sprout convened a diverse group of educators to determine the core competencies important to the community, and to create badges and curricula to reflect them.

“One of the things we learned from last year is it’s important to provide educators with the proper support to implement this kind of initiative,” Stiver said. “It was a starting point for educators to think about their badge design very critically.”

Badges are meant to acknowledge that learning happens throughout the summer—at libraries and museums, in parks—but might go unrecognized, Long said. Whether they have learned to laser-etch a light switch cover, tend to a lawn, or plan and budget a trip, kids now have a standardized means of demonstrating their accomplishments—to future employers, for example.

The activities and partner organizations are all searchable on the new Pittsburgh COL website.

“To borrow an analogy from [Sprout program associate] Tim Cook, it’s like taking all the brochures and pamphlets off the coffee shop shelf and putting them all online where parents and students and others can find the things they’re interested in,” Stiver said.

Head over to the site now, where participants can sign up, build a profile, and start navigating the City of Learning right away.

]]> 0
Opening Up: Sharing Our Story in the Remake Learning Playbook Fri, 12 Jun 2015 12:43:34 +0000 Last year, I left a great job in DC to return to Pittsburgh. I came back to my hometown because Pittsburgh is the site of one of – if not the – most remarkable, vibrant, and effective learning innovation ecosystems in the country.

The Remake Learning Network (formerly Kids + Creativity) represents the collective effort of years of interdisciplinary, innovative, and interconnected work that a community of people who care about the future of learning have undertaken together. It’s work that many in the Pittsburgh region have contributed to. And it’s work that everyone involved should be proud of.

I came back to Pittsburgh because I wanted to help the Remake Learning Network to inspire and empower a broader community of innovators – not just around our region, but around the country.

Today, responding to the President Obama’s call to action to create a Nation of Makers, and as part of a White House event kicking off the National Week of Making, The Sprout Fund is thrilled to announce the first digital release of the Remake Learning Playbook, an ambitious effort to document the processes, outcomes, resources, and lessons learned of both the Network itself and several of the Network’s projects.

The Playbook is a field guide full of information, ideas, and resources for supporting learning innovation networks, and it includes:

In premiering this content, we’re hoping (1) to get this content in the hands of those who can use it, and (2) to get as much feedback as possible on how to adapt and improve this content to meet the needs of real-world practitioners. This is the first in a series of staged-releases, and Sprout will continue to publish new and updated Playbook content throughout the summer and into the fall.

So, we’re asking you to spread this content – far and wide – to those who you think would be willing to take a look and let us know what they think. Folks can add their feedback directly on Medium, and we’ll be closely reviewing responses as people contribute their thoughts.

The Playbook is the next step forward in the effort to enable more communities to Pittsburgh. It’s hardly the first step in this journey, and it’s certainly not the last – it’s simply the next step to broaden and deepen the impact of this extraordinary work.

And while my journey will take me back to DC, I’m looking forward to staying closely engaged in the Playbook’s next steps, and the Network’s, because I agree with Gregg Behr and Dr. Lynne Schrum, the Founding Chairs of the Remake Learning Council, who write in the introduction to the Playbook:

“We’ve learned a lot since our first breakfast brainstorms. We’ve tried many things, and we’ve made plenty of mistakes. But ultimately, we’ve seen significant progress in our effort to provide all children and youth with the best available opportunities to learn and be creative. We’re confident that all of us, together, can remake learning all across America.”

Pittsburgh is a national model for network-based approaches to 21st century learning innovation, and the Remake Learning Network can impact educators, learners, and people across the country.

Take the next steps with us by visiting

]]> 0
How Do You Spell “21st Century”? Wed, 10 Jun 2015 19:56:12 +0000 Remember that third-grade cursive lesson, painstakingly fitting looping letters in a wide-ruled notebook? Or its cousin, spelling class—memorizing “i before e except after c”? Some say cursive and spelling are two education fundamentals that have been rendered dispensable in the 21st century, thanks to word processing and autocorrect.

But on the heels of the 90th Scripps National Spelling Bee, which ESPN broadcast to a captive audience for a combined 14 hours, it is worth taking a look at where these seemingly “20th century skills” fit into modern learning.

Some educators argue that rather than learning spelling, grammar, and handwriting, kids should be taught “to convey emotion and meaning through writing,” as Sugata Mitra, a British educational technology professor, told The Telegraph newspaper. He claims expressive language does not require accurate spelling.

“This emphasis on grammar and spelling, I find it a bit unnecessary, because they are skills that were very essential maybe a hundred years ago but they are not right now,” said Mitra, who thinks the future of education is child-driven. “My phone corrects my spelling,” he added, pointing out that kids have no trouble communicating in text-message-style grammar.

Some say English spelling education hinders students. With 60 percent of English words containing unpredictable letters, students may take longer to learn to read than their counterparts who speak more predictably spelled languages. Placing less emphasis on spelling could allow for earlier reading comprehension, the argument goes.

Not everyone thinks that tech tools make human knowledge obsolete. Daniel Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, likens word processing’s relation to handwriting to a calculator’s relation to arithmetic.

“People wondered whether students needed to learn how to do math,” he said at a handwriting summit. “The answer in both cases is absolutely yes.”

Handwriting practice contributes to children’s development of important motor skills, said Amy Bastian, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University. The more variety of fine motor skills, she told NPR, the greater dexterity in the long run.

Bastian’s point is a reminder that these skills are not autonomous and purely technical, unrelated to critical thinking or other intellectual development. By slashing these lessons, we may end up losing their other built-in benefits. Reading comprehension could be dependent on the mechanics, wrote education researchers Richard Gentry and Steve Graham in a white paper.

“Learning to write letters and spell words reinforces the letter-naming, phonemic, and word-deciphering skills required in developing literacy,” they wrote.

Instead of stripping curricula of spelling, handwriting, and grammar, we should continue reexamining our approach to teaching those topics. A recent Edweek webinar promoted a content-based approach to vocabulary education. One speaker, University of Michigan Education Professor Gina Cervetti, studied the effects of pairing science education with literacy lessons on fourth graders. She found they were more likely to use science words in their classroom writing. In a similar study among middle-school students, sixth graders’ general vocabulary expanded when literacy was incorporated into the science program.

We have written about the trend away from subject-based schooling. In an interdisciplinary approach, like STEAM education, students hone their problem-solving and critical-thinking skills by drawing connections between ideas, or between theory and practice. Memorizing spelling lists may be up for debate, although Gentry and Graham argue it is crucial for pattern recognition. But perhaps there is a way to learn spelling in an engaging manner that makes clear its importance in communicating concepts. Take spelling bees—the original gamification?—which turn rote memorization into a rousing competition with complex rules.

There is no question that handwriting and spelling play different roles in our 21st century lives, as do many school subjects and skills. Educators are figuring out how to make the mechanics relevant rather than simply, well, writing them off.

]]> 0
Grants for Public Schools Will Generate New STEAM Mon, 08 Jun 2015 16:12:11 +0000 Kids’ imaginations make them natural inventors. Students at Avonworth Middle School will soon be tapping into that innate inclination through a new partnership with engineers and product developers from Inventionland, an idea incubator in Pittsburgh. With help from these mentors, students will hone in on a problem, design an idea to solve it, prototype a solution, and “pitch” the idea to Inventionland executives.

The project is made possible by a STEAM grant from the Benedum Foundation, the Grable Foundation, and the Chevron Corporation. Avonworth’s project is one of 28 grants awarded to southwestern Pennsylvania school districts totaling $530,000. Since 2009, more than $2.3 million in STEAM grants have been awarded to schools, all distributed through the Allegheny Intermediate Unit’s Center for Creativity.

The STEAM acronym stands for the marriage of art and design with science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Advocates see this connection as central to preparing the next generation of innovators for the 21st-century economy.

“By investing in partnerships that strengthen STEAM education, we are helping to improve the employability of a skilled workforce that will lead to economic growth—for our business, our partners, and the communities where we operate in the Pittsburgh region,” Trip Oliver, the policy, government, and public affairs manager at Chevron, said in a release.

This most recent batch of grants is just one way the AIU and its partners have bolstered the region’s opportunities for STEAM learning. The Center for Creativity connects educators with scientists, technologists, thinkers, and makers throughout the region to help educators develop the resources students need to succeed.

“Teachers, artists, and higher-education faculty often have inspiring ideas that need only a small amount of funding to put into practice,” James V. Denova, vice president of the Benedum Foundation, said in a release. “The STEAM mini-grant process allows us to test these ideas, the best of which have been validated and replicated across the region.”

Sure enough, with up to $20,000 per grant, there are many educator-created STEAM projects coming down the line. At Chartiers Valley Middle School, students will add the basics of circuitry to their sewing projects to make a night light bookmark and twinkling wrist cuffs. Working as a team, students will learn how to program and add music to a piano made of felt.

Meanwhile, at Mt. Lebanon High School, in the “suburban agriculture” cross-curricular project, students will grow, harvest, and prepare organic vegetables while learning the importance of sustainable foods in a suburban area.

In addition to projects, the grants fund spaces ripe for deep STEAM learning. Blackhawk High School is adding an automation station to its C3 Lab, a repurposed classroom with iPads, 3D printers, and other technology. The new devices will give students the chance to add dimension to their designs and give them life through microcontrollers, servos (for steering robotic contraptions), and stepper motors.

At Commodore Perry High School, the new Maker Space Lab will integrate a computer numerical control (CNC) milling machine (which carves materials based on existing designs), 3D printers, 3D modeling software, and a laser engraver. Fourth graders will even be using pens that “print” 3D creations.

“So in art class, instead of drawing a flower in two dimensions on a piece of paper, you’re drawing a flower coming up into space in a three-dimensional figure,” Kaleb Bowser, technology teacher at Commodore Perry, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Right now, public school educators are putting their plans into action for the great diversity of projects and spaces the grants will fund. Soon, the projects will be up and running, giving kids the chance to stretch their STEAM skills to make, invent, and innovate. The only unpredictable piece? The amazing things kids will come up with.


]]> 0
From Pittsburgh On Up: Catching Up With Michelle Figlar Fri, 05 Jun 2015 21:59:26 +0000 Welcome back to our new Q&A series, where we are checking in with Pittsburgh’s movers, shakers, thinkers, and remakers of learning throughout the city and region.

We caught early education expert Michelle Figlar in a moment of major transition. The executive director of the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children is headed to Harrisburg this month, as she has been named deputy secretary for the Office of Child Development and Early Learning at the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

What are you most proud of about your work at PAEYC?

After nine years at PAEYC, one of the two things that I am most proud of is that we have built an incredible team and incredible partnerships in the region. When I think about PAEYC, the first words that come to my mind are team and collaboration. We stayed true to that mission, from the minute I walked in the door, that we would be a good partner. And I am really proud of that. there a specific educator or organization from the region whose work or approach is emblematic of
what PAEYC does well?

I think that for us it’s all about the work of Fred Rogers—the Fred Rogers Company, and now the Fred Rogers Center, two of our very good partners. I think about how Fred Rogers always listened to the children and he listened to the parents and he listened to the providers. At the core, that’s what PAEYC wants to stay true to.

How did you experience being part of the Remake Learning Network influence your work at PAEYC?

Gregg Behr and the Grable Foundation bring people from very different sectors to the table. Early on I got to meet Illah Nourbakhsh from Carnegie Mellon University—a robotics genius. Being able to sit in a space with him and think about innovative ideas that could really impact kids, families, and their teachers—that’s the space that allows PAEYC to be innovative, to meet people we never would have met. What are the chances of an early childhood organization meeting a robotics lab and really making something wonderful happen?

What will your priorities be in your new role at the Pennsylvania Department of Education?

For me it’s going to be about the governor’s vision and making sure all kids have access to high-quality early learning. My priority right away is: How do I help my team put that at the front of their work and really think differently?

What are you most excited about?

What I’m excited about is bringing some of the great innovation that we have been able to pilot and really get to work here in western Pennsylvania to the state level. How do we bring these partnerships to scale? When you have an unlikely partnership with a place like Carnegie Mellon University, you think differently about what is possible. How do we make sure we are listening to those voices?

What are the chances of an early childhood organization meeting a robotics lab and really making something wonderful happen?

As the issue gains traction nationally, many advocates feel we may be at a turning point around early childhood policy. Do you agree? And, if so, what signs or markers would you point to?

It’s an exciting time to be stepping into this position because I think policymakers get it. It’s not about convincing them anymore. Now it’s about designing things and finding the resources to make it happen. Federally, you have the Obama administration placing a huge priority on universal pre-K. You also have the Child Care and Development Block Grant being reauthorized, which gives states the opportunity to think differently about how they serve families and children who receive subsidized child care. That says to me that young children have become a priority. You also have a lot of national research, even newer brain research. And then across the country you see more and more states investing more and more dollars in the earliest time of life. And we see policy that is rethinking K-3, that is actually embracing early childhood.

What is the toughest part of the work you do?

At least for the state of Pennsylvania, it is finding the resources to be able to invest in these programs. Pennsylvania has a budget deficit, so how do we convince folks to make sure that this is a priority?

We also have to invest in our [early education] workforce so we can make sure we have the best and the brightest and make sure they are compensated so they will stay in the field. I think as a country we really need to think about how we recruit and retain a workforce that can really ensure that children are getting the highest quality of care.

What will you most miss about Pittsburgh?

I think what I’m going to miss on a day-to-day basis is just the natural way that people collaborate. It’s just so easy here.

I’ll also miss walking to school with my kids. And I’m going to miss just being in my neighborhood. I love Hazelwood—that’s where I grew up. I’m going to miss not seeing the redevelopment of Hazelwood in real time.

Photo of Michelle Figlar/New America Foundation

]]> 0
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.

]]> 0
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 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.”

]]> 0
‘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.

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.

]]> 0
‘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.


]]> 0
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.

]]> 0
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.

]]> 0
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.

]]> 0
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.


]]> 0