Remake Learning Remake Learning is a network of people, projects, and organizations in the greater Pittsburgh region that are empowering children and youth by creating relevant learning opportunities through the compelling use of technology, media, and the arts. Sat, 12 Dec 2015 04:59:17 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Parenting for Technology Futures Wed, 25 Mar 2015 20:54:59 +0000 Illah Nourbakhsh was in high school when the first Texas Instruments scientific calculator came on the scene. The device, whose predecessor is now commonplace in math classes, was a huge boon to education—and it sparked a new debate on appropriate technology use in the classroom.

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

Photo/Ben Filio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remake Learning: What’s new with Hear Me?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Five Things You Might Not Know About a “Flipped Classroom” Wed, 11 Mar 2015 17:35:02 +0000 In a “flipped classroom,” teachers record the lectures they’d normally give in class and students watch them at home. Then, students use time in class for activities—what in traditional classrooms is called “homework”—and to get one-on-one help from a teacher. The goal is to make better use of classroom time for dynamic, hands-on experiences.

There’s been a lot written about flipping classrooms, but here are a few points that sometimes fly under the radar:

  1. The model has been around for more than a decade.

Most people had never heard of a “flipped classroom” until 2012 or 2013, when the new model received national coverage in the New York Times and on NPR and became a daily topic on education websites. But the origins actually go back to a small town in Colorado in 2004. The district was relatively rural, and high school chemistry teachers Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams struggled because their students, many of whom were high school athletes, did not have enough time for homework in the evenings. Students in the rural district often spent inordinate amounts of time traveling to sports or extracurricular activities.

In 2007, after reading about new technology in a magazine, they decided to start recording their lessons using PowerPoint presentations, audio, and screen captures and asking students to watch them at home. Voila! The flipped classroom was born. (Well, after several years of tweaking and perfecting from there, that is.)

  1. Kids don’t just “watch” a video.

In a recent post at Edutopia, Bergmann and Sams argued the word “watch” is too passive to capture how students interact with flipped classroom lectures—kids “watch” a TV show or movie.

“We want them to interact with the video content,” they wrote. “There is research which states that passive learning (even learning with video) doesn’t help students achieve more.”

For a low-tech solution, they suggested asking kids to pause the video and try a problem on paper. For a higher-tech option, ask them to write responses in a Google form as the video progresses.

  1. You don’t have to flip your whole class.

Yes, usually when people talk about flipped classrooms they’re referring to flipping the whole class. But there are tons of resources for flipping only one lesson or one unit. The Flipped Learning Network also invites teachers to flip one lesson for one day in the fall and provides resources for teachers who are interested in giving a flipped lesson a try.

  1. Teachers don’t necessarily have to record their own videos.

Along with a rise in popularity of the flipped classroom has been a flood of new tools, videos, and prerecorded lectures teachers can substitute for their own recorded lessons. For example, has a feature that lets teachers create a flipped lesson from a TED Talk. Khan Academy’s enormous library of lessons also helped popularize the movement.

  1. Video will never be a replacement for good teaching.

Although there’s been plenty of positive press on the benefits of a flipped classroom, there’s also been a healthy dialogue on the pros and cons.

Lisa Nielsen, educator, author, and blogger, has written repeatedly about the need to question the merits of at-home lectures.

“I believe the most effective way to learn is to do work that’s meaningful, not to sit and watch someone else do something. This is not revolutionary,” she told the School Library Journal in 2013.

“If there’s a video that can help someone understand something, that’s great. I just don’t think that should be the be-all and end-all.”

Nielsen also pointed out that each student watches the same video, leaving little room for discovery or following their own interests.

Plus, not every kid has an internet connection or a device to watch videos on, something Bergmann and Sams have addressed with alternative strategies.

“Where I was teaching, 25 percent of kids didn’t have internet access at home,” Sams told Remake Learning in an interview in 2013, adding that he was typically able to resolve the problem by putting videos on flash drives or DVDs. “We need to provide something for the students. A laptop you can check out. It’s a problem, a hurdle, but it’s usually something that can be resolved. I don’t think it’s a deal breaker.”

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The Artificial Line Between Science and Art Tue, 10 Mar 2015 04:50:17 +0000 Everyone, from oil execs to President Obama, has called for stronger education in STEM. After all, there’s a shortage of people prepared for the tech and engineering jobs crucial for our economy’s well-being.

But those employed in STEM fields are sometimes the strongest advocates for education in the humanities.

“Our culture has drawn an artificial line between art and science,” wrote Loretta Jackson-Hayes in her recent Washington Post op-ed. The chemist and professor issued a call for liberal arts training alongside STEM skill building.

Her viewpoint is shared by many of tech’s trailblazers. Steve Jobs famously said, “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough—it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing.”

The communication skills fostered by a liberal arts education are invaluable in STEM careers, Jackson-Hayes said. She has to be able to clearly articulate her research in journal articles, and she brings her chemistry students to conferences where they must effectively and compellingly describe their work.

Jackson-Hayes quoted David J. Skorton, president of Cornell University: “‘Many of us never received the education in the humanities or social sciences that would allow us to explain to nonscientists what we do and why it is important.’” The lack of communication skills among STEM professionals could breed a vicious cycle. Without interesting or clear writing about the sciences, students may not be inspired to pursue the subjects.

Some graduate institutions in STEM fields are slowly embracing the logic of interdisciplinary learning. In 1987, the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai began guaranteeing admission to high-performing college sophomores studying humanities and social sciences. The students in the experiment, who weren’t required to take premed courses or the MCAT, ended up doing as well as the typical students at the med school. And starting this year, all prospective doctors will take a revamped version of the MCAT with new questions on population health, ethics, and psychology. Whether a student ends up as a heart surgeon or a podiatrist, knowledge in these areas is important for anyone who works with people under sensitive circumstances. A liberal arts education based on questioning, critical thinking, and social awareness helps develop empathetic and compassionate professionals.

Jackson-Hayes, like Jobs, is clearly not dismissing the recent emphasis on STEM education. She’s simply cautioning against promoting it exclusively, or to the detriment of creativity.

We’ve written on the value of turning STEM into STEAM (the “A” stands for “art”). The maker movement is emblematic of this harmony. Maker education teaches technology skills—with a heavy dose of tinkering, experimentation, and creativity. We’re also proponents of design thinking in schools, where students are encouraged to solve complex problems while tuning into the desires and needs of the people who will use them.

In Pittsburgh, many initiatives and schools have long taken an interdisciplinary approach to learning, melding tech and science education with the arts to build critical and systems thinking skills. Hear Me combines tech tools with storytelling, so youth participants can get decision makers to listen to them. At the Labs at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, teens have open and guided access to an array of digital tools and a studio space. The Institute of Play brings game design to the classroom, because dull, standardized STEM lessons don’t cultivate an engaged and innovative citizenry or workforce.

STEM education, whether in elementary schools or graduate institutions, can open its arms to the liberal arts without sacrificing any of the skill building necessary for our future workforce.

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TeacherQuest Case Files: “Engaming” Special Needs Students Thu, 05 Mar 2015 23:11:49 +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.

Students at Elizabeth Forward Middle School near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania are challenging the familiar adage “don’t play with your food.”

TeacherQuester Timmie Kearns teaches Family and Consumer Science, which is the current reference for the Home Economics classes of the 20th century. But Kearns’ class is far from simple cake baking and grocery list planning. In fact, her co-ed class blends technology with games and other hands-on activities that make her students hungry to participate.

Known as a forward-thinking school district, Elizabeth Forward is home to several programs that are pioneering the way students learn. They have a symbiotic relationship with Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center, which frequently playtests in-development games with students primarily in their middle and high schools. Not to mention the Dream Factory, a makerspace that boasts the latest technology and tinkering equipment. As if having a Dream Factory wasn’t enough to give the school “geek-cred,” each of the 2,355 students received their own iPad in the school’s signature bright red color. Elizabeth Forward was the first school district in Pennsylvania to give an iPad to every student.

Given the investments that the school’s administration has made in their students and teachers, it’s no surprise they jumped at the chance to participate in TeacherQuest—an 11-month professional development program that teaches educators how to design games and integrate game-like learning into their classrooms and curriculum. TeacherQuest is a partnership between NYC’s Institute of Play and the Pittsburgh area’s Allegheny Intermediate Unit 3 STEAM initiative. Teachers from all Allegheny County schools were invited to apply. Timmie Kearns and Anne Meals (a language arts teacher) attended on behalf of Elizabeth Forward. Months after beginning, both teachers are rocking game-based learning in their respective classrooms.

At the beginning of Kearns’ nine-week rotation of the 6th grade Family and Consumer Science class, students covered the basics of food preparation like sanitation, food-borne illnesses and kitchen basics. Then they really got cooking. Students made their own Jolly Rancher lollipops, muffins, “goop” granola, snickerdoodles, tortilla chips and apple dip and other tasty treats. Kearns could see that the students had a blast making their own food—but memorizing definitions and food terminology were not so much fun. That’s when she broke out the secret weapon she had been practicing in TeacherQuest…game design.

TQ_EFMS_slideshow5After designing her own games as part of the TeacherQuest program, Kearns was ready to lead her students through the design process. She started by giving them some examples, like game shows and classic card games. Within a week, the students had designed and created their own games aimed at learning the technical terms used in cooking. Broken into teams, the students did their own “game jam,” where they playtested each other’s games. The results included games inspired by Apples to Apples, Musical Chairs, Go Fish, and a classroom favorite, 7-Up. Every student was engaged helping teammates set up their games. An observer wouldn’t have guessed that these students were learning terminology and definitions. It looked more like a summer camp or community fun day.

“This is definitely making learning definitions less boring!” Kearns said as she laughed. “It’s great to see the students really connecting with each other and having memorable experiences while learning.” She went on to talk about her experience making games at the summer intensive portion of the TeacherQuest program. “My biggest obstacle was letting go of being a perfectionist, and realizing that I could make a game and jam on it even if it wasn’t completely flushed out. We learned we could mod a game on the fly. And that was really eye-opening for me. Basically, I had been playing games my whole life, just like my students, and I knew more than I thought I did.”

Kearns breaks down the benefits of integrating gameplay into her curriculum into three ways.

  • The students learned problem solving, since they had to create their own method of learning and work through the rules and structure of the game, then teach it to others.
  • Creating games instills patience in her students. In a time when people expect immediate gratification, this method of self-regulation shows kids that they may have to rework something in order to get it right.
  • Lastly, Kearns saw the kids developing a special camaraderie with each other that you don’t get from learning independently. They had to work together, give each other feedback, and interact in order to be able to learn the material.

Trish Maddas, principal at Elizabeth Forward Middle School, is ecstatic about what she’s seeing in the classrooms, and says the feedback from parents is overwhelmingly positive. “When you come to sewing or cooking class, it tends to not be something students think is really fun right away,” said Maddas. “But now that we’ve integrated gaming, students are just really excited to get to work. Kids go home and tell parents how fun school is, and this program is carrying over into the home and the community.”

Elizabeth Forward is certainly mixing up the pot when it comes to learning, and we can’t wait to see what they sink their teeth into next.


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Saltwater Batteries, Finland, and Pittsburgh’s Promising Advanced Industries Mon, 02 Mar 2015 21:20:40 +0000 Before you think a new report on the state of “advanced industries” in the United States might be a bit dry, two words for you: Saltwater. Batteries.

Pittsburgh’s Aquion Energy builds saltwater batteries that, although complicated, truly sound like the stuff of the future. The environmentally friendly battery uses nontoxic materials like saltwater to act as the electrolyte. The batteries can be used in large-scale energy systems like solar and wind power generators.

Aquion Energy is an example of what the new report from Brookings calls the “advanced industries.” Ranging from software publishing to ship building, the 50-industry segment of the economy is characterized by its deep involvement in technology research and development, and in STEM.

It’s not a huge industry, but for its relatively small size, the advanced industries pack a major “economic punch”:

“As of 2013, the nation’s 50 advanced industries employed 12.3 million US workers. That amounts to about 9 percent of total U.S. employment. And yet, even with this modest employment base, U.S. advanced industries produce $2.7 trillion in value added annually—17 percent of all U.S. gross domestic product (GDP).”

Advanced industries also provide high-quality economic opportunities for workers. Wages are rising sharply in the sector, and in 2013 the average advanced industries worker earned $90,000, nearly twice as much as the average worker outside the sector. But the researchers find the advanced industries are accessible, too: more than one-half of the sector’s workers possess less than a bachelor’s degree.

It’s not all great news, though. Yes, the advanced industries have grown, but the United States is still losing ground to other countries in several measures of innovation performance and capacity, like patents, for example. Plus, the report again finds that the United States is falling behind in producing STEM graduates. As a comparison, only 15 large US metro areas beat the global leader, Finland, in the share of STEM graduates as a proportion of the young adult population. Thirty-three large US metro areas fall behind Spain, which ranks 24th internationally.

So how do we sustain the advanced industries and keep the segment competitive and in the United States? Short-term workforce training is like a bandage. Instead, the report said sustaining the advanced industries long-term means increasing the STEM proficiency of Americans through the formal education system, starting early with universal prekindergarten.

Graph/The Brookings Institution

It also means getting creative—forging partnerships, adjusting hiring requirements, and thinking outside the box about ways to widen the channels that encourage people to enter these industries and give young people more options.

That sounds a lot like what we’re doing here in Pittsburgh. Both in and out of schools, kids throughout the region are getting the opportunity to experience STEM long before college or even high school.

Just one recent example: The Allentown Learning & Engagement Center recently hosted the Digital Corps for the second time. The students learned to manipulate code, learn basic machine functions, and build their own robots. As Amber Rooke, education coordinator for the Brashear Association, recently described in a post, one student who struggles in schools lit up when working with the materials, jumping ahead without needing further directions.

Additionally, the Chevron Corporation is investing in the region’s STEM pipeline through its Appalachian Partnership Initiative with the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, RAND, and the Allegheny Conference on Community Development. It is supporting graduate students at Carnegie Mellon, for example, in a game-based learning project with students at Elizabeth Forward Middle School. The team is designing a game to teach kids about solar energy. The game, which centers on a touch-sensitive globe the Carnegie Mellon students built, requires kids to figure out how to keep the lights on in their adopted city 24/7 using only solar power.

We hope opportunities to make, tinker, and explore will give kids not only a base of STEM skills to build on, but excitement for and engagement in learning what’s possible for them both in and out of STEM careers.

If there’s anywhere that can make this happen, it’s Pittsburgh. But don’t ask just us. The report’s video highlights Aquion but also calls out the Pittsburgh region as a spot that epitomizes a strong segment of advanced industries.

“Places like Pittsburgh with their sophisticated technology assets and experienced workforces epitomize the kind of synergies a city can provide to a new company,” said Mark Muro, Brookings senior fellow and director of policy for the Metropolitan Policy Program.

Those same synergies are helpful to leverage for education, too—not only companies. Plus, as we’ve known all along, Pittsburgh has a culture of collaboration, innovation, and getting down to work.

“Even though the steel industry wound down over 20 years ago, those people are still here. That heritage is still here,” said Aquion CEO, Jay Whitacre, in the video. “It’s amazing how much we benefit from that.”


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Shared Story Adventures Fri, 27 Feb 2015 12:12:23 +0000 This February, Interactive Story Adventures took first graders from three diverse Pittsburgh schools on a three-week journey to build understanding and connections. In the Shared Story Adventures program, first graders from Pittsburgh’s Miller African-Centered Academy, Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh, and the Environmental Charter School (ECS) were brought together to share stories about their favorite places.

According to Dr. Lippman, the founder of Interactive Story Adventures, the Shared Story Adventures program was designed to provide children with formative experiences interacting with individuals they would not have met otherwise. “The community event was included in the program to create a bridge between school and community life. Research suggests this is one way to create robust learning.”

Student interacting with the Isa puppetStudent interacting with the Isa puppet

 The adventure began in classrooms where students at each school met their first puppet friend, Isa. Interactive Story Adventure’s educators introduced the program and asked students to locate their favorite spots in their classroom.

ISA’s puppet modeling story creationISA’s puppet modeling story creation

 The students also got to see their classrooms in a whole new way thanks to the GigaPan. What’s a GigaPan? Well, I found out it’s much more than a funny name. The GigaPan robot took hundreds of pictures of each room. The GigaPan software automatically combined the pictures into a 360-degree panoramic photo. Students in each participating classroom were presented with a printed GigaPan image of their classroom and they used sticky notes to mark their favorite spots on the photo. This provided a great visual map of their daily world.

Student marking his favorite spot on the GigaPan imageStudent marking his favorite spot on the GigaPan image

With their favorite classroom spot in mind, students got an introduction to writing story introductions. Students were then introduced to Dr. Senso, a puppet character in ISA’s adventure world. Dr. Senso has trouble writing the beginning of her story, so the students helped her by learning writing techniques that they could share with her. Through using hooks, they learned how to grab the reader’s attention.

The middle of one student’s storyThe middle of one student’s story

Throughout the rest of the first week, students continued their adventure by learning how to write the middle and end to their stories. Isa’s puppet friends, Sir Klomp the eccentric frog and Mr. Maxilla the gorilla also needed guidance writing their stories. Sir Klomp wasn’t quite sure how to write the middle of his story and Mr. Maxilla needed help completing his story. Helping the puppets and giving them suggestions taught the students how they could keep their own stories moving.

Student writing his storyStudent writing his story

Once they completed their stories, students practiced telling their story with their peers so they could video record them for their new friends from other schools. Students also practiced active listening by coming up with one thing they wondered and one thing they liked about the videotaped stories of their new friends.

making a video storymaking a video of a story

At the next stage of the program, students and their new friends from other schools met face-to-face via video conference. Students shared their thoughts about each other’s stories.   They asked each other questions ranging from “Where is your school?” to “What does ECS stand for?” It was exciting to hear their conversations about their teachers and favorite things.

Videoconference between studentsVideoconference between students

After spending over a week writing and learning about each other’s favorite spots in the classroom, the students were ready to write another story—this time about their favorite spot in the community. When they met in Google Hangouts for the second time, some of their initial shyness had faded, and they were excited to learn that some of their favorite places were the same!

Families from different schools at the community eventFamilies from different schools at the community event

At the end of the program, the Shared Story Adventures culminated in a community event generously hosted by the Kingsley Association. Students and families from all three schools met in person and engaged in improv activities and collaborative story creation. These activities allowed the families and students to engage with each other and promoted parent-child interaction. Connected by the Shared Story Adventures, people who had begun the night as virtual strangers had now made connections. One parent from ECS commented that the event had a “terrific feeling – [it was] great to be out with others sharing laughs and stories.”

Improv comedy at the community eventImprov comedy at the community event

The Shared Story Adventures program was paid for by generous donations from The Lippman Group at Merrill Lynch and The Kingsley Association. Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab provided a GigaPan for use in this project.


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Learning at Libraries in the Information Age Thu, 26 Feb 2015 18:18:07 +0000 At an elementary school in Riverside, Connecticut, the campus library has been rechristened. The new “learning commons” is home to a makerspace equipped with a 3-D printer and an active staff of digital media specialists. Students can still check out any of the thousands of books on the shelves or work quietly on their homework, but the new moniker and resources reflect a widespread shift in libraries throughout the country.

For centuries, libraries functioned as unique archives of written information and stories. Now, that information is available on many portable devices, but libraries are not obsolete. Far from it.

“In many communities around the world public libraries are still the only place where any person, regardless of education or skill level, can have access to information,” wrote IDEO in a recent report. Libraries are actually uniquely situated to support new types of learning and curious communities.

Recognizing the changing role of libraries, the Knight Foundation focused its 12th annual Knight News Challenge on the topic. The contest posed the question: “How might we leverage libraries as a platform to build more knowledgeable communities?” Twenty-two winners, who split $3 million in prize money, were announced in January.

The Metropolitan New York Library Council will use its winnings to assemble a mobile team of digital archivists, who will help residents in Brooklyn and Queens tell . At the Chicago Public Library, the Knight funding will go toward in-person study groups for students who want to supplement their online courses with live discussion. The Library Freedom Project, a series of traveling workshops, will teach librarians digital security methods and privacy law.

Most of the Knight projects share a premise: Libraries have always been excellent repositories of information. With some restructuring and support, they can continue to serve this function in the digital age. Another winning initiative, Boston’s Open Data to Open Knowledge, will corral the city’s public data—“digital artifacts of our life in a digital environment”—and release it in an accessible and organized manner.

As libraries carve out these new identities, many librarians are taking a thoughtful look at their physical spaces. “When every student has the potential to carry a global library on the device in his or her pocket, the role of physical libraries may become even more important, not just a place to house resources, but one in which to create meaning from them,” wrote Beth Holland in Edutopia. For young learners, it can be particularly important for a physical space to be inviting. At Westlake High School in Austin, Texas, the library was redesigned without any walls or other physical barriers, so the site is ripe for spontaneous collaboration and colearning.

In the report “Design Thinking for Libraries,” IDEO encouraged librarians to apply the principles of design thinking to their buildings and programs. The creative approach to problem solving asks empathetic, intuitive designers to focus on human needs. The process can be simple. When a second-grade teacher in New York noticed his students were disengaged, he asked them how the classroom could better meet their needs. It turned out the bulletin boards he used in most lessons were too high for the kids to see, IDEO reported.

Libraries can redesign their spaces and programs to better serve the needs of their patrons, too, whether that means simply lowering the shelves or adding a brand new children’s play area as the Chicago Public Library branch did, IDEO reported. The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh has long served as a venue for informal and digital learning. At The Labs, teenagers engage in hands-on creative tech projects, building robots and shooting videos.

These experts remind us that the piles of dusty books and literate librarians cherished by patrons of yesteryear are still around. Building on—not discarding—our print past, libraries have the opportunity to take on many new and necessary roles, be it a community center, data hub, or makerspace.





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TeacherQuest Case Files: “Engaming” Special Needs Students Wed, 25 Feb 2015 22:00:56 +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. 

At Rankin Promise School, a small group of students are huddled around a deck of playing cards. They’re yelling out numbers and scribbling on sheets of paper. Each student is both eager and focused; they are “engamed” as teacher Bill Wilson calls it. A blend of game and engaged, it’s his term to describe learning through game play, a methodology he has been incorporating into his classrooms since he started in the TeacherQuest program last summer.

Wilson teaches both math and reading at the fifth and sixth grade level at Rankin Promise, part of the Woodland Hills School District. Those who attend Rankin demonstrate a need for an alternative learning environment, or have special needs. Each student receives individualized academic support to help them succeed in graduating, along with professional counseling to enhance social and behavioral skills that carry into the real world. Teaching such a diverse group of students poses many challenges, but it also allows many opportunities.

Bringing Games Into the Classroom 

This school year, Wilson brings gaming into the classroom at least once a week, whereas last school year he almost never played games in class. After the TeacherQuest summer intensive, he was excited to put his new game-based learning skills into action and see how the students would react. During the first few months of school, he took it slow. He wanted his students to grasp the basics of working together and problem solving.

In a recent week, Wilson’s students played a few different games that focused on math: Rush 21, a mod of the fast-paced blackjack card game, and Kornered, a store-bought game that teaches spatial awareness and patterns. He ensures that the games he uses are aligned with district standards and that the needs of each student are being met. Wilson also debuted new game he discovered called Fraction Flip It, which generated random fractions that students had to solve. The room buzzed with enthusiasm. While one student was shouting out an answer, another would be helping a friend with their cards.

“The students never know when we are going to play the games,” Wilson said. “So, I notice they pay extra attention to learn the concepts because they want to be able to get the answers right when we do play. And if I can get one student to focus, then the rest tend to follow suit.”

Gathering Student Feedback

Gaming in the classroom has proved to be a success for Wilson, but he’s also faced some bumps along the way. Some days his kids are motivated to learn, and other days they need a little more coaxing to concentrate on the task at hand. His small class size of just four students has both worked for and against him. With so few students, games are limited to teams of two or individual play.

Although Wilson continues to look for inspiration for new games and ways to modify existing games, he has yet to allow students to create their own games. He says they’re just not at that stage yet, but he hopes to get the kids designing their own games by the end of the school year.

When asked if they liked learning with games, all four students emphatically said, “yes!”

Even though Wilson’s students aren’t designing their own games, he regularly solicits feedback from the group. He uses “heat-checks,” a facilitation tool he learned through TeacherQuest that allows students to give immediate feedback. Based on a scale of one to ten, Wilson will have students raise their hands as he counts. They put down their hands when he reaches the score they choose. He analyzes levels of difficulty and interest this way. And afterward, he allows the students to defend their scores and offer ways to improve the game. When asked if they liked learning with games, all four students emphatically said, “yes!”

Sharing Ideas and Inspiration

With the full support of the school’s administration, including principal Lamont Lyons (who attended a day-long session as part of the TeacherQuest summer intensive), Wilson is looking for a way to incorporate games as an assessment tool. Taking full advantage of the TeacherQuest online community where other educators in the program share advice, successes, questions, and challenges, he is learning just like his students. Wilson also inspires his fellow teachers with his own posts, especially his story about watching the Price is Right and coming up with a new spin on the game 4 in 40 that teaches students vocabulary in his English class.

In the future, Wilson knows he will continue to use gaming in the classroom. One day he hopes to lead an afterschool program and to hold district-wide sessions for teachers who are interested in using games as a teaching tool. And he wouldn’t hesitate to return to another TeacherQuest program or to encourage his colleagues to get involved. But for now, you can find him and his students laughing, learning, and playing games.


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The Maker Movement Gets a Dose of Critique Mon, 23 Feb 2015 22:06:07 +0000 ...Continue reading »]]> Seems everyone is a cheerleader for the maker movement these days, from President Obama to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Who isn’t in favor of more self-directed, hands-on learning projects; cupcake cars; or kids working with old-fashioned looms?

That’s why—for a lot of maker-oriented folks browsing the internet late last January—Debbie Chachra’s “Why I Am Not a Maker” in the Atlantic made them do a Twitter-scroll double take. It certainly did for me.

“An identity built around making things—of being ‘a maker’—pervades technology culture,” she wrote. “There’s a widespread idea that ‘People who make things are simply different [read: better] than those who don’t.’”

As Chachra, who is an associate professor at the Olin College of Engineering, went on to explain, placing such high value on making things isn’t only buying into an overtly capitalistic mindset—it’s carrying on a gendered history of prioritizing creation of stuff over occupations like caretaking or education, roles historically taken by women.

She also points to the peculiarity that coding has been folded so seamlessly into the maker movement. She attests that’s because we’ve figured out how to sell code—and it’s perceived to be done mainly by men. Meanwhile, teaching and caregiving, traditionally women’s work, isn’t considered part of the “maker” domain.

“Making is not a rebel movement, scrappy individuals going up against the system,” she wrote. “While the shift might be from the corporate to the individual (supported, mind, by a different set of companies selling a different set of things), it mostly re-inscribes familiar values, in slightly different form: that artifacts are important, and people are not.”

Cue the mental tire screech-sound effect at that one.

Although Chachra’s piece may be controversial, as far as I can tell, the general reaction on social media seemed to be an appreciation for her thoughtful critique. People all around the web—maker advocates or not—called it “challenging” or “thought provoking.” She does not hold back. And because so much coverage routinely hails the maker movement as the greatest thing since sliced bread, something that looks at it from a skeptical angle is refreshing to hear.

Of course, the piece elicited response from many who do consider themselves makers, often very proudly. At DML Central, educational researcher Nicole Mirra took Chachra’s critiques one by one.

“Couldn’t we instead proudly embrace our multiple identities and work to draw out the connections between them—the ways that we cannot fully realize our potential as makers until we work on cultivating the crucial caring virtues of listening, empathizing, and loving?” – Nicole Mirra

“Couldn’t we instead proudly embrace our multiple identities and work to draw out the connections between them—the ways that we cannot fully realize our potential as makers until we work on cultivating the crucial caring virtues of listening, empathizing, and loving?” Mirra wrote.

Meanwhile, blogger and the chair of computer science at the Baldwin School, Laura Blankenship, noted that the maker movement arose from our existing culture, meaning it brings with it cultural sexism, racism, and classism. But similar to Mirra’s articulations, Blankenship thinks it’s worth trying to change the movement from within.

“The maker movement deserves our critical eye, for sure, but it should be changed and not rejected,” she wrote. “Its focus can’t be on what makes white, middle aged men happy—robots, cool gadgets, cars—but we need to point out when this is happening and correct it.”

As Mirra pointed out in the beginning of her post, there does seem to be a gap in definitions. Although she doesn’t explain it, Chachra’s maker movement seems to focus in on techie, Silicon Valley start-up culture that builds the types of things that could be sold or, at the very least, shown off. But in schools and informal learning spaces, it’s the wondrously frustrating process of making that’s valued—the result of a catapult or a sword or circuit is really only a bonus. Many would likely argue there is no “adult” maker movement and educational maker movement but that it’s one and the same. However, there does seem to be a difference in definitions between what Chachra has experienced and what goes on day in and day out in makerspaces built for kids and their families.

A dialogue on making can’t be a bad thing, though. Along with recognition, at this point the maker movement has gained a key ingredient to any thing that’s ever made an impact: healthy critique.

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Project Zero: What Does Learning Look Like? Thu, 19 Feb 2015 23:32:13 +0000 Nearly 200 teachers took to Harvard Square one summer afternoon. They wandered the grounds, observing, touching, and documenting their surroundings. The professionals were participants in the Project Zero Classroom (PZC), an annual summer institute for educators. The hosts of the PZC sent their guests outdoors to get “an experiential feel” for their learning materials.

When Project Zero (PZ) began in 1967, it “functioned as a loosely knit think tank,” wrote former director Howard Gardner (the current director is Daniel Wilson). In this early form, the Harvard Graduate School of Education project, founded by philosopher Nelson Goodman, focused its research on cognition and the arts. The name was a snarky nod to the state of research on arts education at the time: Virtually “zero” was known about the field.

In the following decades, PZ expanded to encompass a much broader range of inquiry. Now, many of its programs and studies examine learning at large. PZ asks: What does learning look like? What type of learning is relevant for these students in this moment and in the future? What is the nature of understanding?

PZ asks: What does learning look like? What type of learning is relevant for these students in this moment and in the future? What is the nature of understanding?

At the most basic level, this means an emphasis on all types of engaged, self-directed learning and a departure from standardized, test-based teaching.

During a period of expansion in the 1990s, PZ built the bridge between theory and practice that is now its hallmark. At Gardner’s insistence, the PZC institute began, encouraging educators to participate in the same type of critical, interdisciplinary thinking they foster in their students.

“We need to have the individuals who are involved in education, primarily teachers and administrators, believe in this, really want to do it, and get the kind of help that they need in order to be able to switch, so to speak, from a teacher-centered, let’s-stuff-it-into-the-kid’s-mind kind of education to one where the preparation is behind the scenes and the child himself or herself is at the center of learning,” Gardner said in an interview.

Although dozens of initiatives and programs under the PZ umbrella have launched and ended, a few foundational principles have remained constant. Teaching for Understanding, a concept developed in the 1990s, refers to the idea that understanding is an ever-changing activity, not a static condition. Initially a five-year research project that produced a template for a curriculum, Teaching for Understanding has become a guiding framework.

Visible Thinking is another fundamental phrase in the PZ lexicon. Although we might assume we know how we arrived at a conclusion, “Mostly, thinking happens under the hood, within the marvelous engine of our mind-brain,” according to the PZ website. Visible Thinking is a call to get kids—and adults—to trace their cognitive processes, and to integrate this type of thinking-about-thinking with traditional content-based learning.

So what do these concepts look like when applied to modern-day classrooms? Like the educators at the PZC, students might spend an afternoon taking a hands-on walk or contemplating a painting. But PZ calls for learning tailored to today’s world. And the project is a fertile setting for digital learning.

Speaking in 1997, Gardner encouraged teachers to use interactive technology to reach different types of learners. “We have this myth that the only way to learn something is to read it in a textbook or hear a lecture on it,” he said. “But that’s nonsense. Everything can be taught in more than one way. And anything that’s understood can be shown in more than one way.”

Kristen Kullberg, a Washington, D.C. teacher, told Greater Greater Washington her students’ “comprehension has sky-rocketed” since she began implementing the principles of Project Zero. “They begin to understand that ambiguity and unanswered questions don’t need to be sources of frustration,” she explained.

Another D.C. government teacher, Karen Lee, said PZ “provided a framework for deep thinking” in an exercise in which her students drew connections between a Langston Hughes poem and the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

Here in Pittsburgh, collaborations between schools and Project Zero have taken many forms. Most notable was the five-year Arts PROPEL program in the Pittsburgh Public Schools. The Arts PROPEL curriculum emphasizes making, as well as time to observe and reflect.

And recently, teachers at Quaker Valley School District have spearheaded the development of a consortium of five school districts to participate in ProjectZero training and workshops exploring how school extension activities can incorporate lessons learned from decades of ProjectZero practice.

If it seems like Project Zero is expansive, multifaceted, and maybe a bit nebulous—well, that’s because it is.

“Attempts to create a short and sharp ‘mission statement’ for Project Zero have never succeeded,” Gardner wrote. “Project Zero is too loose a confederation of researchers and practitioners, and it is too much subject to the whims of national priorities and funding preferences, to lend itself to a simple formulation. In that sense, our ‘zero’ is both a benefit and a curse.”




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Talking to Teens About Social Media Tue, 17 Feb 2015 22:09:03 +0000 Teenage girls at a high school in Berkeley, California, logged onto Instagram one day last year to find photos of themselves populating a so-called slut page. Their male peers had taken the liberty of uploading their photos and captioning them with derogatory and misogynistic phrases. The Instagram account was eventually deleted and the perpetrators were suspended, but not before the incident caused emotional trauma.

One thing is clear: The internet did not give birth to sexism. Or to teenage bullying. It’s easy to forget that a social network is simply the digital manifestation of dynamics that exist in daily offline life, as dana boyd described in her book, “It’s Complicated.” But social media certainly provides ample opportunities to take those dynamics to the extreme.

There’s been plenty of conversation about how traditional media, from magazines filled with Photoshopped models to unrealistic TV shows, affect young people’s (and particularly girls’) perceptions of their own bodies. But there’s much less research on whether social media has a similar effect.

When Common Sense Media surveyed teens about social media, they found that many, particularly girls, are self-conscious about how they appear online. Thirty-five percent worry about being tagged in unattractive photos. And four in 10 teens say they encounter sexist or homophobic comments on social media.

In one study, teenage girls who used Facebook were found to be significantly more likely to want to be thinner than were teenage girls who did not use Facebook. (Common Sense Media notes the study didn’t prove causality; Facebook may attract a certain type of user.) Some young women struggling with eating disorders spend time in “pro-ana” or “thinspiration” social media forums, where they post pictures of their ideal bodies and cheer on each other’s weight loss.

Teens need help navigating and learning how to behave in the digital world, just like they do in the real world. Common Sense Media says parents should remind their kids that “If they wouldn’t do something in real life, they shouldn’t do it online.” When we teach kids to challenge beauty standards and to be tolerant of differences, we need to ensure those messages carry over to their digital lives.

“Students must be made to understand that online behavior has offline consequences, be given the tools to stand up and support their peers and know that, when they are being targeted, they have people to talk to,” said Common Sense Media CEO and founder Jim Steyer.

Here in Pittsburgh, Mars Area Middle School has put that advice into practice. The school’s digital citizenship curriculum tackles appropriate online behavior. Jennifer Ehehalt, the Pittsburgh regional manager at Common Sense Media, facilitates similar conversations in schools throughout the city.

Social media’s massive power can also be harnessed as a tool for effecting positive change, at school and elsewhere. Responding to the Instagram slut page—and to what they perceived as their peers’ rampant offline misogyny—the Berkeley students launched a campaign against sexual harassment. Much of the activism took place online, including on the app used to target the girls in the first place.

For some young users, social media may actually boost body confidence. Some say the selfie—much maligned as the quintessential symbol of social media narcissism—is a confidence builder. These selfie advocates say young women are celebrating how they look and curating their own self-expression rather than letting others do it for them. In a TODAY/AOL survey on body image, 65 percent of teenage girls reported that flattering selfies they or others posted online improved their self-esteem. Forty percent of all teens said social media lets “me present my best face to the world.” However, in the same survey, 53 percent said that unflattering photos posted by others made them feel bad about themselves. Further, 55 percent of girls said overall, social media made them feel more self-conscious about their appearance. It seems that self-esteem depends on who is controlling the image.

The percentage of girls who said social media makes them more self-conscious is notably larger than the percentage of boys—55 percent compared with 34 percent. This difference, which appears repeatedly throughout the survey, suggests that social media’s effects are not inherent to the medium. Offline, adult women spend 100 more hours annually on their appearances than men do, noted the same survey. Social media, like other media, is only one component of a society that, across the board, demands more of girls and their bodies than it does of boys.

The surveys cited in this post are some of the first that looked at social media’s relationship with adolescent body image. Studies on boys and ethnic minorities are particularly scant, and few researchers actively seek youth voices. The first step for those of us wondering how growing up in a digital world affects teenagers may be sitting down and listening.

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The Digital Corps comes to the Allentown Learning & Engagement Center Fri, 13 Feb 2015 19:15:46 +0000 The Allentown Learning & Engagement Center (ALEC), a project of the Brashear Association, provides young people in Pittsburgh’s Hilltop communities with a space that’s all their own. Brashear’s Amber Rooke recently shared this post about the Digital Corps at ALEC.

We have had the amazing opportunity to be a host site for the Sprout Fund’s Remake Learning Digital Corps program, twice! We participated in one class, once a week for 8 weeks. Our students love this program and always look forward to it every time.
Don’t know what Digital Corps is? Watch this quick video to learn more:


Over the course of the 8 week program, our students learned how to manipulate code, learn basic machine functions, build their own robots and more. It became a reward for good behavior because all of our 5th graders could not wait for our Tuesday sessions with their Digital Corps teachers, Ms. MK and Mr. Mike.

Each session built off the last session. They played educational games to understand functions the first week which set the foundation for lessons to which the instructors would refer back to each lesson. The students seemed to understand the way the technology worked from when they acted it out in a game.
This was a great learning tool to see in action. When students act or participate hands on in a lesson they are more apt to retain the information, and in a way have become the teacher as well.
Our students really seemed to like the hummingbird kits and had a lot of fun manipulating the technology to work for them and and their desires for a specific robot.
The best part of the program, for me, was watching two particular students. Student A tends to excel in school, at homework and likes to spread knowledge to anyone who will listen. Student B experiences great difficulty when it comes to homework, reading and following basic directives in a classroom setting. Student B came alive in this class, he quickly grasped the concepts that were taught and jumped ahead immediately without needing further instruction. When I asked Student B if he had done this before he replied “No, It’s just easy, Ms. Amber!” Student A struggled and needed frequent assistance and often sat back and gave up or expected the teacher to do the project for him.
It was amazing to see how the roles were reversed given the environment and the task. A constant nod to Ingnacio Estrada who stated:
“If a child can’t learn the way we teach, 
maybe we should teach the way they learn.”
Ignacio Estrada

I also appreciated how empowered our girls felt after each class.  Back in October, before the program started and after hearing the class description, one of our girls commented that this was a boys class. We discussed that this was not true, girls and boys can both excel at technology based programs and so much more.  After each class the girls would excitedly tell me all about what they did and how much fun they had.
We have greatly appreciated all the hard work and effort that Ani Martinez, Digital Corps Program Manager, has poured into this program as well as the many Digital Corps instructors.

We look forward to doing it again in the future!

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What’s the Next Step for Pittsburgh’s Learning Pathways? Your Feedback. Fri, 13 Feb 2015 16:16:06 +0000 Back in November, more than 400 educators, artists, students, and learning experts came together for the Pittsburgh Learning Pathways Summit. There, they exchanged ideas and envisioned pathways that would harness the region’s diverse learning opportunities. Now, seven working groups are looking for feedback from fellow subject-matter experts.

In case you need a refresher, a learning pathway is a bit like a “choose your own adventure” book where students move through various education opportunities that both interest them and equip them with a set of skills.

Theoretically, this could happen in any city with a rich web of education programs. But in Pittsburgh, seven working groups in different focus areas (robotics, STEAM, design and making, coding and gaming, media making, early learning, and career readiness) have identified the competencies young people need to gain along each path, helping them build on their talents and interests every step of the way. And badges, a new type a digital credential, are serving as way finders along these paths to show what kids have already accomplished.

In recent months, the groups have been poring over feedback from the summit, making adjustments, and identifying evidence that could be used to demonstrate competence in each focus area.

For example, in a model pathway for media making, students might start by taking a stop motion animation class at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and then move onto a digital photo workshop at Pittsburgh Filmmakers. From there, they would head to WYEP’s audio workshop to learn how to capture audio for video projects, and then they’d move on to Duquesne University, where they’d learn to add music. The pathway continues through workshops for editing, script writing, and presentation screenings.

“I’m invested in the idea of digital badges and what they could mean for Pittsburghers, especially at-risk youth.” Corey Wittig, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh

Though the members of the working groups were putting their heads together to map out these paths for kids, several members said the process was helpful for informing their own work.

“The working group project really helped to bounce ideas off of a bunch of folks serving youth around the city,” said Corey Wittig, the digital learning librarian for teen services at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. “I’m invested in the idea of digital badges and what they could mean for Pittsburghers, especially at-risk youth.”

Jessica Ruffin, site director of Public Allies Pittsburgh, agreed. “Our organization could be well-positioned to recognize badges,” she said. “It was a great opportunity to share about our region’s resources and opportunities. I learned a ton.”

But there are plenty of experts who weren’t in the room for these discussions. That leads to our next step: We need your brainpower.

We’re collecting more feedback through a set of surveys where everyone can rate and comment on each of the competencies developed by the Working Groups. After that, the Digital Badge Lab at The Sprout Fund will incorporate this last set of feedback and finalize the competencies and learning pathways, complete with graphics.

It’s been a long process to develop this project, but Maggie Negrete, a teaching artist for MGR Youth Empowerment, summed up an overarching goal at the summit last fall: “It’s about connecting community members,” she said. “There are so many people who live in our community who have the knowledge and resources we’re searching for. I wish every kid could find that one person who knew how to just get started.”

The Remake Learning Badge Competency Surveys are open now. Share your feedback!

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Rethinking Reuse: Catching Up With Erika Johnson Tue, 10 Feb 2015 18:05:32 +0000 Erika Johnson is the executive director of the Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse (PCCR). The center is both a shop of reclaimed materials and a center for hands-on creative programming. An evangelist for reuse, Johnson believes reuse is an essential and underappreciated way to build sustainable communities. Johnson is also an installation artist with a long-term passion for found, rescued, and reclaimed materials, and a more recent obsession with microscopic animals.

Remake Learning: What’s new at the Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse?

Erika Johnson: We specialize in used and reclaimed materials, but there is always something new going on. Nora and Katy on our education team have been helping our friends in the Climate & Urban Systems Partnership to develop fun, creative ways of sharing scientifically accurate information about climate change. Their 2015 calendar is filling up fast with afterschool events, workshops for kids and educators, and festivals.

Our biggest news this minute is that we are racing the clock to meet a dollar-for-dollar matching challenge from an anonymous donor to help us purchase a new van. Since our old van died in December, we haven’t been able to pick-up large donations and our staff and volunteers are carpooling to events. Our community is totally pulling together for us, and we’re having a pay-what-you-can, potluck, grown-up crafting party on February 12 to help us raise the last little bit. We keep the shop open late the second Thursday of every month for Open Studio, where creative minds 18 and older can play with the abundant materials in our “bulk” section. This month will be extra special.

We like to think these kids will grow into adults who reimagine waste as a resource for building a better world.

What do you consider the center’s biggest accomplishment so far?

I am so proud that we exist! Since 2010, we’ve grown from a tiny team of artists in an attic to a thriving resource for our community. I love that so many of our city’s libraries, schools, nonprofit organizations, teachers, artists, and innovators use materials from PCCR for their creative projects.

An entire generation of Pittsburgh kids is practicing creativity and sustainability through play with reclaimed materials. We like to think that means they will grow into adults who reimagine waste as a resource for building a better world.

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

The hardest thing is knowing how much amazing stuff gets thrown away every day in our city and not having the capacity to get more of it into the hands of educators, artists, and makers who could use it. We’re proud of the fact that we diverted over 35 tons of reusable material from the landfill last year, but that’s actually less than the city’s recycling team picks up every day.

What makes a collaboration successful?

Successful collaboration requires trust—both in ones’ collaborators and in the process of co-creation—and a willingness to surrender individual control. My friend Hannah DuPlessis recently gave a brilliant talk at Google’s Pittsburgh offices in which she talked about successful collaboration through the lens of improvisational theatre. It’s a great read for anyone interested in creating with others.

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

If it’s cold outside, there’s nothing better than a visit to one of our great museums. On a sunny day, though, you’re more likely to find me in the Homewood Cemetery looking at frogs and moss and collecting pond water to look at with my homemade microscope.

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Why Google Could Use a Lesson in Design Thinking Thu, 05 Feb 2015 19:02:40 +0000 Before consumers even had the opportunity to purchase the digital eyewear, Google announced in January it would pull Google Glass off the market. The company isn’t completely shattering Glass, but rather it’s putting an end to the “Explorer” program, which allowed curious developers to try out the product for $1,500. Google insists this is hardly the company’s last foray into wearable technology, but the original Glass has fielded overwhelming criticism since it was launched to the elite crowd in 2012.

The primary cause of concern? Privacy. The camera feature caused discomfort among unwitting passersby who couldn’t tell whether they were being quietly photographed or filmed. “Glass is easy to ignore” for the person wearing it, but “Google’s challenge in making the device a successful consumer product will be convincing the people around you to ignore it as well,” wrote Simson Garfinkel in the MIT Technology Review. Other Explorers complained that Glass was no more useful than existing devices—only much more conspicuous. New tech gadgets are often praised for their sleekness and style, but Glass just looks like a pair of geeky spectacles, wrote Jake Swearingen in the Atlantic.

Glass’s (at least temporary) demise is a cautionary tale for technologists. In another light, it’s a ringing endorsement of design thinking.

Problem solving is at the core of design thinking, which IDEO CEO Tim Brown defined as “a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.” A key element—“the needs of people”—may have evaded Google.

“It’s simple,” wrote Mickey McManus, chairman and principal at MAYA Design. “We can make strides or we can make crap. Discerning between the two will require a new workforce of design thinkers: creative, flexible, and able to imagine and solve a problem that doesn’t yet exist.”

OK, Glass? What problem did you solve?

OK, Glass? What problem did you solve?

Design thinking is a socially conscious approach that demands tech savviness but also calls on the humanity of the designer. In the case of Google Glass, a simple, intuitive assessment of the cultural moment may have revealed the culprits of Glass’s eventual downfall. Students of all ages who are engaged in design thinking could have told us: It’s kind of creepy. It’s dorky. We have to wear a computer on our faces?

Google could learn a lesson from REALM Charter School in Berkeley, California, where students put the principles of good design thinking into practice. Emily Pilloton, teacher and Studio H founder, wrote that design should be “an active response to a context . . . a social act that builds citizenship in the next generation.” Students in her program have built a school library, a farmers’ market, and an outdoor classroom. But before diving into the projects, they conduct ethnographic research to identify their community’s (or, in the case of the library and classroom, their own) needs.

Some designers have argued Google Glass is actually an exemplar of design thinking. The project was a grand experiment that incorporated creative risks and unconventional thinking—and a failure that is possibly more revealing than success would have been. Design thinking is simply manifested differently at a massive company like Google than it is in a classroom or studio, said Daniel Rose, an officer at a design-oriented consulting firm, in a LinkedIn discussion.

“For most organizations, doing some prototypes and a small beta test would be a good example of Design Thinking, but for a company with the heft of Google, they can absolutely afford to ‘launch’ something and see how it does without putting themselves at risk,” Rose wrote. “The amount of info that they learned from developing and launching it was incredible.”

He has a point. Problem solvers and out-of-the-box thinkers have to be willing to engage in some trial and error. And creative ideas often result from less successful ones. But tech for tech’s sake—products created without humanity in mind—won’t have an audience.

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Student App Designers Get Feedback From the Pros Mon, 02 Feb 2015 22:38:31 +0000 Last year, a team of high school students came to Aileen Owens, director of technology and innovation at South Fayette School District, wanting to solve a problem by using technology. The students just didn’t know which problem.

But with a little digging, the team landed on its mission: keeping kids safe on their way to and from school. Soon, the idea for the BusBudE was a born—an app that texts parents when their kids have hopped on the bus and when they’ve gotten off. And last month, the team took its prototype to local design consultancy MAYA Design, where professional designers gave the members a slew of feedback to work with.

The “Rose, Bud, Thorn” feedback process at work. Photo/Aileen Owens

Here’s how BusBudE works: An elementary school student attaches a lanyard with a small barcode to his or her backpack. When the student gets on the bus at the end of the school day, he or she scans it on a tablet at the front of the bus. The student’s parents or caregiver receive a text showing them what time their student got on and the bus number. Same goes for when the student gets off the bus.

The students coded the app using the MIT App Inventor, which is a simple block-based programming tool a bit like an advanced version of Scratch, the kids programming language developed by the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab. The BusBudE team members—Meghan Banerjee, Joe Cavanaugh, Sam Cohen, and Nick Wilke—have designated roles including programming, product development, and research and communications. Seniors Allie Kenawell and Nick Karafilis also previously worked on the project.

After the app was in working order, the team headed over to MAYA Design where the designers gave the members feedback through a process called “Rose, Bud, Thorn.” The designers helped the team sort out what works, what pieces have potential, and the aspects that still need to be ironed out or tossed altogether.

Although the designers thought BusBudE was a good first iteration, they had questions. Don’t a lot of kids have cell phones nowadays? Are you sure you can keep all this data safe and private? Have you thought about using GPS? The designers also gave the team tips on how to beta-test effectively.

Owens said rather than being discouraged by the feedback, the critiques energized the team.

“They felt valued, to think designers took their time to give them feedback. The feedback they gave them, in every instance, was another area they needed to explore,” Owens explained. “On the way home, they were rejuvenated—they wanted to get the beta test going right now. It fueled their ideas.”

All the work on BusBudE was extracurricular as part of South Fayette’s Emerging Innovation Leaders program in which students can come to Owens to get support for working on a project or solving a problem. Another middle school student is currently building two robots that will monitor the intermediate school’s hydroponic gardens. And for the last three years, another team of high-schoolers has been developing a pen-based flashcard app

For Owens, watching students go through the process was eye opening. Students had to work together, communicate their ideas, organize, and get up to their elbows in what MAYA Design, South Fayette, and others call the human-centered design process.

“If you see these types of programs taking off and students finding their passion and becoming innovative thinkers, that is something you take back into the curriculum,” Owens said. “How do we the change our curriculum to allow more students this kind of opportunity?”

Owens’ goal is to eventually develop a capstone course that would let students do this type of work within the curriculum of the school day.

In the meantime, the team is preparing for its first beta test at South Fayette Elementary School, where a small group of students will start checking in with BusBudE later this month.

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When Ed Meets Tech, Both Fields Win Thu, 29 Jan 2015 20:58:15 +0000 When Nikki Navta, founder and CEO of edtech company Zulama, was testing Zulama’s login system in classrooms five years ago, there was a hiccup right out of the gate.

The company included the standard username and password login, but schools blocked students from logging into personal email accounts to retrieve an activation link—and logging in through a social media account was out of the question. Plus, students had a difficult time remembering their passwords. Zulama wasn’t able to get students into their system at all.

“There are people who are developing technology for a classroom that have never set foot in a classroom.”

“We thought, ‘Wow, we’re operating in a whole different world here,’” Navta said. “‘We’re not going to make any more assumptions.’”

The company started asking teachers for their input, beginning a close collaboration with educators. Today, Zulama is used in more than 50 schools throughout the United States and internationally, including Elizabeth Forward High School in Elizabeth, Pennsylvania, and West Allegheny High School in Pittsburgh. Matched with a thorough teacher-training process, Zulama’s Entertainment Technology Academy teaches students the principles of game design through hands-on projects with the goal of recharging their engagement with school.

Zulama grew alongside Pittsburgh’s expanding edtech scene, which is forming around a small hub of startups popping up in new coworking spaces and tech incubators throughout the city. Like Zulama, several key players in the city’s tech scene have found that listening and collaborating with the people who will use their products—teachers and students—are invaluable in building products that work.

Growing Scene

Photo/ EdTech PGH

The EdTech PGH Meetup Group. Photo/EdTech PGH

Ever since Tom Lauwers, founder of BirdBrain Technologies, started commercializing the Hummingbird Robotics Kit in 2010, which he originally developed at Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab, he too has witnessed the edtech scene in Pittsburgh grow around him.

Lauwers said he has used Pittsburgh as the “test bed” for new products before scaling nationally, partnering with educators almost every step of the way. BirdBrain recently started shipping its new Hummingbird Kit Duo, which was shaped by the feedback from a number of Pittsburgh teachers who have been using the product for years.

“Many of the same teachers who have worked with us in the past have provided us tons and tons of advice in terms of how could we improve,” he said. “Most of those people [who have been giving me feedback] have been in Pittsburgh, because I see them around and at Kids+Creativity Network events. Because the events and network exists, that’s what helps me connect more easily with people who are, in a way, my customers, but also my co-developers.”

A similar idea exchange happens monthly during the meetings of the Courtney Francis, the organizer of the group and co-organizer of the upcoming Startup Weekend Education Pittsburgh, has worked in the edtech field for 10 years. She said the group’s 241 members are fairly evenly split between educators and technologists and that the goals of the group speak to each group’s unique interests.

“It’s such a complex ecosystem,” Francis said. “There are people who are developing technology for a classroom that have never set foot in a classroom. There’s such a complex system around doing this effectively that I think people really want to do it right. Working on the tech side, I’ve seen clearly that there needs to be 360 degrees of support for developing this kind of technology.”

“I’ve seen clearly that there needs to be 360 degrees of support for developing this kind of technology.”

For example: At one open forum, technologists had the chance to showcase their work and receive teacher feedback.

“There were a lot of lightbulbs that went off,” Francis said. For one thing, technologists weren’t aware of the really low budgets for tech in the classroom, and some didn’t understand how many schools’ sluggish internet connections can’t run web-based applications well. Others weren’t aware of how difficult implementation can be.

Although getting ed and tech in the same room can be eye opening for the tech side, the reverse can be true as well.

“The collaborative aspect is really important,” Francis explained. She said introducing teachers to the process of development can both broaden their perspectives and introduce new tools to teachers who are interested in using different technology in their classrooms.

Sales vs. Learning: Can Goals Really Align?

Although there’s a healthy back-and-forth between educators and technologists in the group, Francis said some educators have been “burned” before by poor implementation or products that don’t serve their needs. Not all of the estimated $7.9 billion pre-K–12 edtech market in the United States is made well. Seeing gaps or becoming frustrated, many teachers have struck out on their own to develop products. But Francis believes that teachers’ priorities of learning outcomes and technologists’ goals of creating great products can be aligned. Ideally, products are going to sell better if they really work.

But collaboration across sectors isn’t just key for tech to work better in schools. As Jesse Schell, founder of Schell Games, told Barbara Ray in an interview, collaboration across sectors is how new ideas pop up in all disciplines.

“Interdisciplinary collaboration is where the best and newest innovations are coming from,” said Schell.

Zulama’s Navta sees the growth of the city’s edtech scene, and the emerging partnerships, as running parallel to an overall renaissance of Pittsburgh.

“Along with this revitalization, there’s been a lot of opportunities to imagine what Pittsburgh can be like in the future. And I think that’s carried over into our educational community,” Navta said, adding that the same is true in the edtech field, where new coworking spaces—like the one Zulama is in—have helped form a community that works off one another.

“Now we have the physical spaces for very small companies to set up shop, talk to each other, and share successes and failures.”

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Gamer-in-Chief: Catching Up with Drew Davidson Wed, 28 Jan 2015 17:40:55 +0000 As director and teaching professor at Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center, Drew Davidson has his finger on the pulse of the latest and greatest in game design and learning. And he’s always pushing the envelope.

Davidson runs ETC Press, an open-source publishing imprint. He’s also the editor of its Well Played Journal, which focuses on video games, value, and meaning. Davidson led a team of designers to create the Chicago Public Library’s YOUmedia, a digital space for teens now replicated throughout the country. In addition, he’s been a leading voice in national conversations on game play, storytelling, interactive media, and more.

Remake Learning: What’s new in your approach to teaching game design to students?

Drew Davidson: We’re getting more formalized, leading an undergraduate game design minor as well as exploring a graduate concentration in game design.

Think, “We can work together” instead of “I’m brilliant.”

What do you consider your/your organization’s biggest accomplishment as part of the Kids+Creativity Network?

We’re definitely proud of the work on MAKESHOP with the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh and all the great work we’re doing with the Elizabeth Forward School District. High-schoolers there are continuing to take game design courses through the Entertainment Technology Academy we helped develop. And most recently, a team of students has been working on building an interactive Energy Lab in Elizabeth Forward’s middle school.

What makes a collaboration successful? 

I think there’s three key things: (1) Check your ego at the door. (2) Come in with a “yes, and” attitude, and think, “We can work together” instead of “I’m brilliant.” (3) Be open to other people’s expertise and have mutual respect. (4) Also, dedicate the time. The process will definitely pull you from your “job.” Relatedly, someone must own the process of coordination—keep the ball rolling and nudge people to stay in it.

How has the Kids+Creativity Network influenced your work?

It’s enabled us to make a more direct connection around the area, which has grounded our work in real-world impact. The spirit of collaboration is strong in Pittsburgh.

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

The paperwork. While important, it’s the least inspiring part.

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

Hang out with my wife and our pack of pets—three dogs and two cats.

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Game Design Contest Empowers the Player Thu, 22 Jan 2015 17:51:57 +0000 A national video game design contest takes the game controller out of kids’ hands and replaces it with the reins.

The National STEM Video Game Challenge, an initiative of the Smithsonian Institution in partnership with the Joan Ganz Cooney Center and E-Line Media, is soliciting applications for its fourth annual game design competition. High school and middle school students are invited to submit entries by February 25, 2015.

We’ve often written on the benefits of game-based learning. Games, digital or otherwise, engage kids’ imagination and critical-thinking skills. Most games present a complex problem to be solved or introduce the player to interdisciplinary topics and narratives. Or a game might simply serve as a novel, enjoyable tool for learning traditional lessons.

The video game challenge takes all these benefits of game play and adds a sense of ownership and empowerment. Participants can use various innovative game design platforms to make their game. Some of these products, like MIT Media Lab’s Scratch, require or teach basic programming skills. Others, like Gamestar Mechanic, are games themselves. By solving a variety of puzzles, users “earn” items they can incorporate into their own game design. One of the most popular programs, Gamestar Mechanic was founded on the idea that “game design is an activity that allows learners to build technical, technological, artistic, cognitive, social, and linguistic skills suitable for our current and future world.”

“Pathogen Wars” is one of the winning games from the 2012 contest.

That’s the premise that gave rise to the contest. A product of the Obama administration’s Educate to Innovate initiative, the video game challenge is meant to give participants an immersive experience in the STEM fields that may be neglected in traditional education.

The contest is also designed to help girls and low-income kids enter an industry they’ve traditionally been left out of. One-third of last year’s entries were created by girls.

The winning games in 2013 ranged from 14-year-old Lexi Schneider’s “Head of the Class,” which takes players through the grades of a virtual elementary school inspired by classic comic strips, to Noah Ratcliff and Pamela Pizarro Ruiz’s “Fog,” where players solve puzzles to uncover pieces of a mystical world enshrouded in fog. The two high school students teamed up to use their respective skills in coding and design. Another duo—eighth-graders Henry Edwards and Kevin Kopczynski—made “Etiquette Anarchy,” where the player navigates Victorian England at the height of a rodent infestation, attempting to make it to a party clean and unbitten.

Teachers, too, have flexed their design muscles to make products tailored to their students’ needs and interests. Dan Caldwell, the winner of the previous National STEM Video Game Challenge prize for educators, developed sciTunes, a series of video games and songs designed to teach elementary school students about the human body through interactive exercises.

“Good teachers are always aware of what their students are doing,” Caldwell said in a video for the contest. Because they’re attuned to their students’ particular interests, struggles, and attention spans, educators are in a unique position to create something that engages and challenges them.

Last year’s National STEM Video Game Challenge raked in a whopping 4,000 entries. It’s no wonder, given that the participants get to play with a medium they’re naturally passionate about to create something exciting and educational. The $1,000 prize plus software for each winner—and $2,000 for each sponsoring organization—can’t hurt, either.

Game on.

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Pressin’ Treadles: What Kids Can Learn From a Loom Tue, 20 Jan 2015 22:47:38 +0000 ...Continue reading »]]> On any typical day in the MAKESHOP at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, kids and families are woodworking, tinkering with circuits, and crafting cardboard swords and shields. But nestled in the corner of the bustling workshop is the trusty stalwart of the space: the four-harness floor loom.

Rebecca Grabman, MAKESHOP manager, said the loom is an “eternally popular” among all ages. Even adults are amazed to see one outside of a museum.

Meanwhile, a group of older kids have repeatedly come to the workshop for hours to figure out how to manipulate the harnesses to build complex patterns, which feels a bit like solving a puzzle.

And for younger kids, using repetition to weave new shapes is a full-body experience: The loom is much bigger than they are.

Photo/Rebecca Grabman

Donated about four years ago, the loom has four sets of “harnesses” that can be lifted independently, allowing weavers to build all sorts of patterns. As long as the loom is “dressed,” or prepared, any visitor can weave with it after learning three simple steps. Other materials get thrown into the mix, too. For years, visitors have woven long “scarves” with plastic bags, 8-track tape, and a pile of old Dictaphone wire.

Although looms like the one in MAKESHOP have been around for hundreds of years, in many ways the loom perfectly embodies the ideas of the ever-growing maker movement. In case you haven’t heard, the maker movement is an expanding community of DIY aficionados making everything from enormous electric giraffes to no-heat lava lamps. It’s a movement teaching people how to ask questions about how things work and, in turn, become creators—not only consumers.

“For a lot of kids, clothing is a given. Fabric is just something that’s a part of their lives,” Grabman said. “Being able to point out to them that this is directly applicable to the things they’re very familiar with is often kind of mind blowing to kids.”

It’s mind-blowing for adults, too. There’s a reason the show “How It’s Made,” which essentially chronicles how everything from nail clippers to bagpipes is born on an assembly line, is running strong with more than 300 episodes in 14 years. We don’t know how it’s made, and seeing an everyday object put together and packaged is mesmerizing.

When kids get to assemble simple materials with their own hands, like a mechanical bug with flapping wings or a Play-Doh circuit, it can spark a whole new level of imagination and problem solving. In other words, once you see the potential for plain threads to slowly become cloth, it might be easier to imagine how pieces of raw technology might become a robot; an inflatable, solar-powered light; or a pancake 3-D printer.

“It seems so abstract because it’s string, and then it becomes an object and it could become a shirt, a coat, or a couch,” explained Grabman, who has been with MAKESHOP since its prototyping days and calls the loom “beautiful and amazing.”

“It opens up a lot of possibilities because it’s so simple but slowly becomes more complex.”

Grabman said after working with the loom, staff members and parents often point out the different threads in kids’ own blue jeans. They teach them how all fabric they’re wearing is woven differently, and they show them the seams, hems, or different fibers in their T-shirts.

“Usually they’re like ‘Whoa, I had no idea,’” she said. “Sometimes they react like it’s some kind of conspiracy—like, ‘Who put this in my world!?’”


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New Website Highlights Maker Opportunities in Higher Education Thu, 15 Jan 2015 17:58:50 +0000 When President Obama called on higher-ed institutions to create more maker initiatives last summer, Carnegie Mellon University answered the call.

The new MakeSchools site

The new MakeSchools site

Partnering with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the National Science Foundation, and the other members of the MakeSchools Alliance, CMU recently launched, a site aiming to connect the dots between the making happening in universities and best practices in maker education.

For those of you who may not have heard, the maker movement is a growing network of do-it-yourself enthusiasts who are building everything from marshmallow cannons to hovercrafts in garages at Maker Faires and state-of-the-art makeshops. The movement is making its way into classrooms as well, taking advantage of kids’ natural inclination to tinker and work with their hands.

Currently, 25 universities have profiles on, but more are in the works. The site’s goal is, in part, to increase awareness of the potential for making on college campuses.

“We’re working to showcase how making is an enormous catalyst for innovation that leads to economic, societal and community impact,” said Daragh Byrne, Intel Special Faculty at CMU and one of the managers of the site, in a press release.

Although CMU is known here in Pittsburgh as a leader in spurring the maker movement, the site lets prospective students or makers get a broader sense of what kind of making is happening nationwide.

For example, Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland is in the process of renovating a $35 million, seven-story, 50,000-square-foot makerspace called think[box], set to open next August. Right now, a much smaller think[box] is running in a separate building. But students there are already building mini airplanes, printing with three 3-D printers, and using 3-D microscopes. Think[box] is open to all students and the public—unique for a university makerspace.

Ian Charnas, who is spearheading the new think[box] (he was also one of the designers of that cool waterfall swing), was the first leader on the site to be interviewed regarding his school’s making culture.

“When you leave the sphere of consumerism, when you bridge the gap from only having bought or looked at things, and enter the world of the producer, the inventor, the maker—your mindset changes from someone hoping for a better world to someone scrambling to make it happen,” Charnas said.

Makerspaces, like the ones at CMU and Case Western, are complete maker heavens. But in Pittsburgh, kids are getting the chance to experience making much earlier than college.

As we continue to see the potential of rapid prototyping and 3-D printing, it’s even clearer how beneficial equipping kids with a maker mindset can be for day-to-day problem solving. Last month, a video about a huskie named Derby born with deformed legs went viral. A group from a company called 3D Systems created a set of custom prosthetics designed just for him. The prosthetics had looped bottoms so he wouldn’t dig them into the dirt as he ran. Maker education can help today’s students take part in this kind of exciting design and rapid prototyping. And this mindset doesn’t have to start in a university lab.

A person’s making journey can start anywhere—a garage, a shop class, a kitchen table, or an afterschool space devoted to helping kids get more chances for hands-on learning. We’re working to give kids more opportunities for this kind of hands-on learning and designing here in Pittsburgh.

We recently wrote about students in the South Fayette district who will be building with a robotics platform called VEX IQ starting later this year. And at community makerspaces like Assemble, MAKESHOP at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, and TechShop, kids and their families are working with looms, creating paper, and learning to silk screen. And, in 2015, we expect this will be only the beginning.

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Community Network Eyed as Model for Supporting Digital Learning Wed, 14 Jan 2015 13:55:15 +0000 Writing for Education Week, Benjamin Herrold visits Pittsburgh to explore how members of the Kids+Creativity Network are collaborating across sectors and leveraging new technologies to make an impact on early childhood education.

From hands-on circuitry projects for kindergartners to “maker spaces” inside local museums, this former steel town has quietly emerged as a national model for supporting fresh approaches to technology-infused education, especially for young children.

The energy and innovation flow from a close-knit network of philanthropists, educators, technologists, and advocates who prize collaboration over competition. National experts are smitten with the approach.

“Pittsburgh is absolutely a leader when it comes to building a learning ecosystem for the 21st century,” said Constance M. Yowell, the director of education at the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which is supporting the city’s efforts. Ms. Yowell described the city’s active funders and universities, as well as the willingness of unlikely partners to work together, as “core ingredients for really dynamic learning opportunities.”

Take, for example, “Message From Me,” a new app for preschoolers developed by Carnegie Mellon University and the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children. The project centers around a simple digital tool, extensive training for the adults who will be using it with children, and outside-the-box outreach that will soon include weekly programs at a local barbershop.

Early-childhood advocate Cynthia Battle and Greg Powe, who works at a local barbershop, are among the unlikely partners who have come together to support digital learning efforts in Pittsburgh.

Undoubtedly, there are challenges: Bringing the 25,000-student Pittsburgh public schools into the digital-innovation fold has been difficult, raising questions about how broad the benefits of the city’s efforts will be. Large pockets of southwestern Pennsylvania—including Pittsburgh’s devastated Homewood neighborhood, where Message From Me is being piloted most extensively—are profoundly disconnected from the city’s overall renaissance.

And the lack of a robust broadband and wireless infrastructure is as much a problem here as in other parts of the country.

Nevertheless, Pittsburgh has been flooded with awards and money for its efforts.

In February 2013, the MacArthur Foundation awarded the city $500,000 to join Chicago and New York City in creating a “hive learning network” to support nontraditional youth programming.

In April of last year, on the strength of its Kids+Creativity Network, which serves as the connective tissue for more than 200 organizational partners, Pittsburgh became the first city in the country to receive a Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Award, given to groups that “have broken the mold to create significant impact” in public-policy areas such as education and health care.

And in December, local officials announced plans to create a “learning-innovation playbook” to help other cities undertake similar work. The idea for the project came from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Read the whole story at Education Week.

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