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. Thu, 15 Jun 2017 03:59:31 +0000 en-US hourly 1 For Good Measure Tue, 06 Dec 2016 13:00:19 +0000 A network can be a great example of when more really is more.

A practice becomes more powerful when it is implemented in multiple settings. An individual has a greater impact when she can share advice and resources with others.

So in the education world, networks—cross-sector groups of educators, schools, community programs, and businesses working in tandem toward a shared goal—are catching on, and it’s no surprise.

Networks “allow ideas that are isolated, either in a classroom or community space, to scale, through sharing, collaboration, communication, and iteration,” said Anne Sekula, the director of the Remake Learning Council. The council represents the Remake Learning Network, a group of formal and informal education organizations working to increase opportunities for all young people in the greater Pittsburgh region.

Yet while members of networks sing their praises, the benefits of a network are hard to systematically track. Take “sharing” in all its manifestations—how do you count that, and how can you tell that it improves learning outcomes? As education networks proliferate, many are wrestling with the question of how, exactly, to measure networks’ unique impact. What data should be collected, and through what methods? And perhaps most important, why measure in the first place?

“That’s the million-dollar question,” Sekula said.

In its 10 years of existence, Remake Learning has focused on providing information and resources that are more immediately practical, she said. That could be money for community programs, research on the use of classroom tools, or conferences. The network has not yet invested heavily in measurement, a deeply complex and expensive task.

“It’s a tremendous set of resources that we don’t want to lightly direct away from educators and impact on programs,” Sekula said.

But at 250 members and growing, the network is now considering the benefits of self-assessment.

“We at Remake Learning have said, ‘We know we have something that’s strong, but we also want to continually improve and expand that work,’” Sekula said. To do so, the network must take a close look at its strengths and shortfalls.

What would that entail? There are a couple of different, yet interconnected, approaches to measuring what a network is and does.

Photo/Ben Filio

Remake Learning Network members gather annually. Photo/Ben Filio

Networks need to look in the mirror

“If you’re interested in networks,” said Jennifer Russell, a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh School of Education, “you want to have ways of tracking the health of the network itself.”

This type of “process measure” assesses the strength of a network—how connected its members are—rather than measuring the outcomes of its work.

Social network analysis comes in handy here. The process involves mapping a network—determining who is connected to whom, and how. Social network analysis is used in many fields, whether researchers are tracking the spread of a disease, mapping an online social media network, or studying the structure of an education network.

What data should be collected, and through what methods? And perhaps most important, why measure in the first place?

Evaluating the health of an education network is necessary, said Julie Stolzer, director of marketing and consulting at the Teaching Institute for Excellence in STEM. Mapping a learning network can reveal whether everyone working in the field knows one another and whether available resources are being used to their utmost. Stolzer has seen firsthand how that often isn’t the case until an intentional network is established and assessed.

Stolzer is one of the facilitators of the STEM Ecosystems Initiative, a program developing regional STEM learning networks in over 30 communities. Part of her job is to survey each community to get a sense of existing and potential relationships—as well as where relationships may not yet have been formed. In every single case, she said, at least one educator has insisted that everyone working in STEM education locally already knows one another. And in every single case, there is a different educator who insists there is no local STEM program.

“That was a big ‘aha’ moment,” Stolzer said. Qualitative self-assessment can help identify gaps, forge new partnerships, and include those previously left out of the loop.

Photo/Ben Filio

Photo/Ben Filio

In Pittsburgh, an evaluation of the local maker education movement also demonstrated the importance of mapping the ties in a network. The analysis revealed the critical links—those people and programs that serve as “connective tissue” between others, Sekula said.

“You find these nodes of connectivity you can really mine,” she said. “You might be surprised to find one small organization that’s highly networked and an important player, but maybe they don’t get the resources they need to do that.”

Surveying members or mapping the connections in an existing network can help those critical actors expand their reaches.

“We’re trying really hard not to reinvent the wheel, but to figure out the gems that already exist,” Stolzer said of her work on the STEM Ecosystems Initiative.

But it is one thing to take the temperature of a network. It is a more difficult task to determine whether all its connection and collaborations are helping the students it serves.

Photo/Ben Filio

Photo/Ben Filio

New kinds of measurement for new kinds of learning

“Student-level impacts are a hard thing to get your hands around,” Sekula said.

First of all, most programs in the Remake Learning Network intend to boost student engagement, equity, and innovation—and other outcomes that may be immeasurable through traditional methods like standardized tests or AP enrollment.

“You find these nodes of connectivity you can really mine.”

In Russell’s experience, one of the hardest and most critical steps in measuring student impact—of a network or otherwise—is coming up with a highly specific problem of practice. A project she worked on, for example, explored why many students were not progressing from a community college onto university or a career. But it was impossible to measure something so broad as “success after community college.” The researchers eventually figured out that many students were getting held up by a mandatory developmental math course. The lack of success in that math class became the problem of practice. The task then, said Russell, was to drill down to measurable indicators—ones that tracked long-term goals (passing the class) as well as short-term (attendance or participation in class).

“That’s a process itself—identifying those achievement outcomes that a specific network or community values,” she said.

Measurement may be the key to the sustainability of a network.

Often, the different sectors represented in a network initially have different goals and ideas about how to track them. Stolzer observed that dynamic in one of the new regional STEM networks. At an early meeting, a teacher said she thought test scores were the only way to measure student achievement. One of the business partners countered that a measure of career readiness would most accurately capture achievement. The STEM Ecosystems Initiative eventually developed a set of success indicators for all of the regional networks to use. The metrics—ranging from measures of parent engagement to indicators of professional development opportunities—are designed to apply to multiple groups’ visions of success.

Even with the right metrics, tracing those outcomes back to the network adds another layer of complexity.

The collaboration intrinsic to networks turns out to also be a barrier to measurement. Perhaps students at one of the maker afterschool programs in the Remake Learning Network become demonstrably more engaged in their creative work. Or say attendance at a career training program skyrockets. Can those outcomes be attributed to the network, versus to the autonomous programs?

Take a recent pilot study of Remake Learning summer program providers. The researchers tracked participation by demographics, interest level, and other student outcomes. But “this study wouldn’t reveal network impacts other than anecdotally,” said Carnegie Mellon University’s Marti Louw, the lead researcher. “Those kinds of studies require a much larger investment in research and evaluation.”

At the end of day, measuring networks is a challenge, but one that most involved are increasingly finding necessary—whether for the sake of self-improvement or to communicate successes to funders. Measurement, then, may be the key to the sustainability of a network and its capacity to make a difference where it matters most: for learners.

Celebrating Learning Remade in 2016 Thu, 01 Dec 2016 22:57:37 +0000 2017 marks the tenth year of the Remake Learning Network. As we close the book on our first decade, we’re taking the opportunity to look back on the Network’s work in 2016 and ahead to what comes next.

A winter of new partnerships, collaborations, and networking.

2016 began with the launch of several Ed Tech Refinery projects, which paired edtech startups with local schools and out-of-school learning partners to play-test new ed tech tools, deepening the network’s engagement with the local startup scene.

Our Remake Learning Network Meetups and Lunch and Learn events kicked off at Pittsburgh Public Schools with a talk from James Doyle about key partnerships between PPS and out-of-school-time program providers.

Remake Learning Network members traveled to California to share their insights at the Deeper Learning Conference in San Diego and the Education Foo Conference organized by Google in Mountain View. Network members also traveled to Texas to present their work at SXSWedu.

In March, the new TransformED West space opened at Montour School District.

Ringing in spring with connections and celebrations.

In the spring, the Remake Learning Council’s Working Groups kicked off a series of meetings to address critical needs in key areas of interest for the network. These meetings convened regional thought leaders around strategic initiatives related to the regional STEM or STEAM Ecosystem, the Maker Movement, and Tech-Enhanced Learning.

The STEM Ecosystems project is in its second year, and it’s part of a national network of regional and state STEM Ecosystems, four of which are in Pennsylvania. This work is bringing stakeholders together around STEM to collaboratively plan and organize.

Meanwhile, participants in the Maker working group expressed a need and developed a focus around understanding how maker skills and competencies in secondary education settings translate to future career opportunities, especially in the advanced manufacturing sector. One great example came from Catalyst Connection’s student video contest that encouraged middle school and high school students to “Explore the New Manufacturing.” You can view a gallery of the students’ videos on YouTube.

In April and May, Pittsburgh Public Schools hosted two-day “Beyond Diversity” seminars to help community members understand the impact of race on student achievement and the role that racism plays in institutionalized racial disparities.

In May, KnowledgeWorks released their Future Forecast and published a special report on the future of learning in Pittsburgh. This document reflected on the achievements of the Remake Learning Network over the last ten years and looked ahead at how educators in our region might adapt learning for new contexts over the next ten years.

The other big story from May was Remake Learning Days. This weeklong celebration of activities and events showcased everything that makes the Pittsburgh region a recognized national leader in innovative teaching and learning. More than 200 events provided educators, students, and families in southwestern Pennsylvania and West Virginia opportunities to experience the power of innovative learning. More than 150 commitments representing $25 million of investment were made by philanthropies, businesses, and governments. Remake Learning Days will return in May 2017 with 12 days of activities and events that showcase the activities of educators and innovators across the Pittsburgh region.

A summer of learning.

The summer kicked off with the launch of Summer 16, a collaboration between the City of Pittsburgh, the Allegheny County Executive’s office, and Allegheny Partners for Out-of-School Time that created a hub for all parents and youth looking for summer enrichment activities.

Summer 16 partners set an ambitious goal of engaging 16,000 youth in summer enrichment and they far exceeded that with more than 22,000 regular participants in ongoing summer camps and programs and an additional 38,000 participants in one-time drop-in activities and events.

Perhaps most impressive was the success of the Carnegie Library’s summer reading campaign, which recorded more than 150,000 books read from June through August.

On Pittsburgh’s Northside, community members involved with the One Northside initiative organized into Action Teams to lead projects that address key priorities in Northside neighborhoods related to education, employment, and place.

In June, our own Gregg Behr traveled to the White House where he was honored as one of ten Champions of Change for Making.

Later that month, a large delegation of Remake Learning Network members gathered in Denver shared insights from their classrooms and programs at ISTE, the premier international conference on edtech.

In July, two Pittsburgh educators were named Deeper Learning Equity Fellows: Temple Lovelace here at Duquesne University and Lisa Abel-Palmieri from Holy Family Academy.

In August, the City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County embarked on the next phase of the ongoing My Brother’s Keeper initiative to close the opportunity gap for young people of color in the Pittsburgh region.

Filling up fall with technology and making.

In September, the City of Pittsburgh Department of Innovation & Performance, Citiparks, The Sprout Fund, and Comcast worked together to transform five city rec centers into technology learning centers for Pittsburgh kids. Rec2Tech Pittsburgh was a one-week demonstration project where kids used technology to express their creativity, solve real-world problems, and build job-ready skills. Remake Learning Network partners provided programming at five city rec centers: These providers included Assemble, the YMCA, Digital Corps, TechShop, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Sisters e S.T.E.A.M., and Citizen Science Lab.

Also this fall, two more Pittsburgh-area school districts were named to Digital Promise’s League of Innovative Schools. Montour School District and Fox Chapel Area School District joined Elizabeth Forward, South Fayette, and Avonworth School Districts are also among the 86 forward-thinking school districts in 33 states to be honored with this distinction.

CMU’s CREATE Lab celebrated the fifth year of its Satellite Network, which has expanded beyond the region to include partners in Utah and Georgia.

CMU and Pitt hosted the White House Frontiers Conference, where Pittsburgh-based organizations like Girls of Steel and the Children’s Museum MAKESHOP got to show off how the future of teaching and learning is alive and well here in Pittsburgh.

In September, Avonworth School District was awarded a Digital Media and Learning grant to support an expansion of their Pittsburgh Galleries Project which has students work alongside museum and gallery professionals to plan, design, and create their own artistic exhibit in their community.

In October, more than 20 Pittsburgh-area teachers participated in a workshop to join the second annual Games 4 Change Student Challenge. These teachers will support their middle-school and high-school students as they develop their own video games related to three key themes: local stories and immigrant voices; climate change; and future communities.

Plus, the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh hosted the second-annual Pittsburgh Maker Faire, where makers of all ages had the chance to show off their skills and share their work.

The Creative Youth Center opened at the Homewood-Brushton YMCA, providing a state-of-the-art facility for the YMCA Lighthouse Project, Y Creator Space, and other programs.

Maker Ed collaborated with the Remake Learning Network and IDeATe at Carnegie Mellon University to host a two-day Open Portfolio Workshop.

The biggest-ever Three Rivers Educational Technology Conference took place on November 8th, and more than 500 teachers, students, and educators from across the country convened at Montour High School.

Meanwhile, the National STEM Video Game Challenge announced their 20 middle-school and high-school winners at a ceremony at the National Geographic Society in Washington, DC. The STEM Challenge hosted 19 workshops in Pittsburgh during 2016, and 4 of the 20 winners had some connection to Pittsburgh.

Earlier this month, we saw the launch of Nation of Makers, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping makers by supporting maker organizations through advocacy, sharing resources, and building community within the maker movement and beyond. This new nonprofit received more than 300 Letters of Support from hackerspaces, makerspaces, and other leaders from the maker community, including several members of the Remake Learning Network.

And just two weeks ago, the National League of Cities hosted its annual City Summit here in Pittsburgh, which was covered by media outlets including Pittsburgh’s own youth reporters from Youth Express. As of this winter, there’s a new Youth Express app available where  students’ coverage of this event and other topics of critical interest to youth in our region.

Looking ahead to what comes next.

As 2016 comes to a close, we have lots to look forward to next year.

Six Remake Learning Badge-Enabled Pathways & Playlists teams will complete their programming with students. In May, both Project Zero and Schools That Can will host their national conferences here in Pittsburgh. Remake Learning Days will take us by storm again, and CMU will host its second CONTEXT conference in October 2017. And the National STEM Ecosystems will hold their national meeting in Pittsburgh next fall. And, most importantly, we’ll take more time to reflect and to set goals for the Remake Learning Network’s next ten years.

2017 marks the tenth anniversary of our learning network here in Pittsburgh. When the Remake Learning Network began as the Kids and Creativity Network, it famously started through a series of breakfast meetings, where we worked to bring together educators, innovators, roboticists, and makers. As the network enters its next ten years, we want to make sure that we welcome more people than ever around our table. In the new year, we’ll start some conversations that revisit our network’s mission, vision and values. We want to respond to the network’s desire to make equity and access a central priority.

Game Design Contest Brings Learning a Level Up Tue, 29 Nov 2016 13:00:11 +0000 In a winning entry from last year’s Games for Change Student Challenge, a hand-drawn avatar wanders the halls of a high school. The goal is to graduate. Along the way, the player picks up helpful resources and advice.

A guidance counselor, who has to be plied with coffee throughout the game, appears now and then to tell the student to find a tutor or a mentor. Occasionally, the path to graduation gets ominously darker—the screen literally goes black.

Playing the game, which high school students in Brooklyn made using Scratch, induces a bit of a headache. The player has to navigate the virtual school’s perplexing maze of hallways—a representation of the figurative walls many young people bump up against when trying to succeed. The game is meant to call attention to the school-to-prison pipeline, one of the social issues highlighted in last year’s Games for Change (G4C) competition.

Games For Change Student Challenge deadline: April 2017

The contest is now in its second year and is open to Pittsburgh youth for the first time. The rules ask middle- and high-school students to design digital games that boost social awareness. This year’s entries, due April 2017, must explore the themes of climate change, immigrant stories, or smart technology in cities. Winning individuals and groups will receive prizes including paid internships and help from professional mentors.

Game-based learning has earned enough of a following in recent years to have entire schools devoted to the practice—see Quest to Learn in New York and Chicago. The benefits of game-based curricula are twofold. Many students already have an interest in gaming, and can use their existing experience as a launching pad for learning. Meanwhile, the processes of game design and play build critical skills: problem-solving, innovation, and teamwork.

Catherine Swanwick, a neuroscientist turned teacher and game designer, explains that game design achieves fundamental STEM learning outcomes.

“The whole process of game-making is very similar to the scientific process,” she said in a webinar hosted by Zulama, a Pittsburgh-based ed-tech company. “You’re thinking about a problem, and you’re testing and you’re troubleshooting, and you might stumble across something that happens by accident.”

Other educators note that game design can promote interdisciplinary learning. The process of coming up with a meaningful message and experimenting with the technical and aesthetic means of communicating it to players builds “technological, artistic, cognitive, social, and linguistic skills suitable for our current and future world,” according to Gamestar Mechanic, a game design platform.

While some of last year’s G4C entries share similar mechanisms, the storytelling sets them apart from one another. One of the winning games last year, Cat Quest, presented a tried-and-true challenge: dodge obstacles and earn points. But the avatar is a cat, and the obstacles—fast cars, toxic food—are meant to educate players about animal welfare.

“The whole process of game-making is very similar to the scientific process.”

“Shifting the narrative can change the game,” writes games-based learning scholar Jordan Shapiro at Mind/Shift.

And giving young people the opportunity to craft that narrative themselves is powerful. While most young people have played a video game that was created for them, fewer have been given the chance to stretch their own imaginations and create one themselves. Through the G4C challenge, students can explore issues relevant to them and their communities, presenting them from their own perspectives.

Though only students get to try their hands at competitive game-making in the G4C challenge, the program offers opportunities for educators as well. In each of the eligible cities—Pittsburgh, Dallas, and New York City—20-30 teachers receive training on teaching game-design courses.

It isn’t the first games-based professional development program for Pittsburgh teachers. TeacherQuest, a partnership between the Institute of Play and the Allegheny Intermediate Unit in Pittsburgh, and based on Quest to Learn schools, trains educators to integrate games into their classrooms. During its summer training, the teachers themselves play and design games, coming up with projects their students can replicate.

G4C has a history with our city as well. Members of the Remake Learning Network and local game designers have presented at the Games For Change Festival in New York, a conference promoting games with a social mission.

Now, young people in our city can join the conversation too.

Preparing Students to Roll with Change Tue, 22 Nov 2016 13:00:03 +0000 How do we prepare students for a changing world?

Last month on the KnowledgeWorks blog, Remake Learning Council Learning Innovation Specialist Sunanna Chand reflected on the future of learning in Pittsburgh. As we’ve seen this month, change can come quickly.

Pittsburghers know that already—our economy has changed at an astonishing rate in the past few decades. A region once dominated by steel manufacturing has quickly become a tech epicenter.

“We can’t live in that reality and think that education can proceed the way it has been for hundreds of years,” Chand writes.

To prepare students to adapt with the changing world, the education system must teach resourcefulness, creativity, collaboration, and innovation. Young people must be equipped to confront whatever storms or sunny days may lie ahead in their lives and communities.

KnowledgeWorks, a national college and career readiness foundation that provides professional development and technical assistance, specializes in documenting and predicting educational change. Last spring, Remake Learning and KnowledgeWorks teamed up to document the likely changes coming in our region, and to track how well our learning community is preparing for that change.

“We can’t live in that reality and think that education can proceed the way it has been for hundreds of years.”

The resulting guide, which we featured on this blog, presents visions of what the future of learning might look like, with signposts of how well Pittsburgh’s educational ecosystem is adjusting. An adaptation of a national forecast, the guide highlights local smart learning environments like SMALLab and Montour School District’s Z Space Lab, the region’s movement toward personalized learning, and programs like Digital Corps, which assemble unconventional configurations of educators and adult mentors.

In retrospect, Chand says, her most significant takeaway from the forecasting process was the reminder that the rate of change accelerates.

“The rate at which new inventions, ideas, and marketplaces emerge and then become obsolete” is exponential, the forecast says.

The forecast also reminds us that, amid new fields and new opportunities, “equity is not a given.” It is critical that a network like Remake Learning, with more than 250 members across public, private, and academic sectors, combines its collective power to build a future in which it is.

Earlier this month, we covered some of the efforts in the region to make room for all young people in the changing economy. Partnerships between schools, businesses, and community organizations have proliferated.

The Fab Lab at the Carnegie Science Center is teaching young people to use robotics equipment, laser cutters, 3D printers, and sewing machines. Funded by Chevron, the innovation lab offers youth workshops, professional development, field trips, and birthday parties.

TechHire Pittsburgh, a program from the Three Rivers Workforce Development Board, trains disadvantaged teenagers to be computer support specialists. The jobs can be pathways to the middle class for those without college degrees. Another organization, Catalyst Connection, pairs up small manufacturers with students for six-week problem-solving exercises.

These organizations know that the future is uncertain. But no matter what change awaits today’s students, educators and their partners can help prepare them for whatever might lie ahead.

Pittsburgh’s Pipeline Problem and How the City is Solving it Wed, 16 Nov 2016 13:00:58 +0000 Over one week this last summer kids in Pittsburgh’s Carrick neighborhood turned into urban agriculture experts, building a greenhouse from water bottles. In another neighborhood rec center, kids tested a virtual reality tool from Carnegie Mellon University. At still another, they dissected a pig heart and printed 3D models of the organ.

The kids in these Rec2Tech programs aren’t only having fun. They’re building valuable skills, by design. The Pittsburgh region is set to add thousands of new jobs in the next decade, and it has to be ready.

LaTrenda Leonard Sherrill, deputy chief of education at Pittsburgh’s Office of the Mayor, is one of many who saw a great opportunity.

“Why not turn our [rec] centers into these places where people can come and really gain access to 21st century skills?” she told Remake Learning last summer.

Critical thinking, teamwork, basic engineering concepts—they’re all in high demand, says Linda Topoleski, vice president of Workforce Programs and Operations at the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, which just completed a major survey of local employer needs.

“We need to make sure our skill sets are aligned with workforce demand.”

Yet while Rec2Tech is working hard to create future innovators, storm clouds are gathering. On the eve of hosting the National League of Cities’ annual City Summit Nov. 16-19, which brings leaders from across the country to hear about Pittsburgh’s transformation from steel capital to technology and medical hub—the city and region stand at a crossroads.

While Pittsburgh is receiving well-deserved accolades for its economic rebirth, the city isn’t out of the woods.

The pipeline of children graduating with the right sets of skills isn’t enough to meet future demand, finds “Inflection Point,” a new workforce study by the Allegheny Conference. Even if every child remained in the city after graduation—a big if—the region would still lack enough skilled workers to fill the demand. In short, too few kids are thinking about jobs in fields that the city is building—fields like high-tech manufacturing, radiologic technology, and other middle-tier jobs.

Pittsburgh is looking down the barrel of 340,000 retirements in the next decade, but only 260,000 high school seniors are entering the workforce, says Topoleski. Manufacturers in the region will lose one-fourth of their workforce in the next 10 years. That means that “we need to make sure our skill sets are aligned with workforce demand,” says Topoleski.

The Dream Factory at Elizabeth Forward Middle School. Photo/Ben Filio

The Dream Factory at Elizabeth Forward Middle School. Photo/Ben Filio

Everyone Has a Role to Play

Remake Learning is doing its part to prepare the next generation for the future, with its network of in- and out-of-school programs that help develop the STEM, collaboration, and creative thinking skills needed in the jobs of tomorrow. Further, says Topoleski, Remake Learning has “ignited a level of interest and excitement about looking at education in new ways,” and is helping kids develop the concepts and activities that are important building blocks to later success. “When you’re exposed to 3D printing at summer camp in 8th grade, that’s a key skill later,” she says.

The most forward-thinking schools in the region are rethinking learning, placing hands-on experiences alongside the traditional models. Students at the Elizabeth Forward schools in Elizabeth, Pa. have access to 3D printers in the Dream Factory, a state-of-the-art maker lab, and Chevron-funded FabLabs at the Carnegie Science Center and the Intermediate Unit 1 let kids and their families build creations with high-tech machinery.

Employers are getting directly involved with their pipeline of workers: schools.

The region is also working to expand opportunities for marginalized youth. Programs like TechHire Pittsburgh, a Three Rivers Workforce Development Board effort, create opportunities for disadvantaged young people to receive short-term technical training for jobs like computer user support specialists, for example (also called quality assurance positions) who test software. These programs can function as quick onramps to better paying jobs that do not require a four-year degree. With a typical salary of $44,000 and an 11 percent growth rate, according to Inflection Point, these support specialists jobs offer a ladder to the middle class.

Employers are getting involved more directly with their pipeline of workers: the schools.

Catalyst Connection, an economic development organization focused on small manufacturers, for example, connects employers with students directly. The organization runs ten-week programs that have students solving real-world problems for the business. Students visit the company, learn about an issue or problem that has arisen, and then go back to the classroom to come up with a solution.

Exploring virtual reality at Rec2Tech. Photo/Ben Filio

Intervala, a company that assembles component parts for different precision products, was looking at a $20,000 investment in new machinery to assemble a device for Stork, a home conception device. High school students in the Burrell school district were tasked with improving one aspect of the assembly process. They found a $1,000 solution by adding a simple gadget to the assembly process, saving the company its $20,000 investment, says Scott Dietz, manager of Workforce Education Initiatives at Catalyst Connection. Dietz is the liaison between education and industry for the organization. The program has been running at Burrell for six years, and science teachers have taken the lead in helping students work through the process, applying the scientific process to the company’s problems. “That’s critical thinking 101,” says Dietz.

Manufacturers in the Pittsburgh region will lose 1/4 of their workforce in the next 10 years.

In addition to building skills, “kids get out of the four walls of their classroom and see what industry looks like. And teachers can see how things work, and carry it back to classroom,” Dietz says. Catalyst Connection, with support from ALCOA and Chevron, offers a two-day training session for teachers to learn about the program and about problem-solving principles and methods in industry. Many teachers are applying those principles in their project-based learning in the classroom, says Dietz. They have trained 60 teachers so far this year, with 150 more scheduled between now and June.

“For us, it’s about influencing the influencers,” says Dietz. “Guidance counselors have too much on their plate. But teachers are go-to people to encourage kids on career pathways, or encouraging the skills in math and science that are needed.”

It’s not just middle and high schools that are developing these skill sets. Community colleges and others are also working to better align courses with employer needs or emerging job clusters. “Westmoreland Community College has a whole new facility around advanced manufacturing,” says Petra Mitchell, executive director of Catalyst Connection.

But Jobs, Education—and Expectations—Must Be Better Aligned

Though many are doing their part to ensure that kids have secure futures, one thing is missing. Parents, youth, and educators need to shift their thinking about what constitutes a high-growth, important, worthwhile occupation, says Topoleski.

A first step is to better align education and training with the jobs in high demand. Currently, these systems are far from aligned. “We have a machinist track in high schools with only 350 students, but 700 open jobs,” says Topoleski. Machinist jobs are projected to grow by 11 percent over the next decade.

What constitutes a worthwhile occupation in today’s economy?

Part of the misalignment starts at home, with parents, says Topoleski, who typically want their children to get a four-year college degree. Yet two-thirds of the new jobs in the region will not require a BA, the workforce report finds. National figures back that up. Projects by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce find that while a majority of jobs by 2020 will require education beyond high school, half of those jobs require less than a BA.

“The reality is that the economy of the future will require highly skilled talent but not necessarily skills from a four-year program. Not to denigrate BAs, but we need both,” says Topoleski.

But many parents in Pittsburgh lived through the turmoil of downsizing in the manufacturing sector with mass layoffs. Parents don’t want their child to live with that volatility, says Mitchell of Catalyst Connection. But, she notes, most of today’s layoffs occur in the biggest employers, not the small manufacturers that make up the Pittsburgh region. Small manufacturers, she says, are not as prone to layoffs as the big companies who are beholden to their shareholders, so volatility is less of an issue.

“There’s an emotional piece of this,” says Topoleski. “[Parents] have to let go of where things were and realize the future is going to look different. If they want their kids on a promising, relevant path, they have to take a look at workforce demand and what it will take to get there.”

If Pittsburgh is to continue to innovate, it must prepare its children for the future. That means tapping their potential early, imbuing them with the technological and critical thinking skills they will need, and providing clear pathways into viable jobs that can accelerate Pittsburgh on its goals of inclusive innovation.


Open Portfolios Capture Learning Inside—and Outside—the Classroom Mon, 14 Nov 2016 17:46:33 +0000 In the quest to find more authentic ways of measuring students’ progress than high stakes tests, many progressive educators use portfolios.

Many in education believe portfolios, compilations of student work, are the most appropriate method for documenting and assessing hands-on, project-based learning. The new federal Every Student Succeeds Act includes portfolios on its list of acceptable school assessment methods.

This week, educators are gathering in Pittsburgh to explore the potential of the method at the Open Portfolio Workshop, hosted by Maker Ed, in partnership with Remake Learning and IDeATe at Carnegie Mellon University.

Physical and digital portfolios are important steps in rethinking how we “capture” student learning, according to Maker Ed, a nonprofit maker education organization. But they’re not the end of the road, the group believes.

Learners achieve best when their learning is reinforced in, and connected across, multiple settings.

The scientists and educators at Maker Ed think the current portfolio systems don’t live up to their potential, largely due to a “general lack of openness.” Portfolios and their contents are often isolated at a school, inaccessible when the student produces something in an extra-curricular program, and lost forever when the student graduates.

And that lack of openness is missing the point of creating a portfolio in the first place, they say.

“We know that learners achieve best when their learning is reinforced in, and connected across, multiple settings,” write Indiana University scholars Christian McKay, Anna Keune, and Kylie Pepper, and Maker Ed staff members Stephanie Chang and Lisa Regalla in a research brief.

Embracing the theory of connected learning, Maker Ed has proposed a new way to create and share portfolios. Through The Open Portfolio Project, Maker Ed works to develop a portfolio system that is seamlessly integrated among learning settings, is shareable, and is accessible across all digital devices. Such a system would use a platform that doubles as a social network where learners and educators could share resources and creations. Admissions officers, employers, artists, producers, and the curious could stumble on anyone’s portfolio.

There are parallels between open portfolios and open badges, digital representations of a skill or achievement (think Boy Scout badges). Both approaches attempt to document formal and informal learning, on a platform that students and adults in their communities can access from home, school, or work.

Open portfolios offer novel opportunities for creativity and design

This week’s free Open Portfolio Workshop gives educators the chance to roll up their sleeves and share ideas about the use of open portfolios for learning and assessment. The event focuses on the role of portfolios in college and career pathways. The “open” part is meant to ensure that portfolios will be viewable by college admissions officers or hiring managers down the line. Especially for those students who don’t excel in traditional learning settings—or for those who have simply worked on a cool personal project at home or at the library—an open portfolio can capture more of their informal learning, showing it off to the people who want to know about it.

Portfolios, according to Maker Ed, aren’t just good venues for showcasing student work after the fact. The process of creating a portfolio has value itself—the process of “reflecting on one’s work, curating what’s most appropriate for the intended audience, and designing an artifact to articulate that evolution of learning and making.”

Open portfolios allow students to experiment with presentation, digital media, and narrative, write the Indiana University and Maker Ed authors. These collections are not merely digital versions of file drawers or art galleries, but novel opportunities for creativity and design—to show the personality and intelligence of the creators in new and engaging ways.

Pittsburgh Levels the Playing Field Thu, 10 Nov 2016 13:00:57 +0000 Last month we wrote about opportunities for learning in unusual spaces. One group we covered put up educational conversation prompts in grocery stores; another had kids read books to their barbers during haircuts.

A few weeks ago, a number of organizations were celebrated for similar efforts—but in their case, the focus was play. KaBoom announced the winners of its “Play Everywhere Challenge” in September, awarding funds to 50 projects—including three in Pennsylvania—that integrate play into urban spaces. Among the proposals selected by the play advocacy organization: a crosswalk that doubles as a hopscotch sequence, a set of solar-lit treasure hunt clues, and a bench whose clever design allows users to sit, climb, or walk across it.

“Play is one of the most important ways in which children learn,” Jack Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, recently told The Atlantic.

In some ways, the relationship is intuitive. Imagine a classic game of make-believe; let’s say kids on a schoolyard are pretending to get lost in the wilderness. They’re developing their creativity when they determine the shady spot under the slide is the best place to camp out for the “night.” They’re learning to regulate their emotions when they divvy up their woodchip “dinner” equally, and learning to collaborate when they hash out the story together.

Play “is a natural tool for children to develop resiliency as they learn to collaborate, overcome challenges, and negotiate with others,” according to a report by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Play not only propels social-emotional growth, research shows, but can also build cognitive skills and improve behavior. In one study, teachers reported that students who had recess breaks behaved better in the classroom.

“Play is one of the most important ways in which children learn.”

Therein lies the challenge. As The Atlantic reports, over a third of school districts cut or eliminated recess in the wake of No Child Left Behind. (The roll-back, the author notes, coincided with new research endorsing the importance of play.)

The reduction of recess is one of several barriers to play which is faced disproportionately by kids from low-income families. In some cases, overworked parents, the stressors of poverty, or neighborhoods without playgrounds make it hard for those families to find time for free play. For KaBoom, the Play Everywhere Challenge is an attempt to, well, level the playing field. The “everywhere” piece acknowledges that low-income families in particular might have to incorporate playtime into long rides on public transit or hours spent at laundromats and doctors’ offices.

In Pittsburgh, there are many efforts underway to make playing a possibility for all kids in the region. For the past few years, the Playful Pittsburgh Collaborative has worked to raise awareness of the importance of play and support public projects that expand opportunities for play. This group of local public and private education organizations takes special interest in “play-on-the-way” projects—those that make play possible without interrupting daily schedules.

Since the spring of 2015, the collaborative has worked on the Hazelwood Play Trail, a sequence of established and new opportunities for play for families walking through the Hazelwood neighborhood. Its most anticipated addition came to fruition in September this year. Volunteers of all ages gathered to erect a new playground in only one day.

Thanks to them, colorful climbing structures of various shapes and sizes now stand in an area that hasn’t had a playground in several years. Local youth have new opportunities for play and thus for creativity, invention, and problem-solving—skills that, some researchers say, are needed more now than ever.


Going Abroad—And Bringing the Lessons Back Home Mon, 07 Nov 2016 13:30:49 +0000 In Pittsburgh’s Hill District, a strong network of community groups is working to make sure the neighborhood’s younger residents have the opportunities their parents might not have had. Once a thriving community of middle-class African American families and black-owned businesses, the fabric of the Hill District was decimated by urban renewal in the 1950’s. Today, 40 percent of residents still live in poverty, compared to 20 percent in the ZIP code just to the north. Only about 15 percent have a college degree.

Community groups here believe that a concerted focus on young people is the key to positive neighborhood change. A newly renovated youth center offers enrichment programs to local kids and teens and a new nonprofit research lab has begun providing vocational job training in the Hill. Groups are working to engage young people in changing their own neighborhood for the better. But for organizers at Amizade, a Pittsburgh-based global exchange and service learning organization, that change begins by giving teenagers the chance to go as far away from the neighborhood as possible.

Who gets to go abroad?

Since its founding in 1994, Amizade has partnered with other community-based organizations in 12 countries and some domestic sites to create volunteer opportunities for individuals of all ages, schools, and community groups. Amizade practices what it calls “Fair Trade Learning,” meaning that its global exchange programs are reciprocal. The organization sends Americans abroad to volunteer, but also hosts foreign young people in the United States. The mission? To produce “global citizens” whose time abroad will foster increased cultural awareness as well as lifelong civic and community participation.

“We’re not trying to create a citizen who can go abroad and simply cross-culturally communicate for a couple weeks,” said Amizade executive director Brandon Blache-Cohen. “We’re trying to create a citizen who becomes a better neighbor and an active, engaged learner in their own community.”

In the summer of 2015, a group of Pittsburgh teens traveled with Amizade and the Hill House Association to Northern Ireland, where they visited cultural sites with Irish youth. Photo: Hill House Association

In 2015, Amizade took Pittsburgh youth to Northern Ireland, where they visited cultural sites with Irish teens. Photo: Hill House Association

Today, experts say that learning global competencies is a key 21st century skill. To be successful in the future, today’s young people need to be able to work and solve problems as part of a diverse team.

Blache-Cohen has watched students come home from these trips with new perspectives on their own neighborhoods and their roles within them.

This, Blache-Cohen believes, is especially important in the region’s low-income neighborhoods, where children are less likely to have the opportunity to participate in enrichment activities and where increased civic participation is needed to improve neighborhoods.

Education researchers Greg Duncan and Richard Murnane have studied the growing “opportunity gap” between American children from high- and low-income families. They find that affluent families spend more on educational enrichment activities like afterschool programs, summer camps, and global exchange trips—the kinds of activities that better prepare students for college or a career. Between 2005-2006, they report, higher-income families spent $8,000 more per child on enrichment activities, compared to $3,000 more in 1972-1973. Racial disparities in study abroad programs exist as well.

How will the Hill District change when its youth go abroad and come back with a new desire to engage in their community and broader world?

The gap in access to global exchange programs is “a serious issue of equity,” Blache-Cohen said.

For the past few years, Amizade has focused in on the Hill District, opening up opportunities for teenagers from the neighborhood to go on trips to Ghana, Jamaica, Northern Ireland, and next year to Puerto Rico. Currently, three partner organizations—the Hill House Association, the Center That Cares, and the Ujamaa Collective—help recruit Hill District youth to go abroad with Amizade. Trips usually last around two weeks. While abroad, students visit cultural sites and stay with local teenagers, who introduce their visitors to local customs and issues of local importance.

In addition to support from Amizade, the students and organizations raise their own funds to cover costs through personal donations as well as sometimes philanthropic and corporate support.

Blache-Cohen says these trips are meaningful and transformative for the individual participants. But the organization is interested in understanding the effects of their trips on the community at large. They are asking: How will the Hill District change when its youth go abroad and come back with a new desire to engage in their community and broader world? Ideally, Amizade would like to eventually bring one out of every four or five Hill District teenagers on a trip abroad, and then measure the impact on neighborhood-level metrics like crime and graduation rates over time.

Photo: Hill House Association

Photo: Hill House Association

Amizade is far from achieving its ambitious goal. That will require a deeper level of foundation support or a public investment, Blache-Cohen said. But the organization is pouring the resources it has into the area. Over the past few years, 50 Hill District teenagers and adult mentors have gone abroad, and dozens more have welcomed young people from Northern Ireland, Bolivia, Peru, and Kenya to Pittsburgh.

“It’s incredible to watch young people look at their place in a larger global ecosystem,” said Terri Baltimore, director of community engagement at the Hill House Association, a social service organization with a long history in the neighborhood. “The world becomes a place where they belong. You see young people thinking about how they can influence the world around them.”

“The world becomes a place where they belong. You see young people thinking about how they can influence the world around them.”

Baltimore brought some of the youth she works with to Northern Ireland with Amizade last summer. None of the students had traveled outside of the country before, and they gained a new understanding of how the Hill District was connected to the world beyond its borders. When some of the teenagers returned, Baltimore said, they got involved with environmental and social organizing locally.

Amizade is exploring how to better help trip returnees turn their experiences into action. One idea on the table is offering community engagement grants, Blache-Cohen said. A participant who has learned about food insecurity on Amizade’s trip to the Navajo Nation in Arizona, for example, could apply for a grant to start a community garden in the Hill District, where some residents also suffer from food insecurity.

“As far as we can tell, there’s never been a community that’s invested this heavily in this type of global experiential education anywhere in the country,” Blache-Cohen said. “No neighborhood has gotten together and said, ‘We believe this is a pathway forward for our young people.’” Leaders in the Hill District may be the first.

Young visitors from Bolivia and Peru tour the Hill District. Photo: Daniel Alexander/Amizade

Young visitors from Bolivia and Peru tour the Hill District. Photo: Daniel Alexander/Amizade

Drawing connections across borders

The Hill District youth who have had the chance to go abroad have learned that their own hometown is simultaneously special and ordinary.

Qui Ante Anderson, an 18-year-old who has lived in the Hill District her whole life, said she felt less alone when she discovered the striking similarities between her hometown and the Irish communities she visited with Amizade in 2015. That summer, she and several peers and adult mentors spent 10 days touring Northern Ireland, staying at hotels, homes, and retreats, learning about local customs, and giggling with Irish teenagers over culture clashes. They were exposed to both beauty and hardship.

Anderson was startled to find that a version of discrimination and segregation existed in the largely white Ireland as well. The clashes between the Catholic and Protestant populations were impossible to miss, she said.

“I felt like I was going back in time in my own history”—to the Jim Crow and Civil Rights eras, Anderson, who is African-American, said.

She and her peers from the Hill District were also surprised when they were taken on a tour of a public housing complex.

“A lot of students had the stereotype that literally only black people live in housing projects,” she said. “But we saw a housing project full of white people. We heard some of their stories and saw an effort to create change, and that’s what’s going on in the Hill District too.”

The connections she’d drawn on her trip made Anderson more curious about the rest of the world, but also importantly renewed her interest in how these issues played out in her own history and community.

“You should want to travel not just with the intention of leaving home and running off,” Anderson said, “but with a love and appreciation for your home.”

Educators Gather in Pittsburgh to Personalize Learning Tue, 01 Nov 2016 12:30:10 +0000 A middle school math program implemented in some New York City classrooms is called Teach to One—originally School of One—and at first glance, that’s a major misnomer. Enter a school where Teach to One is in progress, and you’ll see not one, but nearly 200 students participating in the experience simultaneously.

The “One” refers to the individualized learning plans each student follows. An online system continually assesses the students’ work, drawing up daily lesson plans tailored to each person’s needs and skills. Some students in the massive class are sent to work in small groups, while others go listen to a lecture or work alone on a computer. Teachers are stationed throughout the space, working in different ways with the students.

Studies on the effectiveness of the unusual math class have yielded inconclusive results, reports EdWeek.

Teach to One is an attempt at personalized learning, an approach whose definition can be as hazy as the results of its evaluations. Generally, it refers to teaching and learning that empowers students to learn at their own pace and in styles that make sense for them. Typically, technology is used to customize lessons for individual students, or to allow learners to progress through the work as quickly or as slowly as they need to.

Despite the nebulous definition, personalized learning has garnered plenty of practitioners and fans in recent years. In fact, some educators have long practiced what has been called “differentiated instruction”—teaching that attempts to correspond to students’ diverse learning styles. The advent of educational technology has earned the approach new fans who see more opportunities for implementation. They are working hard to figure out exactly how to make learning a personalized experience—and what resources and pedagogy that requires.

Any classroom teacher can tell you students have different learning styles and speeds.

Next week, when educators and administrators meet in Pittsburgh for the Three Rivers Educational Technology Conference, personalized learning will be a hot topic. Whether they explicitly use that term or not, many of the sessions at the Nov. 7-8 gathering explore how to leverage technology to promote learning that is tailored to individual students’ needs.

One event, for example, will serve as the official public launch of the Kandoolu Learning Navigator, a personalized learning tool aligned with Pennsylvania Core Standards. The mobile assessment app, created by OnHand Schools, gives real-time results to teachers and suggests resources tailored to meet each student’s needs.

Another session at the conference (Remake Learning is a sponsor) addresses how teachers can use technology to design lessons that empower individuals. Called Creating Quality Content for Personalized Learning, the event covers the use of Google apps to create interactive presentations or online lessons students can navigate on their own.

Personalized learning is in some ways a fundamental rethinking of traditional pedagogy, where all students in a classroom cover the same material over the same period of time. And discarding decades of standardized lessons and pacing doesn’t come easy.

This year’s 2016 K-12 New Media Consortium/Consortium for School Networking Horizon Report, which tracks trends in education and ed tech, deemed the implementation of personalized learning a “wicked challenge.”

The Three Rivers Educational Technology Conference is Nov. 7-8.
It is “complex to even define, much less address,” the authors, a panel of education and technology experts, quip. The main barriers, they explain, are the lack of infrastructure in schools and the need to prepare teachers and incorporate effective pedagogy. The lack of a concrete definition of “personalized learning” also presents a challenge for researchers attempting to study its efficacy.

Perhaps, then, the key is to take a page out of the approach’s own book, and personalize the implementation of personalized learning.

Consider one researcher’s observations regarding the promise of—and barriers to—personalized learning in rural areas. Many rural schools, writes Carolyn Chuong at EdSurge, don’t have reliable broadband access, let alone iPads equipped with real-time assessment software.

Still, a personalized system where students are working on different projects can free up limited teachers to attend to students who need one-on-one help. In cases where there is internet access, personalized learning software can give interested students access to courses not available in the selection at their small schools. When that isn’t an option, local internships can create a more flexible learning environment where students who thrive in hands-on settings can engage in a “lesson” that makes more sense for them and their personal needs.

Any classroom teacher, after all, can tell you that students have different learning styles and speeds. “Personalized learning” may not have secured its spot in the dictionary, but it is a nod—and an active attempt to respond—to that diversity.

Can a Laundromat Become a Classroom? Tue, 25 Oct 2016 12:00:29 +0000 For many kids, going to the grocery store means trailing listlessly behind harried parents. If they’re lucky, maybe they’ll get to ride in the cart or successfully persuade Mom to buy ice cream.

A few years ago, a Temple University undergraduate student wondered whether the mundane activity could be turned into a learning experience. She launched a study in a supermarket in a low-income neighborhood, placing conversation prompts throughout the space. At the front of the store, she and her research partners put up a sign declaring: “Talking to your child helps their language growth!” In the dairy section, a picture of a cow said: “I am a cow who gives you milk. What else comes from a cow?”

The researchers observed adult-child interactions in the store, tallying how often the customers engaged in various behaviors, like pointing to an object, asking a question, or taking turns in a conversation. The study found that families shopping in the store were almost four times more likely to converse when the new educational décor was up.

Grocery stores are prime places for learning—whether about budgeting or nutrition—but it takes deliberate design to take advantage of the opportunities. A recent article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review proposes that thoughtful efforts could convert any number of public spaces into classrooms of sorts. The article was written by developmental psychologists Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, who worked on the grocery store study and created Urban Thinkscape, a new project exploring learning embedded in cities.

Urban Thinkscape is working closely with residents in West Philadelphia to determine which spaces in their community could become learning sites. One idea: building puzzles and measuring sticks into bus stop benches, so kids are stimulated while waiting. The researchers are also looking at opportunities in “trapped spaces” like laundromats or hospital waiting rooms. They might take a cue from a barbershop in Ypsilanti, Michigan, where kids get $2 off a haircut if they read a book aloud to the barber.

Kids only spend about 20 percent of their waking hours at school.

Some scholars talk about “anywhere, anytime learning,” the idea that education should—and often does—happen organically outside traditional institutions like schools. Students spend about 20 percent of their waking hours at school, so it would be a missed opportunity to neglect the rest. It is up to adults to make sure communities are best set up to encourage young people to explore, learn, and create, whether on their own or with peers and adult mentors.

“This is not a new agenda,” notes cultural anthropologist Mizuko Ito, a pioneering proponent of “anywhere, anytime learning,” in the Harvard Family Research Project newsletter. John Dewey, she writes, believed that education needed to be seamlessly integrated into daily life. In the 21st century, technology has made that integration both more pressing and more possible—and increasing inequality has made the task all the more urgent.

As the SSIR authors mention, children from higher-income families are more likely to have the chance to augment their school education. Their parents can afford after-school enrichment activities, and have more time to read to them.

By injecting innovative learning opportunities into the spaces we all move through daily—grocery stores, bus stops, parks—all kids can learn anywhere and anytime. And busy families of all sorts can accomplish tasks while engaging their kids in a puzzle or a conversation. In the Temple University supermarket study, the increase in the amount of conversation in the low-income grocery store brought it up to the average amount of discussion that happens among families in higher-income supermarkets, according to researchers.

Plus, if the kids are absorbed in an educational conversation, they might forget to ask for that ice cream.

School Districts Pool Brainstorming Power Tue, 18 Oct 2016 12:00:57 +0000 Pittsburgh educators know their students benefit from collaborative, project-based learning. Now, the grown-ups will give it a go themselves, through a new initiative facilitated by the LUMA Institute.

The Expanding Innovations Project, launched last month, assembles small groups of school districts and local partners to work on a project of their choosing, with funding support.

  • Fox Chapel Area School District, Woodland Hills School District, and the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children will collaborate on a 21st century early-learning project.
  • Elizabeth Forward School District will pair up with Duquesne City School District to come up with design challenges for students.
  • Propel Schools, Hopewell School District, and Quaker Valley School District will partner to provide STEAM training for teachers.

Over the course of the year, each group will work to develop new ways to build 21st century skills among their student bodies—skills that are based on students’ interests and that will serve them in the modern economy. LUMA, a Pittsburgh-based design education and training company, uses human-centered design techniques to help solve community problems in the digital age, and will lead trainings for the teams.

Expanding Innovations is supported by the Remake Learning Council, a commission of leaders from the education, government, business and civic sectors who work together to promote learning innovation and expand learning opportunities in the greater Pittsburgh region.

Supporting sustained inter-district collaboration is one way to do just that. School districts too often work in silos and miss out on key opportunities to share resources and ideas. In a region like Southwestern Pennsylvania—where schools have launched a virtual immersion lab, makerspaces, a STEAM magnet program, and innovative professional development programs—there is certainly a lot school systems can learn from one another.

Check back on the blog for an update on the participants’ projects later in the year.

Nine Learning Spaces that are Pushing the Frontiers of Learning Thu, 13 Oct 2016 18:48:30 +0000 President Barack Obama is in Pittsburgh today for the White House Frontiers Conference, a national convening that explores the future of innovation here and around the world. Co-hosted with the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, the Frontiers convening is focused on “building capacity in science, technology, and innovation, and the new technologies, challenges, and goals that will continue to shape the 21st century and beyond.”

The Girls of Steel at the Frontiers Conference with their robot chassis.Making sure that young Americans have access to an education that prepares them for the 21st century is, of course, a key part of meeting these challenges. So it’s fitting that the Frontiers conference is taking place in Pittsburgh, where the Remake Learning Network is hard at work pushing frontiers in teaching and learning. And Remake Learning Network members are at Frontiers today, sharing their innovative practices for preparing students for the future: the Girls of Steel Robotics Team are sharing their chassis building kit, which allows young roboticists to build a fully functional remote-controlled robot in just a few hours, the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum’s MAKESHOP is showing off their work at the intersection of research and practice to identify the ways in which children become makers, and Kidsburgh is using Facebook Live to share inspiration and insights from local youth participating in the conference.

Today is a special day in Pittsburgh, but those that are familiar with the work of Remake Learning know that educators and innovators in our region push frontiers in education every day. In fact, Remake Learning is one of the reasons Pittsburgh continues to be on the national map when it comes to innovation and creativity. And the conference isn’t the only place where you can experience innovation in Pittsburgh today. Here are nine innovative learning spaces that are open today for a special open house:

Perry High School is a Pittsburgh public school that empowers students to create social change with classes like Youth Voice and Music Technology, which where students create stunning videos and music that tells their stories. (stop by 10:00am-12:00pm)

Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild is a world-renowned space where high school youth discover and celebrate artistic creation and expression. (stop by 10:30am-12:00pm)

Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s East Liberty branch has a teen section that rethinks how youth use the library. Young people in the library’s Labs program will demonstrate their making skills today with a technology-powered Haunted House. (stop by 4:00pm-6:00pm)

The Homewood-Brushton YMCA is much more than a place to use the pool—youth in this community center use drones to create intricate works of art that demonstrate the strength of their neighborhood. (stop by 4:00pm-6:00pm)

Citizen Science Lab inside the Energy Innovation Center in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, is a hands-on laboratory where youth observe, experiment and analyze their world through discovery-based learning. Today, 40 African American middle school girls are working on their entry to the national Seaperch competition. (stop by 4:00pm-6:00pm)

Assemble is a makerspace and after-school center in the Garfield neighborhood that demonstrates how an affordable housing building can be a center for community through arts and technology. (stop by 4:00pm-6:00pm)

The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh is at the national forefront for maker education. Their MAKESHOP at Hosanna House, a community center just outside of Pittsburgh, is just one example of how they take maker education out of the museum and into communities. (stop by 4:00pm-6:00pm)

Carnegie Science Center’s Fab Lab offers engineering classes to  middle school students using the national Project Lead the Way curriculum. (stop by 3:00pm-6:00pm)

The PAEYC Homewood Hub is a place for Pittsburgh’s Homewood neighborhood to gather learn, and play to improve experiences and outcomes for the community’s youngsters. (stop by 5:30pm-7:30pm)

These nine sites are just a small taste of the people and learning spaces pushing the frontiers of education. We are thrilled to announce that Remake Learning Days, our “open house for the future of learning” will be back in 2017 from May 15th to 26th. Relive this year’s Remake Learning Days by watching the recap video, and then mark your calendar for next year’s celebration!

]]> 21st Century Classrooms for 21st Century Learning Tue, 11 Oct 2016 12:00:01 +0000 ...Continue reading »]]> At my high school most classrooms had at least one wall painted a bold teal. As a student, I heard a rumor that the particular shade was chosen by the school administration because it was “the learning color”—one that kept kids focused and engaged. (Nevermind that the activity that went on inside those walls challenged that notion.)

I can’t verify that the administrators believed in the power of the learning color, but it wouldn’t be the first time educators considered how a school’s physical space encouraged or stymied learning. In the 21st century, as new pedagogies aim to empower students to take charge of their own education, many are noting that traditional classroom designs—with the desks in rows and teachers at the front of the room—won’t cut it.

“Redesigning learning spaces” is one of the trends documented in the 2016 K-12 New Media Consortium/Consortium for School Networking Horizon Report. Each year the organizations team up to chart current forces and technologies influencing education, and to predict what’s to come. In this year’s report, new learning space design is one of two “long-term trends,” predicted to influence teaching and learning, ed tech adoption, and education policy over the next five years. “Rethinking how schools work” is the other long-term trend. Shorter-term trends include collaborative and deeper learning, coding as literacy, and students as creators.

“Redesign” is a blanket term that can mean any number of upgrades to a learning space. At one end of the spectrum are small alterations to classrooms like better lighting or a different temperature. The Horizon report mentions a University of Washington study that found these minor changes can improve academic performance.

When it comes to more substantial changes, the United States is likely a bit behind the curve. New Zealand requires that all public schools include the development of flexible learning spaces in their 10-year plans. The government issued guidelines for improving flexibility and has funded 1,600 new spaces, according to the Horizon report. A common feature is flexible or moveable furniture that can quickly be reconfigured for a group project, technology use, or a lecture.

A couple years ago on this blog, we interviewed Yarra Howze, principal at Pittsburgh Allegheny 6-8. She had recently returned from Finland, where she toured school spaces designed with effective learning in mind. The schools, she reported back to us, strayed away from the compartmentalization common at U.S. schools.

“If you walk into a classroom and all the desks are arranged in rows,” she says, “you are being conditioned for a certain behavior”—behavior that is more passive and less engaged.

“Finns are big on collaboration and build with collaboration in mind,” she said. “To promote that, nothing in the school had just one function.” The cafeteria, for example, doubled as a gym and the classroom desks were constantly rearranged. Within one classroom, there were different kinds of learning spaces, so students with different learning styles each had their needs met.

“Instead of what we’d call a hallway, there was a collaborative workspace,” Howze said. The hallways were filled with colorful beanbag chairs, where students could study or play. The design demonstrated to students that learning can happen anywhere and anytime, not just inside a classroom between bells.

A high school in Denmark, notes the Horizon report, has abolished classrooms altogether. The Ørestad Gymnasium in Denmark is a 1,000-student school in one single, gigantic room. The open design is supposed to promote collaboration and creativity. (Temporary walls can be erected on occasion.)

As the report says, some U.S. schools have taken note. The Journal profiled an elementary school in Athens, Georgia, where desks are replaced with tables, and little alcoves off of the hallways serve as teacher-student or small group meeting spots. The school’s physical building is also leveraged as a learning tool, through an exposed rainwater collection system, and maps of Georgia plastered on the floors.

Learning space design has a direct impact on student conduct, say Lennie Scott-Webber, director of education environments at Steelcase Education, a design firm and shop, in the article.

“If you walk into a classroom and all the desks are arranged in rows,” she says, “you are being conditioned for a certain behavior”—behavior that is more passive and less engaged.

A teacher in the article also notes that classroom reconfiguration can become a design challenge for students themselves. The activity can give them a sense of ownership of the space.

These redesigned schools won’t be anomalies for long if the Horizon predictions come to fruition. The proliferation of mobile devices and wireless internet also promotes flexibility, as classes are no longer tethered to computer labs or electric outlets. The rapid evolution of education technology will likely continue to support or even demand school redesigns.

In fact, the Horizon report—produced each year by an international panel of education and technology experts—goes so far as to predict the trends approaching schools in the near future. And the near future is digital.

In the pipeline, according to the report: wearable technology, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and robotics.

Pittsburgh’s Pioneering Maker Program Goes Coast to Coast Tue, 04 Oct 2016 12:00:45 +0000 It began as an ambitious effort to outfit 10 Pittsburgh schools with maker spaces.

This year that number could increase exponentially, as the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh converts a local project into a national phenomenon.

In 2015, the museum partnered with Kickstarter to help local schools crowd-fund for a maker space. Schools in the area had long been enthusiastic about maker education but felt they lacked the funding and support to launch programming. Museum staff guided 10 schools in developing projects tailored to their needs and capacities.

Ultimately, the campaigns raised more than $100,000. Some have already cut the ribbons on their new spaces and others are forging ahead with the process.

Local makerspace crowd-funding campaigns raised more than $100,000.

At Burgettstown Area Elementary Center, an old science lab is now home to a colorful assortment of beanbag chairs, workspaces, and making materials. The low-tech (clothespins and Legos) shares shelves with the high-tech (circuity and robotics kits).

Lincoln Elementary School is working to build an outdoor maker space. There the students have been tinkering, designing, and brainstorming before the space even opens. From the beginning, the students themselves deliberated about the features and designs they wanted in their new hangout. The consensus: the space would include a treehouse, something involving water, and a community garden. Making their big dreams a reality has been tough—and the task has turned into a fun design challenge for architecture students at Carnegie Mellon University.

Staff members at the children’s museum pondered how to scale the initiative beyond Pittsburgh. Making—learning through building, designing, and generally messing around with all sorts of materials—has fans across the country. So the museum wanted to expand a version of the local pilot to schools elsewhere.

This school year, the museum has teamed up with the nonprofit Maker Ed and Google to support schools across the country. Their Making Spaces program establishes “hubs” in 10 cities—from Bethesda, Maryland., in the east to Redwood City, Calif., in the west. The hubs can be school districts, museums, or other organizations.

In turn, each hub is paired with 10 schools in its own region. The local hubs provide professional development and crowd-funding advice to the participating schools so they can start their own maker programming.

Making has developed from a cult hobby into a mainstream learning approach.

The children’s museum and Maker Ed will be there in the background all year providing support and acting as hubs for schools in their own cities. Google has pledged $1 million to the project.

In recent years, making has developed from a cult hobby into a learning approach embraced by mainstream educators. Studies lending credence to the idea that making can equal learning are accumulating. Many researchers believe making prepares kids for a world and a workforce in which innovation, interdisciplinary thinking, and tech savvy are increasingly valued.

As a result, maker spaces are cropping up at plenty of schools. However, the same schools that lack the funding for robust art and science instruction lack the resources to launch a maker program. Efforts like Making Spaces are attempts to even the playing field. With the school year in full force, we will begin to see how they turn out.

A Brief, Personal History of Augmented Reality Thu, 29 Sep 2016 13:03:04 +0000 My first iPhone was the smallest, most fragile thing I had ever owned. I loved it more than I thought I would, and within a few months, it had revolutionized my life. It helped me navigate my pregnancy, with apps that tracked the growing size of my belly, prepared me for labor, and even timed my contractions. My first iPhone predates my first child, and they’ve both come a long a way in what feels like the blink of an eye.

In the years since my son was born, every important milestone in his life seems to have been mirrored by an iPhone upgrade. They both grew, my son in size and my phone in capacity. The iPhone’s virtual tools make real life more efficient and fun. For us, as for many families, the iPhone has become a ubiquitous part of daily routine. With a tap, we can map the night sky above us, watch the President speak live, have a face-to-face conversation with a loved one across the world, or pay a bill. When I first brought that tiny device into our home, I had no idea how drastically it would shape our interactions with the world. Right in my pocket there’s a digital reality that is central to my physical reality.

Most recently, just as suddenly as my son’s first words, and just as conveniently as Siri’s, virtual and augmented reality experiences have become a normal part of life. We experience an enhanced version of reality modified by technology, and it’s awesome. Google Maps gets us where we need to go, Pokémon Go gets us out and exploring our community, and Google Cardboard gets my son engaged in subject matter like he’s never been before.

This summer, my son and I both had opportunities to use virtual and augmented reality tools in an educational setting. While I led a professional development program for teachers at South Fayette’s STEAM Innovation Summer Institute, my son attended Technology Camp at the Sarah Heinz House. We were both using the same technologies, but with two very different groups of people.

My program, which I ran through the Senator John Heinz History Center, was designed for teachers who were curious about approaches for connecting places across time using digital technologies. The group worked with tools like Google Cardboard, Google Maps Street View Time Machine, View-Master, and Layar to brainstorm authentic applications for integrating archival materials and technology into the classroom. Each educator left with insight on how to enhance learning experiences.

Meanwhile, my son was learning how to be a user and creator of augmented and virtual reality experiences. He grew up surrounded by a digital reality, and now he’s learning not just how to interact with these tools, but how to manipulate them himself. My son and his fellow campers channeled their passion for technology into engagement with the tools that construct their digital realities.

Virtual and augmented reality experiences give educators a unique opportunity to capture the attention of students, and potential applications for virtual reality continue to reveal themselves. We can swim with sharks through the lens of a cardboard box, explore forgotten history in our pajamas, and experience the thrill of an amusement park attraction from the comfort of the couch. Without leaving the classroom, kids can delve into the Great Barrier Reef, sit in the middle of Times Square, or climb Egypt’s pyramids.  A virtual dimension is popping up all around us, and the phrase “we create our own reality” has taken on a whole new meaning.

Mentorship Can Make the Difference Tue, 27 Sep 2016 12:30:23 +0000 Learning scientists have long understood the special role mentorship and adult relationships can play in a young person’s life. Mentor-mentee connections—supportive and serious, yet less authoritative or formal than a teacher or parent relationship—can make the difference for students.

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

The Urban Institute recently evaluated two efforts to serve disadvantaged youth of color in the Washington, D.C., area. The randomized control trials found that both programs have boosted their participants’ educational or social outcomes (with varying degrees of significance).

“So much of learning occurs in the context of relationships.”

The programs and their respective participants differ substantially, but it turns out they share one important ingredient: mentorship.

The first study is a six-year examination of Urban Alliance, a college and career preparation program that places students in paid internships. Each student works with a coordinator who tracks the participant’s performance and checks in with him or her weekly. They have a few longer meetings each year to discuss post-high school plans. Typically, the mentors stay in touch with their mentees on an ad-hoc basis, providing emotional support and connecting them to resources. The evaluation finds mixed results, but for the male students the program increased their chances of graduating high school and attending college. That impact is important, the researchers note, as males report receiving less help on college and career preparation than females.

The second program, the Latin American Youth Center’s Promotor Pathway, pairs at-risk young people with a “promotor.” This adult wears many hats: case manager, mentor, and advocate. Meeting with a promotor is optional, so it is notable that virtually all the youth in the program choose to do so at least weekly. Here too, males’ education outcomes improved significantly. The evaluators also found positive social results, including fewer births.

The researchers note the importance of mentorship in both programs, particularly for young males of color, who face institutional barriers to success. The mentors serve as critical role models in communities where young people “have little exposure to high-skilled employment in their families or neighbors.” They serve as a support system; the promotor students were 9 percentage points more likely to say they had a special adult in their lives than their peers. Research shows that a long-term supportive relationship with an adult makes a difference, Urban Institute explains.

In fact, there have been many studies backing up the notion that mentorship is important. Students who meet with mentors are far less likely than their peers to skip school or use drugs, and more likely to go to college, according to the federal government.

Mentorship is often built into afterschool programs, where the informal and hands-on setting is more conducive to personal relationships. But increasingly, traditional schools are integrating mentor figures into their practice as well.

The Atlantic recently introduced readers to Jessica Valoris, called a “dream director” or a “warrior of possibility” by the organization she works for, the Future Project. In layman’s terms she’s a mentor, hired by public high schools to help students complete creative projects, figure out what they’re passionate about, and build leadership skills.

Traditional schools are beginning to embrace mentorship.

Mentorship has recently received national attention, support, and—in January of this year—its own national month. Mentorship is an integral piece of My Brother’s Keeper (MBK), the Obama Administration’s initiative to support young men of color. The White House calls on public and private organizations to improve education and job opportunities for these at-risk students. Some partners have responded by pairing mentors with young men, and the campaign has raised awareness of the importance of mentorship, directing adults to a mentorship opportunity database. The president himself plays mentor to basketball star Steph Curry in a silly sketch.

Pittsburgh has responded to Obama’s call, launching a local MBK effort with an emphasis on increasing access to tech and career-oriented learning opportunities and mentorship for young men of color. The Sprout Fund, the city of Pittsburgh, Allegheny County, and the Heinz Endowments will support local organizations to boost their digital literacy and career programming.

For some advocates it makes sense that the president is throwing some support behind a mentorship initiative.

“Just as the federal government can see something like health care as a basic need, mentoring should be that, too,” David Shapiro, the CEO of the National Mentoring Partnership, which operates the mentorship database, told The Atlantic. “Having consistent support outside home is essential.”

After all, the government has long funded formal education—and private funders have increasingly followed suit (not without controversy). But there is growing awareness that an effective education system is one that provides opportunities not only at school, but at home, in afterschool programs, and throughout a student’s community. A diverse collage of adults who encourage and teach young people—while also knowing when to step back and allow exploration—is critical to the successes of each piece of the system.





Virtual Reality in Schools Becomes Something Real Wed, 21 Sep 2016 12:00:05 +0000 In one local district, students can travel to Ancient Egypt and back, sans time machine or permission slip.

Montour High School in Robinson, Penn., is home to a “virtual immersion lab” where computers come equipped with simulation software and styluses. Students need only throw on some 3D glasses—the kind that make animated characters jump at you in movie theaters—to plunge into a world where they can dissect dinosaurs, examine a human eye, or explore the pyramids up close.

The lab uses education software from zSpace, a California company that has outfitted about 100 such spaces in schools around the country. The cost is steep at $70,000, which Montour covered with a combination of district funds and support from the Grable Foundation and the Allegheny Intermediate Unit.

Kids go nuts over the technology, Justin Aglio, Montour’s director of innovation, told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. No surprise there: the lab immerses students in the ancient worlds, infectious diseases, and extinct species that used to be the stuff of textbooks.

Virtual reality is a “powerful empathy tool”

Virtual reality “is a really powerful empathy tool,” Jen Holland, a former product manager at Google, recently told the Smithsonian. She was explaining why more schools should embrace the technology, but many who make media for grown-ups think so too. Since last year, The New York Times has occasionally shipped its subscribers Google’s Cardboard headsets so they can watch original VR films. The first introduced viewers to child refugees; another placed them next to Iraqi soldiers fighting ISIS.

As long as the virtual reality is accompanied by thoughtful lessons and adult guidance, it is just the kind of hands-on, interactive learning we know is valuable. Teachers at Montour can choose to play an active role in students’ exploration, editing the preprogrammed activities or designing their own. They are able to watch what the students are doing from their own screens, providing live feedback when appropriate.

VR could make existing disparities grow wider
As the technology becomes more common, however, there are risks to watch out for. Any time a new device or program comes out and only ends up in certain classrooms, it has the potential to make existing disparities grow even wider. Low-income, black, and Latino families are less likely to have broadband internet access at home, for example, so it is all the more important that their children’s schools aren’t left behind as well. The proliferation of smartphones and the educational technology equipped for them have improved access. But the cost of a virtual immersion lab puts it in the category of programs unlikely to land in most American districts anytime soon.

Montour has vowed to share its lab with other schools in and out of the district. Other educational VR endeavors have placed an emphasis on access.

Earlier this month, visitors to a Pittsburgh recreation center got a week to experiment with a new VR tool in development at Carnegie Mellon University. The students uploaded 360-degree images of their own neighborhoods, editing them to design their ideal community. The program gave them a chance to create, critique, and help determine their own surroundings (if only for the moment).

Google last fall launched its Expeditions Pioneer Program, allowing schools to apply for free kits that included VR viewers, smartphones with educational VR software, and an internet router. The company sent employees to participating schools to train teachers, who also received a free tablet. Within a year, however, Google turned Expeditions into an expensive commercial product.

Tech moves rapidly. Ten years ago, hardly anyone had a smartphone. Ten days ago, some of the Montour students had probably never been outside of the state, let alone “to” Egypt. When it comes to educational technology, it’s important to make sure access plays catch-up with invention.

Rec Goes Tech at Pittsburgh Rec Centers Mon, 12 Sep 2016 12:00:21 +0000 For many kids, the new school year promises a chance at transformation. Some come back after the summer with an edgy new hairstyle. Others vow to actually do the extra-credit assignments this year.

Just like their young visitors, Pittsburgh’s recreation centers are trying on new identities this week.

The Rec2Tech initiative injects five rec centers with a dose of the 21st century. The centers, spread throughout Pittsburgh, typically host afterschool programs where neighborhood kids play sports, get homework help, and receive dinner. But from September 12-16, visitors at 5 of the city’s 10 centers will engage in free STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) activities. Kids ages 7 to 12 will have the chance to participate in everything from programming a virtual neighborhood to dissecting a heart.

“It will be a crazy rainbow of tech and science.”

Rec2Tech is a collaboration among the Sprout Fund, the City of Pittsburgh Office of the Mayor and Department of Innovation and Performance, and Citiparks. It is supported by Comcast NBCUniversal and received initial funding from the MacArthur Foundation.

Rec2Tech is inspired by a Baltimore initiative of the same name, but Pittsburgh’s program capitalizes on the city’s unique network of learning organizations and institutions. Several collaborators—Assemble, the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, the Citizen Science Lab, Digital Corps, Sisters e.S.T.E.A.M., TechShop, and the YMCA—are helping or leading the programming, which will vary at each site.

The result will be a “crazy rainbow of tech and science,” said Ani Martinez, program associate at the Sprout Fund.

At the Phillips Rec Center in Pittsburgh’s Carrick neighborhood, kids will turn into urban agriculture experts, building a greenhouse from water bottles. At the Warrington Rec Center in Beltzhoover, they will test a virtual reality tool from Carnegie Mellon University that lets users upload 360-degree photographs of their surroundings and tweak them. The kids will become civil engineers for the week, using the tool to virtually improve their neighborhoods. The Magee Rec Center, on the other hand, will be converted into a laboratory where young scientists will dissect hearts and print 3D models of the organ.

But Rec2Tech is not just a week-long role play. The goal is to introduce Pittsburgh’s young people to the skills and tools they will need in their near future.

“Digital skills and 21st century skills are no longer an option” but a necessity, Martinez said.

Tech employment has ballooned in Pittsburgh, growing by 19 percent between 2010 and 2013. But too many local youths lack training for jobs in this growing sector.

Pittsburgh has an active network of educators and technologists, so the Rec2Tech organizers have leveraged existing facilities and programs, combining them for maximum impact.

“Why not turn our centers, which have been embedded in our neighborhoods, into these places where people can come and really gain access to 21st century skills?” said LaTrenda Leonard Sherrill, deputy chief of education at the Office of the Mayor.

“How do we make these workforce skills accessible to the community?”

“It was a matter of, How do we make these skills that are going to be needed in the future workforce accessible to those that are part of the community already?” she said. 

By meeting kids where they are—literally—the hope is to reach students who lack regular access to STEAM learning. The participants will become acquainted with the host organizations and find out about their year-round programming.

On Saturday, Sept. 17, at Schenley Plaza, parents will get to see what their kids came up with at an interactive party that the Sprout Fund hopes will attract 500 families. There will be 3D printers, robots, screen-printing, and audio recording opportunities. Participants from all five centers will be bused in.

The Rec2Tech partners hope the initiative will become a pilot for a permanent integration of STEAM learning into Pittsburgh’s communities, giving all students the chance to transform themselves over the summer or during the year.


Interest-Driven Learning in the Face of Adversity Tue, 06 Sep 2016 12:30:49 +0000 ...Continue reading »]]> Three sociologists in Baltimore spent a decade getting to know young people growing up in the city’s most impoverished communities. Their new book, “Coming of Age in the Other America,” chronicles the hardship in these neighborhoods—and how some adolescents manage to defy the odds.

For many of the book’s subjects, the barriers they bumped up against seemed impenetrable. As young adults, they suffered from unstable housing, economic insecurity, and in some cases trauma or abuse. Communities like the high-rise developments where the youth live, write authors Stefanie DeLuca, Susan Clampet-Lundquist, and Kathryn Edin, have “a legacy of deep racial subjugation, intergenerational poverty, and resource-depleted neighborhoods.” Adversity is institutional. Yet the authors found that the teenagers differed greatly in their abilities to navigate young adulthood, graduate high school, stay healthy, and pursue higher education or a career.

The authors wondered: “What separates young people who stay on track from those who do not?”

Past studies found that personality traits like grit and ability to delay gratification play a large role in determining a child’s destiny. Was “grit” the saving grace here? The authors have their doubts. All the youths they studied exhibited extraordinary resilience and determination. Yet by their teens, many had succumbed to the grinding pressures of poverty. They had lost hope. In other cases, the young people hung onto their dreams only to have serious trouble fulfilling them.

Social forces and systemic obstacles “can shortchange the dreams of even the grittiest and most determined,” the sociologists write.

So what, then, set apart the few who managed to stay hopeful and achieve some of their goals?

The researchers found that the secret was being able to follow a passion and build an identity through it. Some of the teens were obsessed with comic books. Others customized cars or produced music. The authors call those interests “identity projects,” because they gave the youths a sense of pride and purpose.

“The youth who best managed to persevere found a passion through an identity project, which can serve as a virtual bridge between challenging present circumstances and an uncertain, but hoped-for, future,” they write. In some cases, the teens’ interests could be connected directly with lessons at school or job opportunities.

“The youth who best managed to persevere found a passion.”

There is a growing awareness that such “interest driven” learning improves kids’ chances at success. In a video at Edutopia, Constance Steinkuehler, professor of digital media and former White House advisor, talks about the moment when she realized the power of interest-driven learning. She was running an afterschool program in which many high school-aged participants were reading years below grade level. When she gave them books about their interests (video games, in this case), their literacy levels improved dramatically. They were willing to devote the time and effort to comprehending the content.

According to learning scientists like Mimi Ito, the education system needs to do a better job of supporting interest-driven learning.

“Most kids need much more adult scaffolding, support, institutional invitations, and connections in order to connect the interests that they do have to opportunities and trajectories of learning that will really serve them in their adult life,” said Ito during a Connected Learning webinar.

Ito’s point speaks to the value of out-of-school learning programs. Organizations like many in the Remake Learning Network provide space, mentorship, and materials for youth to build on their interests—be it in a gaming club or a community garden. Trained adults can help young people figure out how to turn their existing passions into academic or professional opportunities.

Creative pursuits and the search for identity are part and parcel of any American adolescence, but for low-income students particularly, authors of “Coming of Age in the Other America” find, these experiences can make a huge difference in their ability to transition successfully into adulthood.

As the sociologists said, “Their identity work was not just about discovery, it was about survival.”

A Clearer Pathway for Environmental Education Fri, 02 Sep 2016 12:30:45 +0000 Learning can happen anywhere and anytime, as we are reminded each summer. Education is not simply the domain of schools but of museums, parks, computer labs, kitchens, libraries, and any number of settings where children spend time and explore. Kids are naturally inclined to examine and learn from their environments.

In order for young people to get the most out of disparate learning opportunities, however, they need help drawing connections among those varied experiences and translating them into new opportunities. That’s the basis for the concept of a pathway.

A learning pathway is a deliberately designed set of learning experiences—happening in sequence or simultaneously—that build on one another so the learner develops a depth of knowledge and expertise. Pathways help kids find relevance in classwork and, conversely, turn their out-of-school interests into learning opportunities.

Pathways help kids find relevance in classwork.

There may be no better candidate for a pathways approach to learning than environmental education, which is part of any complete STEM curriculum. Encouraged by the Next Generation Science Standards, environmental education is critical for today’s children, who will inherit a climate in peril. Young people who have hands-on interactions with the natural world on top of their classroom experience will better learn to respect and care for the planet.

An environmental education learning pathway can convene partners who already offer different yet complementary learning experiences in and out of doors. Through the framework of a pathway, they can pool their resources and work together to further students’ interests and understanding.

Pittsburgh learners will soon be able to follow a new environmental education pathway designed to set up participants for success after graduation. The “young conservationist” program, run by a consortium of local environmental organizations, is one of six pathways starting in the city this fall. Following the immersive ecological stewardship program, high school students will gain skills they can use in a career or hone in college. They can do conservation work in their communities, take online classes, and ultimately work as outdoor trip leaders.

This generation will make critical decisions about natural resources.

Career preparation is an important function of many environmental learning pathways. Environmental science jobs are growing faster than most, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The next generation of professionals will have to make critical decisions about natural resources and sustainability measures. Pathways can help leverage the curiosity kids already have about their environments and turn autonomous learning experiences into opportunities for success later on.

Other pathways are geared toward younger students, exposing them to outdoor education early in life. In Mountain View, California, a number of environmental education entities have created a robust pathway for elementary school students. The collaborative includes education nonprofits, an organic farm, the Audubon Society, a marine science institute, the county, and the Mountain View Whisman School District. The partners coordinate with one another, offering hands-on scientific investigation opportunities to youngsters.

Each step along the Mountain View pathway strengthens the impact of the others. By collecting data from wildlife habitats, the students put into practice the scientific method they learn in class. By identifying birds through binoculars, milking cows, and playing in creeks, they can engage directly with the ecosystems they have studied. Follow-up lessons help them retain the knowledge and dig into concepts that piqued their interest.

Pathways, despite the name, are not necessarily linear. As in Mountain View, they can simply lend a valuable framework to a number of engaging learning experiences, ensuring that young people connect the dots and follow paths to new opportunities.

Learning Pathways: A Walkthrough Thu, 01 Sep 2016 12:00:03 +0000 The digital age brings a seemingly endless number of options for today’s learners. But it’s also easy to get lost. Enter learning pathways.


What are learning pathways?

Learning Pathways are the routes learners take to discover new ideas, pursue their interests, and develop their skills. These routes involve experiences in school, out of school, and online. School systems, for example, are pedagogical pathways that build on each prior stage of learning. Other pathways are less formal, and can be a road to discovery based on personal interests.

Previously on this site, we’ve dug into the concept of networks and the umbrella of learning innovation. In a sense, pathways are the intersection of these ideas. Access to a network of mentors and innovative education opportunities enables learners to follow a pathway of experiences, building on their interests and developing skills along the way.

Why pathways, why now?

Pathways are important now because the Internet, social networks, and our changing economy have unleashed a seemingly endless number of options for exploring and learning. But in that vastness lies the problem. It’s easy to get lost.

Learning pathways help students draw connections and adapt.
Pathways are the map on a road trip; they guide you from point A to B, but along the way they also reveal the side roads, historical sights, and other detours that add richness to the journey. Without the map, a traveler may have missed those opportunities, or worse, gotten completely lost.

The time to build deliberate pathways is now, says John Seely Brown and co-author Douglas Thomas in their book, “A New Culture of Learning.” In a rapidly changing world, adaptability and the ability to see connections are critical. Students must understand how skills and knowledge build on each other and how to find entry points to new opportunities. They must be able to steer a new course, adapt, and adjust. Learning pathways help imprint that understanding.

But the map alone is not enough.

A family can stop at the historical site on the map, but then what? They need a guide to make sense of what they’re seeing. It’s the park ranger or historical interpreter who adds new insights and maybe sparks a latent interest. In learning pathways, guides are posted along the way to help learners not only see how to get from home to their destination, but to see how the points along the way connect to make the journey more meaningful.

“When kids are pursuing their interests and going deeper into a topic, having a more advanced thinker help them scaffold that interest can be key to whether they go deeper into it or move away from it,” said psychologist Jean Rhodes on Connected Learning TV. Connected Learning, an emerging theory in education, posits that personal passions, strong mentorship, peer relationships, and technology are the key ingredients in a learning pathway.

Pathways help learners connect in- and out-of-school experiences and pursue their interests. Photo/Ben Filio

Where did the idea for pathways come from?

The idea of pathways has been around a long time. But it was in video games where some scholars had an aha moment.

In video games, players advance—level up—only when they master a level. The game is designed to urge the gamer on to the brink of frustration, but not so overwhelming that they give up.

“Good games offer players a set of challenging problems and then let them solve these problems …,” wrote learning scientist James Paul Gee. “Then the game throws a new class of problem at the players, requiring them to rethink their now taken-for-granted mastery, learn something new, and integrate this new learning with their old mastery. In turn, this new mastery is consolidated through repetition (with variation), only to be challenged again.”

Pathways work similarly. Pathways nudge learners to level up, but with more room for discovery and detours along the way.

“The game throws a new class of problem at the players, requiring them to rethink their now taken-for-granted mastery, learn something new, and integrate this new learning with their old mastery.” – James Paul Gee

What’s an example of a pathway in action?

A California school district partners with an afterschool program and the state’s student poll worker program. Teenage participants take an online civics course that includes a unit on app development. After learning about electoral politics and history, they code and create a mobile app that lets their peers find their polling places and look up candidates’ positions on issues relevant to youth. Completion of this task unlocks the real opportunity to work at the polls on Election Day. The pathway leads students from interest and education in politics to practical skill development and real-world opportunities.

Pathways can nudge learners to “level up.”

The Aspen Institute on Learning and the Internet recommended pathways like these in its 2014 report analyzing the needs of 21st century students.

Are pathways linear only, from Point A to Point B?

Learning is not linear and nor are pathways. Becoming part of a robotics club might actually reveal to a young person that robotics is really not their thing. But while designing posters for robotics competitions, they might realize they are interested in graphic design.  

As Kris D. Gutiérrez, professor of literacy and learning sciences at the University of Colorado, Boulder, cautioned in a webinar hosted by the Connected Learning Alliance, learning is rarely smooth and uncomplicated, and learning pathways should allow for “this wonderful messiness and complication with learning.” 

Youth working in nature

Photo/Ben Filio

Who is working on this idea around the country? 

Some digital learning platforms are incorporating concepts similar to pathways into their systems so that learners can connect the dots between learning experiences. LRNG is one such platform that lets educators create learning “playlists” that lay out a specific sequence of activities that a teen can complete to develop their skills while exploring their interests. Activities on these playlists can be face-to-face or completed online.

Learning is not linear and neither are pathways.
Some organizations are applying playlists and pathways to out-of-school learning, guiding kids as they pursue their interests while accumulating expertise and experience. In Chicago, for example, the Cities of Learning program first engaged youth in learning pathways during their summer of 2013. An online platform created by the Digital Youth Network presented young people with 25 playlists and more than 1,000 summer learning opportunities—from scriptwriting to coding.

Once a participant completed an activity, he or she earned a digital badge, which celebrated and documented new skills (think digitized Boy Scout badge). Then that student could “level up” and unlock a more challenging opportunity in the same field. In one such sequence, the Lights! Camera! Action! Playlist, kids received instructions on how to conduct interviews, brainstorm stories, and shoot and edit videos. In some cases, young people can earn the chance for mentorship from a professional upon completion of a playlist.

What about in Pittsburgh? What else is next?

In Pittsburgh, we have been mapping what learning pathways look like across the city and working to define and develop them since 2014. Starting in the 2016-2017 school year, Remake Learning Network members will pilot six learning pathways that connect complementary programming across multiple organizations. These six pathways are built from programs and organizations in the city, but connecting them more intentionally helps young people follow their interests and hone their skills.

Among them is a “Young Conservationist” pathway run by a consortium of Pittsburgh ecology nonprofits including Student Conservation Association, GTECH Strategies, Venture Outdoors, and the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. High school-aged students participating in the pathway receive immersive education in ecological stewardship, with opportunities to learn online, do conservation work in their communities, and work as outdoor trip leaders. As they advance along the Pathway they encounter learning experiences that expose them to the variety of disciplines and job opportunities in urban ecology. Students who complete the most rigorous branch of the pathway will earn a Conservation Leader badge that unlocks the opportunity to participate on an SCA National Crew doing conservation work in a National Forest.

With funding support provided by The Sprout Fund, each pathway will provide hundreds of youth from Pittsburgh and Allegheny County with access to Connected Learning opportunities and chances to earn badges when they level up their skills.

Educators, technologists, and community leaders throughout the Pittsburgh area are constantly thinking about how to link up the countless local learning opportunities in order to connect kids to success in and out of school. Whether through networking at the Pittsburgh Learning Pathways Summit, aggregating opportunities on platforms like LRNG, or building bonds informally, the idea is to turn the city into a network of pathways for all the local learners.

How Will You Remake Learning This School Year? Wed, 31 Aug 2016 16:09:00 +0000 ...Continue reading »]]> Some teachers may incorporate maker learning into their classrooms for the first time; others may bring STEAM learning into their English language arts or social studies classrooms. Or maybe they’ll find thoughtful ways to innovate with tried-and-true teaching approaches. No matter what, we’re excited to see the innovative ways that Remake Learning Network members will create transformative learning experiences for their students in the year ahead.

Here are a few network members who shared how they’ll remake learning in the 2016-2017 school year.

Karen Aharn
ASSET STEM Education

“ASSET will improve student learning by empowering educators (P-12, in and out of school time) with advanced professional development and STEM materials. See our results at”

Erin Cawley
Avonworth Elementary School, Avonworth School District

“I will continue to strive to ignite a passion for using technology to create in my students. This year I plan to do so with a number of exciting projects that have a goal of being more cross curricular as to bring their learning full circle. I’ve also worked hard to create a new environment in the computer lab where students will feel they are in a comfortable space of their own.”

Michele Crispell
Roche A Cri School, Adams-Friendship Area School District
“I will have an official Makerspace room for the first time as an extension of our library! We started last year by purchasing a few robots, coding sites and building materials and plan to really go full force this year. I am super excited!”

Alison Francis
Kerr Elementary School, Fox Chapel Area School District
“I plan to focus on meaningful family engagement and anywhere, anytime learning for families.”

Chuck Herring
South Fayette Intermediate School

“I am going to utilize LUMA Techniques in my planning and with my students.”

Sheila May-Stein
Perry High School, Pittsburgh Public Schools

“Working with the CMU CreateLab, I will help students and teachers tell compelling stories using data and technology to advocate for change that means something to them in their world.”

Brian White
Superintendent, Chartiers Valley School District

“We are implementing a weekly STEAM period for all 6th and 7th grade students at Chartiers Valley Middle School this year.”

Ruby Wilkosz
Volunteers of America – All of Us Care

“In addition to our Reading and Digital Corps literacy programs, we are expanding literacy programming to include math through cooking, measuring, and finance; science experiments crafted and orchestrated by high school volunteers; and cultural activities that include art appreciation, American Sign Language, etiquette practice, and sewing including Anime costume creation.”

How will you remake learning this school year? Share it on Twitter with the hashtag #RemakeLearning to let us know!

Should Teacher Training Be More Like Medical School? Tue, 23 Aug 2016 12:30:20 +0000 When a student finishes medical school, we don’t expect him or her to simply throw on some gloves and take command of an OR. More to the point, we wouldn’t want them to. Such a vital occupation requires on-the-job training and guidance from veteran professionals. Millions of dollars are spent on medical residency programs each year for a reason.

In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, researchers ask why the teaching profession is treated differently. Educators and learners alike would benefit from a teacher residency system, write Shael Polakow-Suransky, Josh Thomases, and Karen DeMoss of the Bank Street College of Education.

In our current system, pre-service teachers typically complete classroom practicums, but the amount of required student-teaching time varies from program to program and is sometimes nonexistent in alternative routes to licensure. Teachers go straight from a certification program into a classroom where they are typically the only teacher. That’s shortsighted, write the authors. Educators with little field training are less effective. And many teachers leave the profession shortly after entering it, feeling unsupported or overwhelmed by the responsibilities. That frequent turnover creates a harmful norm of instability for students and an expensive headache for administrators.

The relatively fast path to the teaching profession is not an accident. In response to teacher shortages, many states have expedited the journey to licensure and employment.

Some states have expedited the journey to teacher licensure.

While adding more steps to full employment could ostensibly make the profession less appealing, the op-ed authors argue the opposite could also be true. The residency programs that do exist pay trainees the salary of an assistant teacher. The participants are afforded the time to get more comfortable and confident before they go it alone.

Data from existing programs show that residency participants are more likely to keep teaching. The retention rate after a few years is upward of 80 percent, while almost half of other new teachers leave the profession, according to the authors. Early studies suggest they are also more likely to improve student achievement, the op-ed authors write.

Getting teacher training right is critical. Strong teachers make the difference for students, so it is imperative that they receive adequate preparation before they are put in charge. According to the RAND Corporation, teachers have two to three times the impact on students’ reading and math test scores than other factors like the school’s resources or administration. And the impact of a good teacher extends far beyond academic achievement. A study by Harvard and Columbia researchers found that teachers who boost students’ test scores also positively affect their likelihood to attend college and receive higher salaries.

Teachers need support to become strong mentors who will stick around.

Strong teachers also provide important emotional support, encouragement, and mentorship to their students. For some students, teachers are the adults who are most present in their lives.

“Students who have positive relationships with their teachers use them as a secure base from which they can explore the classroom and school setting” and develop academic and social skills, write researchers at NYU. For high school students, these relationships can reduce their likelihood of dropping out by nearly half.

It is in everyone’s interest to give teachers the time and support they need to become strong mentors who will stick around. A number of policies and interventions—innovative professional development, better compensation, licensing standards—aim to achieve that goal. A teaching residency program is another to consider.

Remake Learning Recognized by Stanford Social Innovation Review Tue, 16 Aug 2016 12:00:33 +0000 It’s hard to believe that 10 years have passed since Remake Learning was just a good idea. Back in 2006, the notion a network of new learning opportunities for Pittsburgh’s children was an innovative concept in need of dedicated execution. Today, the network is thriving, with 250 organizations involved.

The Stanford Social Innovation Review recently took note of these accomplishments in “Making School New,” an article tracing the decade-long trajectory of Remake Learning. (The author rightly points out that Pittsburgh’s own Mister Rogers, one of the first to recognize the educational potential of technology, laid the groundwork decades earlier.)

As its name implies, SSIR is a magazine focused on innovation, and the Remake Network is being featured for its original approach to learning and civic engagement.

The article starts where Pittsburgh leaders began a decade ago: with the realization that the education status quo was unacceptable. Children were no longer engaged in their lessons. Teachers were not connecting with their students. Technology was changing, the job market was evolving, and young people’s interests were going in new directions. Educators and city leaders knew they had to rethink the system.

New to the Grable Foundation in 2006, Gregg Behr heard the message loud and clear. He gathered educators, researchers, and technologists to address this “seismic” change in learning. They traded expertise and discussed how the thoughtful use of technology could re-engage young people. They envisioned Pittsburgh as a place where learning happened everywhere—a community where informal and formal education institutions collaborated to create a continuum of opportunities for all young people.

Born from that effort—with a few different iterations and much invaluable support along the way—was the Remake Learning Network. Now, there are more than 250 members in the thriving ecosystem, though we know our work isn’t done.

We are especially pleased to hear our story told on a national stage. It’s always great to be recognized for the hard work the city and the network’s members have done. It’s even more important, however, to see the model gain traction nationally, because innovations in education are still needed to ensure that all children have a chance to engage in learning like the kids in Pittsburgh do.

As Behr says in the article:

“There’s no reason every community in the country couldn’t do what we’ve done. You may not have 250 potential partners, but you probably have schools, libraries, businesses, a community college.” And “that’s enough,” he says, for local leaders to “think collectively about helping kids be future-ready.”

That kind of thinking, Behr suggests, leads to high aspirations. “We want to create a community where the whole region is a kid’s campus,” he says. “Whatever it takes to light up learning—robotics, maker [spaces], gaming, experiences that happen in or out of school—we want to create learning pathways for kids that help them navigate the economy, become great citizens, and thrive as lifelong learners.”

Read more in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

Guest Post: Let’s Talk Technology & Young Children Fri, 29 Jul 2016 12:48:27 +0000 As part of the weeklong celebration of educational transformation that occurred throughout the Pittsburgh region called Remake Learning Days, the Fred Rogers Center at St. Vincent’s College and ISA Learning, Inc. facilitated a conversation about the role of technology in early education.

Let’s Talk: Technology and Young Children was held at the Well facility at Kids + Pediatrics on the evening of Thursday, May 12th and was attended by invited stakeholders with different backgrounds including experts on the NAEYC/Fred Rogers Center position statement, pediatricians, EdTech companies, advocates and early educators. The goals of event organizers, Dr. Jordan Lippman, Executive Director of ISA Learning and Ms. Tanya Baronti, Program Manager at the Fred Rogers Center included clarifying terminology and understanding the opportunities and perceived threats of using educational technology with young children.

“For many practitioners who work with young children, there are so many terms, technologies and tools that appear to emerge daily (even hourly!), that it’s hard for anyone to have a principled perspective,” said Dr. Lippman. Creating a common language or vocabulary is critical for establishing an understanding of the issues and best practices.  According to Ms. Baronti it is critical that “the voices and experiences of people who work with children and teachers are included so we can bring some clarity and context to our conversation.”  To build a foundation for the conversation that is continued here, the Let’s Talk event elicited the preconceptions of participants who then worked in small groups to define terms and clarify understandings; as the event came to a close some participants created messages about Technology and Young Children that we recorded.

Attendees began the session by individually responding visually, emotionally, and bodily to the terms they intended on exploring, which included: Educational Technology, Digital Media, Early Education (Early Childhood Development), Interactive Technology, Active Learning, and Deeper Learning. As a group, they discussed and reflected on why these terms evoke these types of responses and reactions. These responses and reactions were recorded on sticky notes and displayed throughout the session.


Participants worked in small groups to define their understanding of the terms and created simple definitions on chart paper, using these questions as a guide.

  • Do responses have to do with definitions of terms?
  • Are there definitions that are ambiguous?
  • Is it harder to understand these terms as new technology is developed?

Then, using a Round Robin process, groups travelled to the posters created by other groups, and they edited each of the terms and discussed them further. Then, the larger group was asked: Did we come to a consensus on terminology? Why or why not?

Lastly, each small group designated a representative to create a response that would communicate their ‘biggest’ tip about using digital media and technology for caregivers, teachers, parents, and other professionals who work with young children.

What terms to do you struggle to define across education and technology? What other challenges do you face when discussing new technology with other educators? Let us know on Twitter with the hashtag #TechTalkPGH  and by connecting with @TeamISAPgh, @FredRogersCtr, and @RemakeLearning.

In this exciting multi-part blog series, we will continue to explore and unpack each of these  terms for deeper understanding, as well as post VLOG reactions and responses from attendees. Check back soon for part two!

About ISA Learning:  ISA Learning™ is a Benefit Corporation that promotes the success of all early learners by teaching them collaborative problem solving skills. We use the power of stories and engineering design challenges to create compelling S.T.E.M. (science, technology, engineering, and math) educational experiences.

About the Fred Rogers Center: Staying true to the vision of Fred Rogers, we help children grow as confident, competent, and caring human beings. An advocate for the positive potential of technology to support children, families, educators, and caregivers, the Rogers Center enjoys many collaborative relationships with educational institutions, research centers, and community organizations.