Remake Learning Remake Learning is a network of people, projects, and organizations in the greater Pittsburgh region that are empowering children and youth by creating relevant learning opportunities through the compelling use of technology, media, and the arts. Mon, 16 May 2016 03:59:35 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Should Kindergartners Do Tougher Math? Mon, 31 Aug 2015 18:42:57 +0000 Welcome back to our new STEAM series. For two weeks, we’ve been deconstructing the acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math with posts that explore each subject in a new light. 

Researchers have found that kindergarten is more academic than it used to be. Today’s kindergarteners spend about 25 percent more time on early literacy than they did in the 1990s, often at the expense of time for play and for subjects like art, music, and social studies.

At the same time, further research has indicated that kindergarten math is too easy. Researchers at Vanderbilt University found that teachers spent 13 days a month teaching concepts that 95 percent of students had already mastered, like counting and shape recognition. Spending more time on such easier concepts was associated with lower math scores at the end of the year. But teaching more advanced concepts like addition and subtraction benefited everyone, even kids who entered kindergarten with the lowest skill levels.

So does kindergarten math need to be harder? Or more relaxed, to allow more time for socioemotional development? Experts say neither. Like much in STEAM learning, engaging young children in math is not just about what teachers teach, but about how they teach it. While kindergartners may benefit from learning more advanced math concepts, instruction can (and should) be engaging, hands-on, and playful.

 Like much in STEAM learning, engaging young children in math is not just about what teachers teach, but about how they teach it.

“[The] presumed dichotomy—that preschool and kindergarten must either be geared toward play and socioemotional development, or focused on rigorous academic instruction—is false,” wrote researchers Daphna Bassok, Amy Claessens, and Mimi Engel at Education Week. Engel is an assistant professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College and lead author of the study about the math mismatch in kindergarten.

Engel and her fellow researchers are not sure why the math mismatch happens. They hypothesize that teachers may be teaching to the curriculum, or perhaps not moving the class along until the students with the lowest skills are caught up. But she believes that slightly adjusting the math curriculum can improve the skills kids have when they leave kindergarten.

Additional research from Professor Greg Duncan at the University of California Irvine has found that early math skills are more predictive of success than reading skills. In a study of 20,000 kindergartners, Duncan found that students who learned the most math skills in kindergarten tended to have the highest reading and math scores years later, even after controlling for IQ and family income.

So there is consensus that early math skills are critical for success and should be taught in engaging ways. But Engel points out that while there is an enormous body of research on effective strategies to do so in reading, there is less agreement in early elementary classrooms on how to teach math in engaging ways. That knowledge is still making its way into classrooms.

In recent years, efforts based out of Pittsburgh, like the Early Learning of Math through Media project, have aimed to help early-education teachers feel more confident about teaching math in conceptual ways that make sense to young learners.

“It’s a great platform to build deeper understanding and confidence among these early educators,” Nancy Bunt, program director for the Allegheny Intermediate Unit’s Math and Science Collaborative, wrote Remake Learning in an email last year about the project.

Science writer and anthropologist Gwen Dewar makes another good point about the findings of the math study. She said that while cynics may say changing math content will have only modest effects on end-of-year test scores, teaching math in a more conceptual, engaging way can affect how kindergartners think of math on the whole.

“How many kids will end the school year feeling excited about mathematics?” she wrote. “How many kids will feel prepared to move onto more advanced topics later?”

Oddly enough, “M” seems to be the least talked-about letter in the acronym STEAM, perhaps because ideas about math are so engrained in many of us. But thinking differently about how teachers approach the subject could mean a lot not just for stronger math skills but for achievement in STEAM learning subjects across the board. 

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Art On Its Own Thu, 27 Aug 2015 16:23:17 +0000 Welcome back to our new STEAM series. For two weeks, we are deconstructing the acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math with posts that explore each subject in a new light. 

A couple years ago, the emphasis on STEM education became a push for STEAM—arts in addition to science, technology, engineering, and math. And rightfully so. Encouraging art along with technical skills empowers kids to create, and fosters the kind of innovative mindset that will help them later in life.

Schools and informal learning centers have embraced STEAM, as evidenced by the makerspaces cropping up in libraries and classrooms. STEAM projects are great opportunities to exercise interdisciplinary muscles and pair seemingly disparate fields and tools. Biology and design, say, or sewing and circuitry.

Meanwhile, however, traditional arts education often falls by the wayside or suffers funding cuts. Programs at low-income schools are most vulnerable. Chicago, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles are among the many school districts where funding for the arts has been slashed. In Los Angeles, restoration of arts programming has just begun after it was cut by 41 percent between 2008 and 2013, although here too the new emphasis is placed on integrating arts into the core academic subjects. The federal Arts in Education program has fought against threats of consolidation and budget cuts each year, finally ending up with a 2016 proposal to preserve it.

The question is: Does the A provide something on its own that may get diluted when it is wedged between S T E and M? The value of making is well documented, but are there also benefits to imagination and open-ended exploration without an emphasis on producing something tangible?

Research has repeatedly revealed the positive effect of arts education on cognitive development, especially when it comes to music class and underserved kids. In one Northwestern study, at-risk children who completed two years of a community music program had a stronger neural mechanism that is linked to reading and language skills.

In a 2012 report by the National Endowment for the Arts, former chairman Rocco Landesman asks “what’s lost” when art is abolished in schools. “The chance for a child to express himself,” he writes. “The chance for the idiosyncratic child who has not yet succeeded elsewhere to shine. A sense of play, of fun, of discovery.”

When schools decide or are forced to drop the arts, afterschool and informal learning networks often pick up some of the slack. In the Remake Learning Network, Pittsburgh’s Mattress Factory pairs contemporary art installations with educational programming. Young artists in the site’s free Teen Art Cooperative get access to mentors and materials, gaining the skills they will need to become practicing artists. The Mattress Factory is one of several local museums and galleries that lead the Avonworth Pittsburgh Galleries Project. With support from the Sprout Fund, the institutions host young Pittsburgh artists who curate their own public exhibits.

Lots of kids yearn for these opportunities to explore and experiment. STEAM projects can fulfill those desires and more. But there is something about the feeling of cold clay spinning in your hands, or performing in front of a packed auditorium, that can’t quite be replaced.

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With Design Thinking, Kids Engineer the Future of Their Communities Mon, 24 Aug 2015 18:13:11 +0000 Welcome back to our new STEAM series. For two weeks, we are deconstructing the acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math with posts that explore each subject in a new light. 

What is an engineer?

There are the bridges and the ‘bots, of course. And, increasingly, there’s the silently implied “software” preceding the word. The list goes on. Geomatic engineers work with systems that collect spatial data on land and water. Audio engineers mix sound. Packaging engineers, true to name, design packaging. According to one site, there are 35 different engineering degrees.

So what is the common denominator? And which parts of this nebulous field are relevant for learners?

It all comes down to the way engineers think. Engineering is about identifying a problem and using a combination of creative and technical skills to address it. In some cases, this means building a more efficient vacuum cleaner or fixing bugs in a computer program. But the applications of this kind of problem solving don’t stop there. Engineer-like thinking is deeply beneficial when it comes to civic and community engagement—and, on the flip side, social consciousness can do a world of good for the engineering field. Let’s call it problem solving for society.

The task of making something can be elevated to ask: Why are we making it? And for whom? These principles of engineering are part and parcel to the concept of design thinking, an engineering approach that demands social awareness. Or, as Pittsburgh’s Mickey McManus, chairman and principal of MAYA Design, told us, “It’s simple: We can make strides or we can make crap.”

Engineers who are aware of their surroundings and in tune with the hopes and needs of their communities will become equal parts empathetic and entrepreneurial.

“I had always learned about problem solving,” David Kelley, founder of the design thinking firm IDEO, said in an interview. But his education at Stanford taught him “it was just as important to worry about figuring out the kind of human needs that were worth working on, and then doing the problem solving.”

In a world where one can make anything quickly and cheaply, McManus would argue, we need to get beyond only making things. We need to make the things that are useful to our communities.

“In design thinking, observation takes center stage,” writes Fast Company. Engineers who are aware of their surroundings and in tune with the hopes and needs of their communities will become equal parts empathetic and entrepreneurial. Design thinkers break away from the status quo to discern what kinds of products and systems will better address the problems they observe.

Kids have a leg up when it comes to design thinking and conscious engineering. Young learners are less entrenched in the current system, and they are naturally curious.

“I’ve always had an interest in K-12 because I really think that’s where to start,” Kelley said. “What happens with kids is that they’re wildly creative when they’re younger and then … they kind of opt out. If you want to make a big change, get all the kids thinking of themselves as a creative person. They’re just going to have that openness that will allow them to come up with new and different ideas.”

So what does design thinking look like in the classroom?

At Studio H, a program that began in North Carolina and moved to California, middle school students follow a project from earliest inklings to full production. They always use design thinking to identify a problem or opportunity in their community, figure out a solution, and engineer its manifestation. Recent examples include beautiful roadside farmers market stands along a school bus route, and a 3D-printed library for their new campus.

Here in Pittsburgh, South Fayette High School wanted to find a way to keep kids safe on the way to and from school, and BusBudE was a born—an app the kids coded using the MIT App Inventor. BusBudE texts parents when their kids have hopped on the bus and when they have gotten off.

The Ellis School couches its STEM education in the 4Cs: communication, collaboration, creativity, and context. That doesn’t mean the all-girl student body is lacking in the mechanics; middle school students can immerse themselves in Carnegie Mellon University’s Hummingbird Robotics kit and enter urban engineering competitions, and high school students can take courses in mathematical modeling and engineering design.

Yet their work is informed—and likely made more interesting—by an understanding from an early age of how their projects can fit into their daily lives and provide solutions.

Kelley jokes that engineers don’t have the reputation of being “people people” but says that certainly does not have to be the case.

“My experience has been that when engineers really feel that something would be important to people, would have meaning in people’s live, that’s highly motivating and it makes them work really hard,” he said.




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Teens and Technology: The Uneven Playing Field Persists Wed, 19 Aug 2015 17:36:56 +0000 Welcome back to our new STEAM series. For the next two weeks, we are deconstructing the acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math with posts that explore each subject in a new light. 

For nearly a century, private Waldorf Schools around the country have subscribed to a teaching method that focuses on physical activity and creative, hands-on learning. But the schools, which many Silicon Valley tech executives send their kids to, made headlines in 2011 for their strict belief in not using any technology—no screens, no internet—from kindergarten to middle school. At thousands of dollars a year, it’s a privilege to be disconnected from tech.

Meanwhile, being disconnected is a major hurdle for under-resourced public schools, whose slower internet speeds can prevent teachers from doing the same basic activities as schools with fast speeds, even in neighboring districts. Only 14 percent of low-income schools meet internet speed goals set by ConnectEd, a federal initiative aimed at increasing broadband internet access. That is compared to 39 percent of affluent schools.

Like much else in society, access and use of technology and the opportunities that come with it fall along race, class, and gender lines. It’s why when educators push for greater technology integration in education, equity has to be central to any effort in order for tech to propel, not hinder, a more equal shot at a STEAM career.

When educators push for greater technology integration in education, equity has to be central to any effort in order for tech to propel, not hinder, a more equal shot at a STEAM career.

For example, how teachers use edtech is shaped by what resources are available to them. But teachers in low-income schools tend to have less support. Among teachers in highest income areas, Pew research found that 70 percent said their school gave them good support for incorporating technology into their teaching, compared with only half the teachers in lowest income areas. That means while there might be two identical iPads in two different classrooms with equal internet speeds, the type of support and ongoing professional development a teacher receives could mean that the learning experiences students have with those iPads is drastically different.

Young people’s experiences with technology on an individual level also differ greatly, though discussions about technology rarely take in the full breadth and diversity of how young people use it. Last winter, a 19-year-old named Andrew wrote a blog post titled “A Teenager’s View on Social Media, Written by an Actual Teen” that gained traction in tech and media circles.

People working in the tech industry forwarded the story to danah boyd, author and principal researcher at Microsoft Research, who has researched and written extensively about teen technology use. Though she didn’t fault Andrew for voicing his perspective, she thought that as a white male college student, his thoughts on social media shouldn’t be considered a single stand-in for how 16 million teens use tech.

“Let me put this bluntly: teens’ use of social media is significantly shaped by race and class, geography and cultural background,” boyd wrote. She added that listening to only one group of teens’ perspective on technology is a problem because it shapes what the tech industry builds and invests in and what “gets legitimized by institutions of power.” For example, by only reading Andrew’s post, a reader would miss how many teens, especially teens of color, are harnessing social media as a tool for social activism.

Of course, there are many great programs designed to keep young people of color and low-income teens at the center of all their technology opportunities. Sisters e S.T.E.A.M. is an afterschool program at Woodland Hills Academy outside of Pittsburgh and a pop-up program throughout Allegheny County. It aims to empower young women, predominantly young women of color, with hands-on STEAM learning, introducing them to STEM careers through five core units, including one called Thoughts & Bots that introduces girls to robotics.

Nationally, Black Girls Code introduces girls and young women to basic programming skills in languages like Scratch and Ruby on Rails. At its recent hackathon in New York City, the winning team of teenage girls created an app that let students share notes and homework after being absent.

“If the minority presence in leadership roles doesn’t soon reflect the general population or the online population, it will be time for Net boosters to ask themselves why what was supposed be a democratizing influence didn’t work out that way,” wrote Catherine Yang, editor of Bloomberg Businessweek . . . in the year 1999.

Well, 16 years later, it didn’t work out that way. But with a greater focus on technology that keeps equity as a central goal, not just as an add-on, there’s a chance to make greater progress for today’s kids in the next 16 years.

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We Can’t All Be Scientists, But We Can Learn to Reason Like Them Mon, 17 Aug 2015 19:25:12 +0000 Welcome to our new STEAM series. For the next two weeks, we are deconstructing the acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math with posts that explore each subject in a new light. First up, the value of science literacy.

Science is used for curing diseases, taking photos of Pluto, and expanding the horizons of humankind. “Science” is also used for touting the dubious benefits of butter coffee, pomegranate juice and magnetic wristbands.

Building scientific literacy skills, experts say, can help shield people from suspect claims like these and inform us more deeply about key issues affecting our world. It’s why when we talk about the S in STEAM, educators should emphasize these skills alongside more traditional scientific learning.

To be clear, science literacy doesn’t mean a textbook knowledge of science facts like the periodic table. Scientific literacy is a knowledge foundation of concepts and processes that help people make decisions and analyze and evaluate what they read or hear—whether the topic is genetically modified food or climate change.

Instead of teaching kids how long it takes for light from the sun to reach earth, the better question is how scientists figured it out. Or why they figured it out.

“The types of questions in science literacy tests don’t reflect the kinds of things real scientists think or care about,” Faye Flam, a science journalist and author, wrote last month in Forbes. Her piece attacked an article in TIME that painted science literacy as knowledge of specific facts like the chemical makeup of Mars. “Science literacy tests make science out to be a set of dry, disconnected facts—and yet it is the connections that make science so interesting,” she added.

Flam writes that instead of teaching kids how long it takes for light from the sun to reach earth, the better question is how scientists figured it out. Or why they figured it out. Those questions require deeper exploration and questioning, and can nurture a sense of curiosity about the scientific world.

How to get there? Educators in Pittsburgh are introducing kids to scientific thinking and questioning with hands-on learning. For example, at a Citizen Science Lab workshop in early August, students explored how substances like caffeine and sugar affect their own heart rates. The Lab, a project of Duquesne University, hosts afterschool and summer programs that let kids explore scientific concepts. It also hosts adult workshops, like a five-day course introducing people to plant-microbe interactions.

Additionally, 28 STEAM grants, administered by the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, are being rolled out in Pittsburgh-area public schools. Mt. Lebanon High School is using its grant to start a “suburban agriculture” cross-curricular project where students will grow, harvest, and prepare organic vegetables while learning the importance of sustainable foods in a suburban area.

Such programs can help ensure that the next generation will narrow the gaps that the Pew Charitable Trusts found between scientists and the average Joe on controversial issues. Only 37 percent of U.S. adults, for example, thought it was safe to eat genetically modified foods; yet among scientists, 88 percent thought GMOs were safe. Similar divides were evident on topics like human evolution (98 percent of scientists believe humans evolved over time, compared with 65 percent of U.S. adults) and climate change.divorce-rate-in-maine_per-capita-consumption-of-margarine-us

Plus, seeing how the scientific process works first-hand can help kids avoid getting duped by inaccurate maps, statistics (divorce rates in Maine correlate with per capita consumption of margarine, for example, but that does not mean they cause each other), and other data-driven claims in our increasingly data-driven lives.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson has said, “Science literacy is the artery through which the solutions of tomorrow’s problems flow.” It is also a route to help today’s kids make much more mundane (but still important) choices about what to eat, buy, and, ultimately, who to vote for.

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Sharing the Remake Learning Model for Education Innovation Mon, 17 Aug 2015 13:01:08 +0000 Last week, as part of an ongoing effort to “open source” the Remake Learning Network, The Sprout Fund premiered the next release of the Remake Learning Playbook, a resource for building collaborative innovation networks for teaching and learning.

In addition to updates to chapters and case studies released in June, the latest edition of the Playbook includes:

  • Voices of Innovators: An audio archive of Remake Learning members in their own words
  • Advocacy Kits: A collection of presentation tool kits for making the case to a variety of audiences
  • Gameplan Web App: A beta of an interactive tool for generating custom versions of the Playbook designed for different communities

Sprout presented the second release of the Playbook at the 2015 Education Innovation Clusters Convening hosted by Digital Promise and LEAP Innovations in Chicago. Convening attendees are leading efforts similar to Remake Learning in more than a dozen cities and regions across the U.S. and the Remake Learning Playbook was presented as their go-to resource for strategies and advice based on the lessons learned in Pittsburgh.

For a recap of the Education Innovation Cluster Convening, see Michelle Molnar’s piece in EdWeek.

Dive in and share your feedback

The Remake Learning Playbook is a living document that will continue to evolve with more contributions, new features, and updates. You can add your voice to this process by reading and commenting on the Playbook on Medium and using the Gameplan Web App to create your own playbook for remaking learning in your community.

Get started today at

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New Summer Program a Badge of Pride for Pittsburgh Thu, 06 Aug 2015 16:31:17 +0000 On a recent afternoon at South Hills Middle School, a gorilla was anxious to bypass an icky swamp in order to deliver some bananas to a friend.

A gorilla puppet, that is, and a hypothetical swamp. And it was a number of middle school students and their kindergarten “mentees” who had to come up with an ingenious strategy for rescuing the bananas before they rotted.

The middle school “mentors” are all participants in the Pittsburgh Public Schools’ Summer Dreamers Academy enrichment program. Interactive Story Adventures, which provides the puppets and problem-solving scenarios, is one of two dozen organizations throughout Pittsburgh working with the public schools to bring a rich array of learning opportunities to summer students. And learning they are. The student mentors, for example, are learning how to teach, collaborate, and tell stories each afternoon in the program.

But when traditional grades and class credits aren’t in the picture, how do they document all these new skills and experiences?

This year, Summer Dreamers is partnering with Cities of Learning, the Sprout Fund initiative (with support from the MacArthur Foundation) that turns Pittsburgh—and other cities—into dynamic “campuses” full of learning opportunities and digital badges designed to legitimize them.

Through Interactive Story Adventures, for example, Summer Dreamers students can receive badges for skills such as relationship-building and engineering design, all of which culminate in a Responsible Mentor badge.

Badging has been catching on in museums, libraries, and other informal education settings. Bringing badging into the formal learning space solves a persistent problem for the public schools, said James Doyle, the coordinator of after-school programs.

“One thing we know as a school district is we’re really good at measuring a student’s progress through very specific things,” he said. “In the math curriculum, we know specific benchmarks, and the grade doesn’t come up by happenstance.”

The district recognizes that learning occurs in countless places outside the walls of their buildings—or during afterschool and summer sessions—but evaluating and acknowledging informal learning has traditionally been a challenge. Badging, however, provides both evidence for the teachers and tangible recognition for the students, Doyle said.

The badges that students receive are archived in a digital portfolio that they might one day share with college admissions officers and potential employers as evidence of a diverse skillset.

“The requirements [for each badge] are supposed to be laid out right there when people are viewing it,” said Nate Rodda, educational programs coordinator at Heinz History Center, another Summer Dreamers/Cities of Learning partner. “There’s not a whole lot of guesswork about what something means.”

The district recognizes that learning occurs in countless places outside the walls of their buildings, but evaluating and acknowledging informal learning has traditionally been a challenge.
Rodda said the development of badges can be a helpful process for instructors as well, forcing them to reflect on the important benchmarks in their curricula and the skills they would like their students to pick up.

Rodda’s Summer Dreamers students are Pittsburgh’s History Detectives, researching the people and events that shaped their hometown, digging into mock archeology, and eventually pulling their new knowledge together in digital documentaries. The incoming sixth-graders have the option of earning nine distinct badges, including Pittsburgh Science and Industry Explainer and Digital Story Editor.

Next year, the History Center, which has worked with Summer Dreamers for five years, might restructure its badging program, Rodda said. Inconsistencies in attendance and the chaos that is inevitable in an afternoon summer education program for middle schoolers make systematically issuing nine badges to each student a challenge. Next time, the badges will likely correspond with more concentrated, single-day activities, he said.

The students are still getting used to badging, according to Rodda and Rachel Hermann, director of Interactive Story Adventures, a first-time Summer Dreamers partner. When Hermann’s program piloted badging with high school students in the spring, they were more receptive, but some middle school students have trouble grasping the purpose of a personal portfolio, she said. And many are simply encountering the concept of badges for the first time.

Like Rodda, Hermann praised the badges for helping the adults designing the curriculum. In Interactive Story Adventures, the students and teachers can fill out “evidence sheets” detailing the skills the mentors have accomplished that should earn them a certain badge. The process helps remind the students what they should work toward accomplishing.

“For us, it totally makes sense because our badges sort of serve as strategies,” Hermann said. “It really is helping structure our outcome goals as a program.” Sometimes the teachers act out a badge, charades-style, for the students to identify.

Meanwhile, the gorilla has successfully made it around the swamp. The young mentors and younger mentees engineered a car and built a prototype out of LEGOs, swiftly carrying the ripening bananas to safety.

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Growing a Future Workforce, One Summer Job at a Time Mon, 03 Aug 2015 16:16:24 +0000 Last year, hundreds of Pittsburgh teens and young adults were placed in summer jobs through the city’s Learn & Earn employment program. These were not your grandma’s summer jobs, though. No painting fences or mowing lawns. Young people gave presentations at foundations, took calls in government offices, and taught at summer camps. At workforce readiness training, they learned practical job skills as well as the all-valuable “soft skills.”

The only hitch? There were just 552 spots in the program—for about 2,000 applicants.

“What broke my heart is we had 2,000 kids who said: ‘I want an opportunity to do this. I want an opportunity to find what my career path is, and I want that opportunity [to] make a resume builder,’” said Mayor Bill Peduto in a WESA-FM story about Learn & Earn. “For every kid we were saying yes to, we were saying no to two.”

This year, the city decided to go big or go home. Partnering with the Three Rivers Workforce Investment Board and Allegheny County, it nearly quadrupled the number of openings for economically disadvantaged youth, placing more than 1,800 students in summer jobs across the city. Learn & Earn is also part of Pittsburgh City of Learning, a web of summer programs designed to turn the city into a giant campus. Young people ages 14 to 21 are working in healthcare facilities, video game studios, libraries, urban gardens, and corporate settings. They are infusing the workforce with new talent at a time when teens, especially low-income teens and young people of color, find it tougher than ever to land a summer job.

 They are infusing the workforce with new talent at a time when teens, especially low-income teens and young people of color, find it tougher than ever to land a summer job.


Stefani Pashman, CEO of the Three Rivers Workforce Investment Board, recently told Pittsburgh’s local NPR station that the timing was right to expand the program. In Allegheny County, the summer job market shrank by 55 percent between 2000 and 2013, according to data from the board.

The story is similar around the country. According to new Pew research, fewer than a third of teens had jobs last summer—a historic low going back 70 years. A report on teen labor markets by the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University found, “No other age group in the U.S. has fared as poorly as teenagers over the past decade.”

For youth of color, nabbing a summer job is even more of a challenge. Last year, the summer employment rate for 16- to 19-year-old white youth was 34 percent, compared to 19.3 percent for black youth and 25 percent for Hispanic youth.

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald recently told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that while a summer paycheck is important, a summer without a job is also a missed opportunity for young people to gain critical work skills, meet mentors, and develop their interests. Research has found working in high school increases the likelihood of a smoother transition to the workforce and, in some cases, can promote school persistence and graduation.

Young people also miss a chance to discover what industries they like—or want to avoid.

“We’re trying very hard to get youth exposed to the full diversity of careers available to them,” Pashman said.



To reach that kind of diversity, the program’s nearly 40 contracting organizations identify jobs like teaching at children’s camps or working for banks, park departments, community-based agencies, and corporations. Those contracting organizations, which including Gwen’s Girls, Homewood Children’s Village, and YouthPlaces, have connections with businesses in the their communities and know how to work with young people.

Depending on their age and experience, teens are placed in three “tiers” and all go through workforce readiness training, which includes the not-so-simple “basics”–writing resumes, handling interviews, and what to wear to work. The LUMA Institute, a Pittsburgh-based design education company, developed the training curriculum.

Younger participants create “storyboards” that illustrate their aspirations, professional goals, and strengths or pitfalls. Teens placed in the third tier conduct interviews with company stakeholders and research different career paths.Learn & EarnPlus, as teens go through this training they earn badges—a type of digital credential that helps document the skills they learn outside of school. Young people earn the “reliable talent” badge if they have good attendance at their job and communicate with their supervisor if they need to miss any days, for example. Like badges teens earn in other City of Learning programs, young people can show them off in an online portfolio.

The $4.3 million program is a public-private partnership funded by government money, foundation grants, and corporate sponsorship. While each company pays about $2,000 for every student it hosts, Learn & Earn distributes the students’ paychecks, for about 30 hours per week, making it easier for companies to participate.

“If they’re going to host the student, we will take care of all the paperwork, they’ll be on our payroll, and if they don’t show up it’s our problem,” Pashman told TribLIVE.


The program’s impact is already visible in participants’ lives.

Last summer, 21-year-old Hannibal Hopson was placed in Pittsburgh City Council President Bruce Kraus’s office. From day one, he was the first line of assistance for concerned citizens in the city’s third council district, taking calls and handling problems like overgrowth on vacant lots and reports of deer and wildlife in the city.

“The staff made me feel my work was impactful, no matter how small it was.”

“I got to walk into the office everyday and think, ‘Who knows what will happen?’,” Hopson said. “The staff made me feel my work was impactful, no matter how small it was.”

Hopson, who was taking a year away from college, ended up being promoted to community relations assistant and working at the office for the full year.

This year, a group of 25 teens is interning at Simcoach Games. They are creating games like Jobopoly to help the Three Rivers Workforce Investment Board teach young people about work skills and professionalism. And the process of creating the game itself, which requires design and teamwork, builds skills the teens will carry with them long after summer ends.




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Perspectives on the Digital Badges Forum for Pittsburgh Employers Wed, 29 Jul 2015 16:45:11 +0000 by Adam Reger

On Tuesday, July 21, the Sprout Fund hosted the Digital Badges Forum for Pittsburgh Employers. The meeting brought together representatives from more than 50 employers, government agencies, and workforce development organizations from across the region to discuss the opportunities and challenges surrounding digital badges, an emerging educational technology tool.

Digital badges represent the skills and competencies achieved by learners. “Badging” is at the heart of Pittsburgh City of Learning, a Sprout Fund–led program including thousands of young people in more than 50 summer learning programs. Pittsburgh is one of just four cities nationally to participate in City of Learning during the summer of 2015, its second summer of participation.

At the core of badging’s appeal for educators and employers is the way it allows learners to demonstrate—and employers to evaluate—achievements and skill sets in ways that conventional academic metrics like grades and standardized test scores often can’t measure, or at least not meaningfully.

One forum participant underscored this point by describing a student who may not earn an A in a math class, but whose consistent hard work and mastery of core concepts earn her a badge that represents both a set of mathematical competencies and a consistent work ethic. To an employer, such a badge might be more informative and useful than a letter grade on the student’s transcript.

Photo: Ben Filio

Forum participants broke into small groups and worked to identify some of the challenges standing in the way of incorporating digital badges into the hiring process.

Many Forum attendees pointed to a lack of standardization surrounding badges. Jeff Ritter of LaRoche College questioned how a hiring manager would compare an applicant who earned a badge in C++ programming from a community college with a candidate with the same badge, but issued by Carnegie Mellon University.

Other groups zeroed in on the challenge of encouraging “buy-in” from employers.

“What happens if you build out 100 badge programs without knowing if employers really want it?” asked Eric Harvey of Imagine Careers. Ensuring that the badges being issued are relevant to employer needs is crucial to badging’s success.

Other groups discussed the problem of institutional resistance in fostering buy-in: for some hiring managers, badging may be seen as “just one more program to learn.”

After identifying challenges, the groups worked to articulate actions that could be taken, with the ultimate goal of incorporating digital badging into employers’ hiring practices. Armed with markers and poster board, the groups wrote out—and occasionally drew—their own visions of how to include badging in the workforce pipeline.

Photo: Ben Filio

Photo: Ben Filio

They then reported their visions to the entire Forum, presenting a number of innovative approaches to making digital badging a meaningful part of employers’ hiring processes.

With titles like “National Badgestry,” “Take the Badge to Work,” and “” (inspired by the dating website, ideas ranged from starting with employer needs and working backward, to testing badging within a single employment sector and creating demand for badges by partnering with key industries and leading brands.

The Forum concluded with remarks by Sprout Fund executive director Cathy Lewis Long, followed by a surprise guest: City of Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto.

Peduto described sharing a ride into the city earlier that day with President Obama, and the President’s remarks on Pittsburgh’s national reputation as a city of innovation.

“I hope you guys understand that what’s being started here is getting national attention,” Peduto told Forum participants. “When the President comes back, he’s going to be talking about this.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. It takes a design.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Cultivate leadership at many levels.

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

  1. Don’t Reinvent the Wheel.

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

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

  1. Leverage your community.

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

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

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

  1. Find common language to ensure communication.

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

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

Barbara Ray contributed to this story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remake Learning: What’s new at Zulama?NikkiNavta_Pic

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

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

What are you most proud of?

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

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

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

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

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

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

In your mind, what makes a collaboration successful?

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take the next steps with us by visiting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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