Remake Learning Remake Learning is a network of people, projects, and organizations in the greater Pittsburgh region that are empowering children and youth by creating relevant learning opportunities through the compelling use of technology, media, and the arts. Sat, 05 Nov 2016 03:59:20 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Science Center Is Nucleus in STEM Education Initiative Tue, 09 Feb 2016 17:09:45 +0000 A few years ago, Sto-Rox School District was keen on providing students with engaging science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) learning. Administrators knew jobs in those fields were growing, but their students were graduating ill-equipped to land them.

The Allegheny County district was hardly alone in its inability, despite its eagerness, to keep up with the national movement to strengthen STEM education. According to the National Math and Science Initiative, in 2013 only 35 percent of U.S. eighth grade students tested proficient in math, and only 36 percent of high school students were ready for college-level science.

The Sto-Rox Middle School principal at the time, Melanie Kerber, was among several educators who joined with the Carnegie Science Center to create a free tool that could help districts like Sto-Rox as well as its affluent neighbors bolster STEM learning.

With support from the Heinz Endowments, the science center and its advisers produced the Carnegie STEM Excellence Pathway, an online self-assessment rubric. The tool helps schools and districts examine areas like teacher credentialing and training, as well as student participation. The rubric helps schools identify priorities, establish goals, and create plans for the coming year. It is intended to support both resource-rich and struggling schools, which repeat the self-evaluation annually.

“For the first time, we can benchmark ourselves against what’s considered high quality.”

In some cases, the science center uses the Heinz money to help local under-resourced districts like Sto-Rox carry out their Pathway goals. The center offers workshops at a cost to other schools. Those farther afield can seek virtual advice through webinars.

“What we value about the Pathway is, for the first time, we can benchmark ourselves against what’s considered high quality based on a standardized rubric,” said South Fayette School District Superintendent Bille Rondinelli, who helped create the program.

The emphasis on continuous improvement helps schools find value in the tool, said Kerber, now superintendent of better-resourced Blackhawk School District, which uses the rubric as well.

“The nice thing about it is it’s calibrated so that if you’re showing any level of growth, you can be recognized for that,” she said.

As schools across the region embark on the self-improvement process, they build relationships with one another. When wealthy Upper St. Clair School District received a STEM grant that required partnership with an underserved district, an administrator reached out to Kerber, whom he had met at a Pathway meeting. That summer, Sto-Rox students joined Upper St. Clair students at a STEM camp.

The Pathway program has given rise to an educator community where “we have open and honest discussions where sharing takes place,” said South Fayette Assistant Superintendent Michael Loughead.

The Pathway initiative has brought to light the critical role a science center can play in a STEM ecosystem. Carnegie works directly with kids and educators, but also has connections to community institutions and corporations that employ STEM graduates. Supporting schools through programs like the STEM Excellence Pathway is one of the best ways to bring together disparate but complementary entities, said Carnegie Science Center Director of Strategic Education Initiatives Alana Kulesa, who spearheaded the Pathway program.

A science center can play a critical role in a STEM ecosystem.

The center “is a trusted leader in this field, and they’re neutral,” Loughead said. “It has promoted trust and changed things regionally. The spinoff has been connections we’ve made outside of this experience.” South Fayette is in talks with a local community college about a partnership, he said.

For Kerber, too, the science center has served as a portal to the world beyond school walls. Her relationship with the center opened her eyes to local opportunities in STEM fields she could encourage students to pursue. The health industry in Pittsburgh, for example, creates well-paying jobs for technicians that require less training than doctor and nurse positions.

“It really gets you thinking about how you can get kids excited about this,” Kerber said.

A new Heinz grant will allow Carnegie to train science centers beyond the region to play a role in STEM education.

“We were trying to meet a need in our community in southwestern Pennsylvania,” Kulesa said. “But we’ve provided resources really sorely needed by schools throughout country.”

Today, more than 5,300 schools nationwide are in the program. The science center has conducted trainings and workshops with some 1,000 educators and estimates the program is reaching 2.5 million students.

The data amassed through the program is revealing. Many schools are prioritizing inquiry and project-based learning, Kulesa said. The science center staff has noticed that schools feel comfortable conducting the self-evaluation but seek coaching to put a plan in place.

Hands-on STEM learning is “the most powerful way of approaching education right now,” Loughead said. “For teachers who’ve never done that, it can be overwhelming” to go it alone.

Pittsburgh’s STEM Programs Prep Students for Industries Eager to Hire Them Tue, 02 Feb 2016 17:49:41 +0000 What do the aerospace, semiconductor, and audio equipment industries have in common? They’re all part of the advanced industries sector, which the Brookings Institution defines as 50 industries characterized by their “deep involvement” with STEM.

The other element grouping these industries together is the economic opportunity they provide their workers. Brookings’ analysis of advanced industries finds that since 1975, average earnings have increased almost five times as fast as earnings in the overall economy. Plus, the jobs are relatively accessible—more than half of workers hold less than a bachelor’s degree.

How do we get this next generation of students to think about manufacturing in a more exciting and contemporary way?

So what’s the catch? The industries might be losing their competitive edge in the global economy. Employers are struggling to find qualified workers, especially machinists. And workers are missing an opportunity for well-paid jobs on the cutting edge of technology and manufacturing.

A number of groups in Pittsburgh, including classroom teachers and private sector investors, want that to change. By engaging more kids in hands-on STEM learning, and sparking a love of STEM fields, those groups hope to guide students toward job opportunities in a sector with reliable growth.

“The discussion about advanced manufacturing is really a way to get this next generation of students to think about manufacturing in a more exciting and contemporary way,” said Mary Murrin, who leads the Social Investment Team at Chevron, in the Sprout Fund’s new video.

The video takes a tour of places in Pittsburgh that are introducing students to STEM and manufacturing skills in new ways. The video starts with two new, Chevron-funded FabLabs, one at the Carnegie Science Center and the other at Intermediate Unit 1. These labs let kids and their families build creations with high-tech machinery.

The video then moves to Elizabeth Forward middle school. In 2013, the school combined three classrooms—art, tech ed, and technology—to create an expansive Dream Factory where teachers across subjects collaborate and bring together engineering and art. They guide students through independent projects using laser cutters, 3D printers, and robotics, as well as traditional materials like paint or sculpting compounds.

“This is not a gifted program, and it’s not an afterschool program,” said Todd Keruskin, assistant superintendent of Elizabeth Forward School District. “Every kid is getting this in our school.”

Butler Area Senior High School realized they needed a place for students to explore STEM concepts and get their hands messy. So they built the new Smart Lab, where students can tinker with circuits, robotics, and woodworking tools.

“You can only learn so much in the classroom, but when you get out there and get hands-on experience in a room of virtually endless possibilities, you can do whatever you set your mind to,” said Alex, a senior at Butler Area Senior High, who has learned to build skateboards.

Finally, the Chartiers Valley High School transformed its very traditional shop program into an engineering program where students can earn college credit. The engineering classes pose a problem students need to solve while choosing from a wide array of materials.

As 6th grader Hailey from Elizabeth Forward explained, “When it’s hands on learning, it’s something that you want to do.”

Program Turns Pittsburgh Teens Into Real-World Entrepreneurs Tue, 26 Jan 2016 17:55:41 +0000

The dog feeders Aidan Honnold built from scratch.

Last summer, 18-year-old Aidan Honnold was nearly finished with a pet project he’d spent weeks building: three dog feeders that are set at different heights. He had the wood and the food bowls, and after cold-calling independent steel suppliers—something he found daunting—he found a small amount of steel that fit his $100 budget.

Then he caught a hitch. The supplier bumped up the price of the steel. His hopes for completing his dog-bowl contraption before summer’s end were looking slim.

Then, he thought, “How would a business solve this problem?”

That question was exactly what 412Build, an eight-week entrepreneurship and making program, had been teaching him to ask. The program is a collaboration featuring a nonprofit economic development organization called Innovation Works, tech-incubator AlphaLab Gear, and TechShop, and is accepting applications for summer 2016 through February. The program has changed from year to year, and this summer it will combine a two-week maker and entrepreneurship “boot camp” with a six-week “business accelerator” where participants design, prototype, build, and market their products in conjunction with local bike shops, pet stores, clothing retailers, and the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh.

  “I didn’t realize how far you can go from just an idea.”

Jackie Shimshoni, program coordinator for 412Build, said the program was born in 2014 out of a desire to give back to East Liberty, the neighborhood that is home to both of 412Build’s headquarters, AlphaLab Gear and TechShop. East Liberty is a historically African-American neighborhood at the center of a debate on gentrification and displacement in Pittsburgh. Shimshoni said the program’s founders, as main tech players in the area, wanted to expand summer opportunities to young people in East Liberty. (The program also pays a stipend.) Though the program is open to all 16- to 18-year-olds, she said, acceptance focuses on kids from East Liberty and surrounding neighborhoods.

Last year, 412Build taught making and entrepreneurship through two community projects: one at Kite Hill Park and the other at a playground next to Homewood Bible Center Church. In both cases, groups of teens interviewed community members about what they would like to see on the playground or in the park. It was up to them to design, build, and problem-solve every hurdle that comes with group-construction projects.

The "musical wall" built by 412 Build participants.

The “musical wall” built by 412 Build participants.

Wells Taylor, a senior at Winchester Thurston High School in Pittsburgh, said hearing from community members who had been working on renovating Kite Park Hill for a long time motivated him and the other young people to build a deck, mosaic art, new signs, and benches to improve the park for its neighbors.

“Something I really learned was not just how to make things for myself,” he said. “But how it feels to really be able to build something for other people.”

This year, the program is introducing a new element: retail partners. Young people will conduct interviews with small business owners to learn about what products might sell or are needed for everyday problems. In the “business accelerator” part of the program, they’ll use a curriculum similar to what AlphaLab Gear gives the tech startups it works with.

The idea for expanding the retail component of the program came from a side-project the program managers assigned the 412 participants early on: build a better pet feeder. In addition to working on a project for the Homewood Bible Center Church, Honnold latched onto the dog-feeder idea and wanted to see it through.

When he ran into his snag over the steel, he recalled what he had learned in the entrepreneurship workshops: the price of materials goes down if you order in bulk. He remembered another group was working on a musical wall that made different sounds for kids to play with in the Homewood playground, and asked if they needed any steel. Sure enough, they did, and it brought his price down to where he could afford it.

“The program made me realize how close you can always be to starting a company,” he said. “It used to just be a pie-in-the-sky thing like, ‘Ooh look, they’re an entrepreneur.’ I didn’t realize how far you can go from just an idea.”

Equity Is a Question Mark in New Education Law Tue, 19 Jan 2016 21:36:54 +0000 As 2015 drew to a close, President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the latest stab at national education reform and the successor to the much-debated No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

Educators, families, and political leaders have largely cheered the demise of NCLB, which was a 2001 reauthorization of the landmark 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Among other things, NCLB made federal funding contingent on students passing more stringent standardized testing. Originally intended to hold schools accountable for ensuring quality education, the act ran into stiff criticism. Parents and teachers chafed at the all-consuming focus on testing. Administrators in struggling schools believed the consequences–funding tied to test scores, school closures, and teacher replacement, among others–were too punitive in the face of decades of disinvestment in low-income schools. And other critics felt the law was an overreach by the federal government.

So is ESSA the answer? The new law grants states and districts more control, easing the federal oversight introduced in NCLB. Advocates say the new law lays the foundation for the innovation needed in education, but others wonder whether it will hurt the kids “left behind” by its predecessor.

First, some good news.

With federal funding no longer tied to test scores, and an impossibly high bar for proficiency abolished, states, districts, and teachers have more flexibility on curricula. If a school wants to launch a “program, it can do so without dangerously ignoring material on a critical standardized test. If it wants to inject hands-on learning by opening a makerspace, it can also do so. By relaxing the focus on testing and specific subject matter, ESSA allows for educational approaches that empower students.

The new law also mandates a data collection model designed with equity in mind. Standardized-testing results are divided by “subgroups” including racial groups, English Language Learners, and low-income students. The information should reveal which populations need more support. Under previous law, states could report data for “super subgroups” that combined multiple groups of students. 

How can education policy combat entrenched inequality?

That said, some question whether ESSA is actually the major makeover it purports to be. A few changes aside, skeptics think it does little to solve the problems wrought by NCLB.

Although no longer under federal oversight, schools are still required to test students and report the results to their state. Beyond that, states create their own accountability systems, deciding independently what qualifies as a school that needs improvement. ESSA requires that those benchmarks be based on a combination of test scores and other factors, like school safety or access to advanced coursework, but states have wide discretion in creating the standards.

States intervene in the lowest-performing schools—those in the bottom 5 percent in the state, those where fewer than two-thirds of the students graduate from high school, or those where subgroups chronically under-perform. Those schools must create an “evidence-based plan” for improvement. The state monitors them and steps in if they fail to improve after four years. States have a number of intervention options, including replacement of the principal and staff, or conversion of the school into a charter.

This consequence-based system, say the authors of a US News op-ed, could once again mean school closures, rigid curriculums, and teacher replacement in lieu of training—now at the behest of the states instead of the federal government. Because states can make significant changes when they intervene in struggling schools, “the ESSA will likely do little to disrupt the NCLB pattern of ‘punishing’ vulnerable children and the ‘low performance’ of the schools they attend,” speculate the authors, Mary Battenfeld and Felicity Crawford. “This will not fix achievement gaps,” they say, adding that it could result in wildly different standards and practices from state to state.

New America Foundation’s Conor P. Williams is also cynical. “Is there any reason to believe that states are willing to design accountability systems that actually require them to focus on schools with lots of underprivileged and underserved kids?” he asks. His answer: “Ha.”

Regardless of who holds the reins, ESSA’s emphasis on K-12 accountability draws attention from the societal conditions that create education disparities in the first place, Battenfeld and Crawford argue. That is, it does little to address poverty and systemic inequities.

How can education policy combat such entrenched inequality? The answer lies in early childhood education, say the US News authors. The students deprived of learning opportunities as children are often the ones who end up at elementary and secondary schools that “fail” under both old and new standards.

A decades-long study following about 1,500 children in Chicago is among a growing body of evidence for the lasting impact of publicly funded early education. The subjects of the study graduated from Chicago’s Child-Parent Centers, which provide preschool as well as services for kids and families through third grade. Among the initial and eventual results of attending the program were improved academic achievement, fewer juvenile arrests, and increased economic success—not to mention significant relief for taxpayers.

ESSA includes $250 million in preschool grants, which is a step in the right direction, but advocates like Battenfeld and Crawford question whether it will be enough to make much of an impact after decades of underfunding early learning and its workforce.

So while ESSA lifts the most restrictive and threatening provisions of NCLB, paving the way for education innovation, it remains to be seen how well it will support the underserved students it is designed to help. The law goes into full effect in 2017.





The Simple Interactions that Make Learning Possible (Part Three) Tue, 12 Jan 2016 17:37:02 +0000 This post is the third of a three-part series on the simple human interactions that make learning possible. The series is co-authored by Junlei Li, Kelly Martin, and Kalani Palmer. Click here to read parts one and two.

Part Three: Technology that enriches, rather than replaces, human interactions

Sometimes an innovative learning idea will go beyond a one-time exposure or a one-afternoon experience. It can become embedded within the extended and intimate relationships children have already formed with the adults near them. The “Baby Promise” project, funded through a Spark award from The Sprout Fund, was delivered through a home-visiting program for parents and young children. The project sought to promote creative and constructive use of new technology, like touchscreens, in the early development of young children.

This three-minute video captures what a typical home visit looked like:

The larger goal of the home-visiting program was to help parents make the most of the limited time they have to connect with their children in learning and play. Activities included reading, learning through play, and learning through structured activities like tracing letters or numbers. Such programs promote the idea that parents are the first and most important teachers for their children.

Parents are the first and most important teachers for their children.

The best kind of teaching and learning relationship between a parent and child is often characterized by the simple, reciprocal, and responsive interactions we have seen in other Remake Learning programs. In this context, parent and child are in tuned, engaged, and connected with each other.

While there has been wariness and ambivalence among professionals and parents to introducing digital devices into young children’s lives, the inclusion of technology into this home visit appear to enhance the rich interactions already taking place. We can observe the connection between the young mother and child in this three-minute video.

When something like a touchscreen device is carefully and intentionally included in the home learning environment, it becomes a tool to engage parent and child. The playful interaction between the mother and child over a physical book and a digital book is similarly powerful.

Sometimes the new device offers something for the child that is unavailable in traditional contexts. As you might have noticed in the video, the child had a chance to master something at her own pace, and could even take the lead as she surpassed her parent in skill. Consider the child being asked to trace her ABCs on a piece of paper in the previous video. The task was led by the parent and home visitor–the child simply complied and happily sought the approval and encouragement of both adults. Now consider the child going through the “doctor” game with self-assured confidence and “teaching” her mom to follow her lead. In both cases, the physical tasks are tracing and fine-tuning the motor movements that lead to writing. However, in the touchscreen task, the child was in charge more readily than in the traditional learning tasks.

In our efforts to “remake” learning, using the tools available to promote simple interactions between children and teachers gets us closer to promoting the “essential” in family growth. The question is no longer “should a young child play with a new device?” It is, “How might any tool (books, crafts, electronics) be used to promote the positive and mutual interactions between the child and her teacher(s)?”


Sponsors and Partners

This three-part series is supported by the Sprout Fund, the Grable Foundation, and the R.K. Mellon Foundation, and conducted with partnerships among the Fred Rogers CenterSprout Fund, and University of Pittsburgh Office of Child Development. 





The Simple Human Interactions That Make Learning Possible (Part Two) Fri, 08 Jan 2016 17:41:00 +0000 This post is the second of a three-part series on the simple human interactions that make learning possible. The series is co-authored by Junlei Li, Kelly Martin, and Kalani Palmer. Click here to read part one.

Part Two: People Who Help Us Try

Saturday Crafternoons at Assemble

What makes us try new things, especially when new things do not come easily? What makes us stick with challenges when we can see that others appear better and faster?

Persistence, or grit, or stick-to-it-ness develops in us through enriching interactions with those near us, especially when we are trying, failing, and struggling. Fred Rogers often talked about the importance of grown-ups in helping children develop effort and persistence:

Above all, I think that the willingness and the courage to keep on trying develops best if there is someone close by who can lend us some of the strength we do not yet have within ourselves.

I don’t mean someone who will do a task for us, but rather someone who will share our times of trying just by being around and being supportive, someone who can sustain the belief that we can succeed even when we doubt it ourselves. We all need quiet, caring cheerleaders like that — grown-ups as well as children.

In many Remake Learning settings, grown-ups often spend time with children in the process of “making.” With their curious, gentle, engaging, and quiet presence, these grown-up makers can create wonderful opportunities for learning.

On Saturday “crafternoons,” children can work with volunteer makers at Assemble on a range of activities. On this particular afternoon, the project was to create a customized “zine” using recycled magazines, paper, scissors, and glue. The potential for creativity and challenge is just as ripe with these simple materials as with fancier technological gadgets.

In the video excerpt, two sisters came in during a less-crowded period. Both curious, the older sibling was eager to get her hands on the papers while the younger one seemed more reserved and intimidated. Here is a five-minute video capturing their “making” process.


We can observe how the staff briefly explained what could be made from the papers and used magazines. Together, the adults and children worked through building the structure of the “zine,” which allowed the children to create and add themes and subjects. The interactions between the grown-up makers and the children created a natural, intuitive balance between offering help and being quietly present. To help children make progress, the adults were carefully and continuously observing and deciding what to say and what not to say, when to help and when to hold back. Achieving progression in this way was intentional and inherent within the program’s goal, as the program coordinator, Jess Gold, explained:

“We try to provide instruction in a way that makes them feel confident and empowered, and give them the opportunity to take control of what they’re doing in a way that speaks to them. They might not even realize they’re learning something because it’s such a natural, fun process.”

This is distinct from activities where children are simply handed glitter glue and stickers and make whatever they like, or where children unpack pre-drawn or prefabricated craft packages to create preconceived products. Most importantly, the grown-ups were there–if even for just a few minutes–to offer help when it was warranted, and to be attentive and available when the child developed the confidence to take over.

What did the children walk away with besides a “zine”? As the older sister put it:

“I would like to work hard, so I just ask her to show me, and then I just do it, and try to work to figure it out … until I figure it out.”

They will remember that they tried something that was not easy. They knew they needed help, but they will also know that they owned the making process. For children, these opportunities to grow with the guidance of adults become important developmental experiences that build them up from the inside. The support, the encouragement for independence, and the attentive presence of grown-ups are essential elements of such experiences.


Sponsors and Partners

This three-part series is supported by the Sprout Fund, the Grable Foundation, and the R.K. Mellon Foundation, and conducted with partnerships among the Fred Rogers CenterSprout Fund, and University of Pittsburgh Office of Child Development. 



The Simple Human Interactions That Make Learning Possible Wed, 06 Jan 2016 17:00:18 +0000 This post is the first of a three-part series on the simple human interactions that make learning possible. The series is co-authored by Junlei Li, Kelly Martin, and Kalani Palmer.

Image courtesy of the Fred Rogers Archive

Image courtesy of the Fred Rogers Archive

For many years, on the desk of Pittsburgh’s favorite neighbor, Fred Rogers, visitors would spot a framed piece of calligraphy of the famous theme from the children’s novel “The Little Prince” that read, “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” Fred Rogers, with his gentle persistence and deliberate approach, tried to find and articulate for children and families what the “essential” in life was all about.

Looking at Pittsburgh’s Remake Learning movement, it is easy to be dazzled by the array of technology-enhanced approaches to support children’s learning. From traditional computers to the latest touchscreen devices, from 3-D printers to state-of-the-art multimedia classrooms, creative individuals and organizations have tried to put the best technological inventions to use. These approaches may seem different from what was considered “traditional” or “regular.” But there is something essential across traditional and innovative approaches that makes children’s learning and growing possible.

Fred Rogers had a strong hunch about what was essential to children’s growth no matter what technological era we live in:

Nothing will ever take the place of one person actually being with another person. Let’s not get so fascinated by what technology can do that we forget what it can’t do. A computer can help you learn to spell “H-U-G,” but it can never know the risks or the joy of actually giving or receiving one. It’s through relationships that we grow best–and learn best.

It is more than a hunch–it is good science. Harvard University’s Center for the Developing Child, the leading organization connecting child development research with practice, program, and policy, stated in its inaugural working paper in 2004 that “relationships are the ‘active ingredients’ of the environment’s influence on healthy human development.” In its latest (13th, 2015) working paper on children’s resilience, the center echoes its inaugural message: “Decades of research in the behavioral and social sciences have produced a rich knowledge base (about resilience). … The single most common finding is that children who end up doing well have had at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive parent, caregiver, or other adult.”

We seek to capture, understand, and grow these “simple interactions.”

How do we put into practice the notion that relationships, built through everyday interactions, are the “active ingredient” in children’s development? In the Pittsburgh region and beyond, whether in classrooms or out-of-school programs, in childcare centers or museums, or even at a children’s hospital, we seek to capture, understand, and grow these “simple interactions.” Across places where we see people in all walks on life helping children learn and grow, we can consistently identify four elements that make an interaction positive and enriching.

  • Connection (Being With) – Are the adults and children connected and in tune with each other. When adults and children are connected, they appear to “match” each other in their emotional state, body language, even attention.
  • Reciprocity (Sharing Control) – Do the interactions between adults and children go back and forth, trading who is “serving” and who is “returning.” No one is dominating and driving the interaction the whole time, and no one minds following the other’s lead.
  • Progression (Growing) – Are there opportunities for the children to stretch their boundaries? Is the adult sensitive to the growing confidence and competence of the child, and adjusting the level of support correspondingly.
  • Participation (Belonging) – Regardless of children’s abilities, are they given a chance to be part of their group and engage with other children and adults? This is especially important when children lack the confidence or ability to engage on their own.

(You may find more technical details at the Simple Interactions website, view video examples at the Everyday Interactions website for early childhood educators, see how this might work in the classroom, and view video examples in blogs here and here.)

Within the Remake Learning network, we visited three settings to see what these interactions look like. Below, in video and notes, are our observations.

Part One: Five Minutes to Impact

Learning Party

If you have but a few minutes to spend with a child, what role can you play to help the child learn and grow? At fairs, community demonstrations, or classroom show-and-tells made possible by partners in the Remake Learning movement, there are many opportunities for “drop-in” interactions that help children encounter innovative technology and meet its developers. However brief, those personal encounters can enrich children’s learning and growing.

Assemble is a Pittsburgh-based community space that connects adult experts and enthusiasts across diverse disciplines with neighborhood kids to foster curiosity and exploration. The name, according to Assemble’s founder and director, Nina Barbuto, “is a verb that means to come together but also to put together.” One opportunity for togetherness comes through learning parties hosted by volunteer scientists, artists, technologists, and college students. This four-minute video offers a glimpse of what the party is like:

Learning Party from Fred Rogers Center on Vimeo.

In this learning party, the theme is “energy.” Children can talk to a nuclear scientist, a windmill engineer, or people who can use art or other objects to describe energy. The experts come ready to help children make sense of new ideas and equipment without dumbing them down. Despite obvious differences in understanding, the adults find ways to get on the children’s level and see their craft through the children’s perspective. Youngsters are encouraged to listen, ask questions, and touch, make, and experiment with objects under the guidance of experts. More than the gadgets themselves, the reciprocal interactions between inquisitive children and adult experts make learning-party encounters enriching and developmental.

Here is moment between a preschooler and a nuclear scientist:


Learning Party Interactions from Fred Rogers Center on Vimeo.

Nuclear physics is not a simple concept. That does not stop the boy from asking an adult scientist about his nuclear reactor:

Child: What does this do?

Scientist: It makes heat.

Child: But how?

Scientist: Well, you mix certain chemicals together, and gas … and when … (goes on to explain)

Child: And what is this rope thing for?

Scientist: Well, that starts the reaction. This is a test reactor …

Child: What happens on the inside when it heats up?

Scientist: When it gets hot? I don’t know, I can’t see inside the reactor …

Child: Well, if there’s a thing that lets you see in there …

Scientist: Yeah, I thought of that. Maybe in some future reactor, I’ll build a window, right in the middle.

The scientist took each question seriously and was comfortable answering “I don’t know.” The two engaged in a kind of reciprocal, serve-and-return interaction. They each took turns asking, listening, and respond to each other’s thoughts. Neither dominates or condescends. The child, with the adult’s help, had good questions about the reactor. The questions were possible in part because the adult was tuned in to the child’s interests. Even when the boy interrupts, the scientist listens carefully and answers each question in turn. This boy may not grow up to be a nuclear engineer, but asking questions about something he does not understand is the first step toward engaging in any discipline. For the child, developing the curiosity and confidence to know how to ask questions—and know that his questions are respected—is just as important as learning facts and concepts about a subject.

For Remake Learning to engage a new generation of innovators, it needs to connect young learners with adults doing science, technology, and arts in addition to exposing them to the objects and products of those fields. Fred Rogers took children on television visits with “neighbors” in many different professions. Person-to-person connections makes possible the type of reciprocal interaction that ultimately shape and inspire children’s curiosity and confidence to ask, learn, try, fail, and try again.


Sponsors and Partners

This three-part series is supported by the Sprout Fund, the Grable Foundation, and the R.K. Mellon Foundation, and conducted with partnerships among the Fred Rogers Center, Sprout Fund, and University of Pittsburgh Office of Child Development. 


Equity Tops List of Concerns About Education Innovation Among Remake Learning Network Members Thu, 17 Dec 2015 17:53:21 +0000 The end of the year is always a reflection point. And so it is with the Remake Learning Network. We recently surveyed network members to get a bead on how the network is doing to advance innovative ideas and models in education.

The results from the 103 who completed the survey reveal a growing and highly connected network of educators and others creating new opportunities for youth.

Here’s what we learned.

  • We’re face-to-face: Nearly 50 percent of respondents attend network events more than once per quarter. The opportunities to make connections and learn from peers are among the most appreciated facets of the Remake Learning Network.
  • We feel invested: Nearly 50 percent identified as being active or deeply involved in the network.
  • We are turning connections into collaboration: Three out of four respondents reported forming specific partnerships through their participation.
  • We are largely educators: More than half of respondents are teachers or informal educators.
  • We are focused widely: Approximately two-thirds work in digital or tech-enhanced learning, 60 percent are makers, 60 percent focus on STEAM learning, 45 percent on STEM, and 44 percent on early education. Equal parts (about 30 percent each) focus on robotics, game-based learning, and youth voice.

The respondents gave the network high marks. Nearly 80 percent give the network a grade of B or better. About two-thirds agreed the network is generally headed in the right direction.

At the same time, members worry that the “only individuals who seem to be involved are those with access and opportunity,” and that while “we are seeing amazing innovations at school districts in the region, in general these are taking place in affluent communities.”

As a result, the most pressing concern is doubling down on equity and access, or risk exacerbating the education gap instead of closing it.

“Pittsburgh remains incredibly inequitable for access,” wrote one respondent. “If we do not actively work against this, we are increasing the divide.”

Sprout Fund Executive Director Cathy Lewis Long said equity and access must become guiding network principles. “That means supporting more mobile programs to bring innovative learning experiences to communities in need or enhancing transportation options for youth, or ensuring that programs are free, open, and visible to all families,” she said. “Each of us needs to take concrete steps to meet this challenge head-on.”

Just as Remake Learning has evolved from its informal and experimental stage to a more structured and strategic approach, so too have the needs and challenges faced by network members.

While calling on the network to strive for broader equity, members described how the existing programs have had a positive impact on young people in their communities.

“In the summer, 14 teens participated in two weeks of mini-apprenticeships, gaining life skills and job training skills in the areas of woodworking and metalworking,” one respondent wrote.

Another was grateful for the chance to send students to a drop-in robotics course at the public library’s digital learning program, the Labs@CLP. Another respondent praised the Digital Corps, a group of digital learning experts deployed to youth organizations throughout Allegheny County.

“Our kids loved building robots with Digital Corps. This sparked something that we would like to build on in the future if we are able to acquire more robotics supplies,” wrote one respondent.

The network has also raised awareness of emerging trends in learning innovation. Nine in ten said the network has “greatly” or “somewhat” improved their awareness, and 88 percent said the network has greatly or somewhat improved the exchange of ideas or successful strategies.

But there is a hunger for more resources and tools, and more how-to’s in the classroom. Network members also prioritized professional development and learning pathways. For educators, it means deeper and more engaging instruction. For students, it means step-by-step learning and development to meet their personal interests and give them job-ready skills.

Those priorities and suggestions help shape the network’s programs moving forward. Just as Remake Learning has evolved from its informal and experimental stage to a more structured and strategic approach, so too have the needs and challenges faced by network members working hard to sustain our momentum and spread the impact of innovative teaching and learning to more students. Equity and access will be at the forefront of efforts to remake learning in 2016 and beyond.

Kids Who Amazed Us in 2015 Mon, 14 Dec 2015 20:25:25 +0000 In 2015 we were, time and again, impressed by the ingenuity and creativity of kids.

We wrote about some of them on this blog. There was 16-year-old Olivia Hallisey, whose simple, cost-effective Ebola detection method made her the winner of the Google Science Fair. Then there was Jahnik Kurukulasuriya, who took time off from Pittsburgh’s Allderdice High School to present his breast cancer research at the White House.

Some kids used technology to innovate and help their peers. Fourteen-year-old Lexi Schneider won the National STEM Video Game Challenge for “Head of Class,” a game that leads players through a comic-inspired virtual school, teaching lessons along the way. And 10-year-old Torrae Owen used a 3D printer to build a plastic “superhero hand.” Her disabled peers who lack hands or fingers can use her invention to pick up objects.

These kids give us a glimpse of what youngsters can do. “Youth are natural inventors,” Joan Ganz Cooney Center director Michael H. Levine said when he announced the STEM video game contest.

So why are these kids the exception?

Low-income students and kids of color often lack access to the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education that has helped the Olivia Halliseys flourish. Many under-resourced schools cannot offer basic chemistry or Algebra II. According to the U.S. Department of Education, black and Latino students have disproportionately low access to math and science courses.

It is fair to say that even when the seeds are planted, most kids will not grow up to become cutting-edge cancer researchers. But STEM education opens many career possibilities. The nonprofit Change the Equation reports that middle-skill jobs that require technology grew 2.5 times faster between 2003 and 2013 than jobs that do not.

Economist Raj Chetty has spotlighted the many factors stacked against low-income children—and the importance of childhood environment in laying the groundwork for success. He has researched how a child’s neighborhood and family income affect his or her economic opportunities.

In a study in 2014, Chetty and his colleagues found that “the birth lottery”—who a child is born to—is a bigger predictor today of economic mobility than in the past. In a lecture, he noted how a childhood of poverty is much less likely to lead to an adulthood of innovation. A child born to parents in the top 1 percent income bracket is 10 times more likely to invent something than one whose parents earn below the median income.

By contrast, with access to STEM and hands-on learning, kids begin to fuse technical skill-building with curiosity—with an eye on the world around them. In 2015, we watched what young people can do when they have the right tools, supportive educators and families, and well-resourced schools.

In 2016 and beyond, let’s give more kids a chance to experiment and create.


Looking Back at Learning Remade in 2015 Fri, 11 Dec 2015 12:49:07 +0000 As the year comes to a close, we’ve collected a sampling of some of the Network’s accomplishments in 2015 as a way to celebrate our work together to remake learning in the Pittsburgh region, and as a reminder that there is still much work to do in the coming years to reach our ultimate goal of providing all children and youth with the engaging, meaningful, and relevant learning opportunities they need to thrive in school, college, the workforce, and as citizens.

This year began with a feature story about our network in Education Week, focusing on the network’s efforts to expand equitable access to digital learning opportunities for our region’s youngest children.

In February, Startup Weekend Edu brought together entrepreneurs and educators to spin up new ideas for education technology startups. One idea that emerged was Project Playground, led by Melissa Unger from South Fayette, that facilitates collaboration among students engaged in project-based learning.

At SXSWedu, Avonworth High School and its partners from the Pittsburgh Galleries Project—Mattress Factory, Andy Warhol Museum, and the Pittsburgh Glass Center— showed how project-based learning and community partnerships can open up new opportunities for students.

And Hedda Sharapan was named the PNC Grow Up Great Senior Fellow at the Fred Rogers Center, where she is exploring how complex early childhood theory evolved into deep and thoughtful programming for young children.


In the spring, The Sprout Fund wrapped up a community input process that saw experts, educators, and employers co-designing shared learning competencies in areas like STEAM, Making, and Coding that could be used as the basis for designing meaningful digital badges for learning.

In April, CREATE Lab Satellite Network hosted CONTEXT, a first-of-its-kind conference on technology fluency in education.

In May, the Institute of Politics at Pitt hosted a legislative briefing for local and state officials and other community members about Remake Learning.

And later that month, Jane Werner, Gregg Behr, Anne Sekula, Daragh Byrne, and Cathy Lewis Long joined representatives from other cities at a White House convening on “Maker Cities.”

In a bittersweet moment, one of our network’s earliest and most committed members, Michelle Figlar, transitioned from her leadership of PAEYC to join the administration of Governor Tom Wolf as deputy secretary for the Office of Child Development and Early Learning at the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

Near the end of the school year, we saw another 28 school districts awarded STEAM Grants through the Center for Creativity at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, totaling $530,000 of investment by the Benedum Foundation, Grable Foundation, and Chevron.


Summer started with a blast on both coasts. In Washington, D.C., nearly 40 makers and educators from Pittsburgh attended the National Maker FaireCREATE Lab’s Illah Nourbakhsh provided one of the keynotes, Sprout released the first draft of the Remake Learning Playbook, and network members attended an invite-only event at the White House.

At the Digital Media & Learning Conference in Los Angeles, network members from Assemble, Carnegie Mellon, the Parks Conservancy, University of Pittsburgh, and Sprout led a session on strategies to bridge multiple experiences for learners navigating a local ecosystem.

Here at home, the Pittsburgh Technology Council teamed up with the Three Rivers Arts Festival to host CREATE 2015—three-days of events and opportunities to explore the newest trends in art and innovation.

In partnership with the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, Pittsburgh was the Regional Spotlight for this year’s National STEM Video Game Challenge as well as the host city for its national celebration, bringing winning students from across the country to WQED Multimedia.

Pittsburgh again led a summertime City of Learning campaign to recognize important summer learning gains through the use of digital badges. 30 program partners received training and support from Sprout to design and issue digital badges, including major partners like the Carnegie Library, Learn & Earn, and Pittsburgh Public Schools’ Summer Dreamers Academy. A joint effort of Mayor Peduto, County Executive Fitzgerald, and the Three Rivers Workforce Investment Board, Learn & Earn placed students in summer jobs where they earned a wage, gained workforce experience, developed skills, and earned digital badges to show what they learned.

And to help connect badging to real world employment opportunities, Sprout hosted a forum for regional employers to learn more about how digital badges are being used today, explore opportunities for their future as a workforce development tool, and work with others to co-design methods for infusing digital badges into the workforce.

PAEYC and the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh brought The Wonder of Learning to Pittsburgh, showcasing the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood learning based on collaboration and relationships.


In September, Pittsburgh was named one of 27 communities selected to pilot the national STEM Ecosystems Initiative. Through the leadership of the Carnegie Science Center and the Remake Learning Council, Pittsburgh’s participation in this important initiative will allow us to develop a regional strategy to ensure all youth have access to effective STEM learning opportunities that lead to successful careers.

And more than 500 people turned out to see the STEAM Showcase, hosted by the Allegheny Intermediate Unit’s Center for Creativity—shining a spotlight on how our region’s school districts are giving students time to explore, space to fail, and opportunities to discover what deeper learning is all about.

Also in September, Mayor Peduto’s office released its Roadmap for Inclusive Innovation, putting political weight behind efforts to close the digital divide so that all Pittsburghers can take part in the city’s innovation economy.

We welcomed U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to Pittsburgh as part of his back-to-school tour, where he got to see first-hand how we’re remaking learning.

The Department of Education was back again in late September to share their recently released Ed Tech Developers Guide with our local startup community at the Thrival Festival hosted by Thrill Mill.

At the southern reaches of our network, the June Harless Center at Marshall University partnered with Mingo County Schools to open A.C.O.R.N.S., an outdoor learning environment providing children with opportunities to observe and interact with nature and learn social skills through exploration.

One of our network’s leading luminaries, Bill Isler of the Fred Rogers Company, was recognized as Urban Educator of the Year for his many years of service on the Pittsburgh Board of Education.

October was really a month of making. The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh hosted the first-ever full-scale Pittsburgh Maker Faire, sharing the inspiring and empowering act of making with thousands of Pittsburgh kids and families— and to the hundreds of educators who took part in the Maker Education Institute.

To help more schools adopt maker education practices, the Children’s Museum partnered with Kickstarter to offer Pittsburgh-area schools a special professional development and fundraising opportunity called Kickstarting Making in Schools. With an outpouring of support from the community, seven of the ten Kickstarter campaigns succeeded in reaching their goal.

In partnership with Avonworth, Elizabeth Forward, and South Fayette school districts, Digital Promise hosted its fall meeting of the League of Innovative Schools in Pittsburgh, bringing leaders from more than 70 school districts to town to see how our region’s schools are remaking learning in partnership with the community.

In November, we saw the launch of Smithsonian Learning Lab at the Heinz History Center which expands access to the Smithsonian’s digital resources.

Pittsburgh Technology Council partnered with EdSurge to co-host an EdSurge Summit alongside the annual Three Rivers Education Technology Conference (TRETC), bringing national ed-tech attention to our region, resulting in biggest ever TRETC with more than 700 attendees.

And in December, Avonworth School District was named an Exemplar district by the Partnership for 21st Century Learning.

Looking Ahead

2015 has been a busy year with lots of exciting developments for our network, but it’s also important to recognize that there is a lot more to do. The network’s greatest priority should be ensuring equitable access to learning opportunities for all students, especially students of color and those living in marginalized communities. This is essential to the meaningful achievement of all of the network’s goals.

We need to make access and equity a design principle of our work—both individually and in our collective work. Each of us needs to take concrete steps to meeting this challenge head-on, whether that means supporting more mobile programs to bring innovative learning experiences to kids wherever they are, investing directly in the staff and facilities of organizations serving communities in need, enhancing transportation options for youth, or ensuring that programs are free, open, and visible to all families.

We’re also prioritizing professional development and learning pathways. For educators, deeper and more engaging professional development is the critical component to spreading innovative instruction. For students, learning pathways can guide step-by-step learning and development in ways that meet their personal interests and prepare them with job-ready skills.

In the four years since Sprout began to formalize the network, we’ve seen the impact of Remake Learning spread from a few early adopters to hundreds of schools, libraries, museums, makerspaces, community centers, and childcare centers throughout Pittsburgh, Southwestern Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. From thinking carefully about how our youngest students learn to providing teens with opportunities to blaze their own path, your work is yielding tangible results affecting the lives of thousands of kids in the Pittsburgh region and beyond. I can’t wait to see where we go next!

How Steelers Quarterback Charlie Batch is Giving Back to the Neighborhood He Grew Up In Wed, 09 Dec 2015 17:06:30 +0000 Since 1999, former Steelers quarterback Charlie Batch and his wife, Latasha Wilson-Batch, have run the Best of the Batch Foundation, whose programs serve more than 3,200 kids across six counties in Pennsylvania each year.

In the fall, their BatchPacks program delivers hundreds of backpacks stuffed with new school supplies to kids in high-need neighborhoods in the Pittsburgh region. During the summer, Project C.H.U.C.K., their longest-running program, combines summer reading and structured sports for kids ages 7 to 18. But the Clubhouse, a three-story house on a quiet street in Pittsburgh’s Homestead neighborhood, is home base for the foundation’s day-to-day youth programming, and a welcoming drop-in space for neighborhood kids on their walk home from school.

“There’s not too much we wouldn’t do for our kids.”

Charlie Batch and his family grew up in Homestead. The foundation runs in memory of Charlie’s 17-year-old sister, Danyl, who in 1996 was shot and killed in the neighborhood where the clubhouse sits. Today, Charlie, Latasha, and the Batch Foundation staff work to support Homestead’s children in all aspects of their lives. They aim to provide a safe place for children to go after school, an ear for listening, and guidance to help kids reach their full potential. As Latasha described, it’s not a nine-to-five mission.

“All the kids have our cellphone numbers,” she said. “They know they can pick up the phone and send a text saying, ‘Hey, Ms. Tasha, are you up?’ And if I’m not up, I’m up now. Because sometimes the choices they’re ready to make can mean the difference between the right and wrong path.”

“There’s not too much we wouldn’t do for our kids.”

What’s new at the Batch Foundation?

We’ve outgrown the space we’re in and the kids are ready for more. This dream of expansion has been something just between me and Charlie for about six years. But finally, after sitting down with a strategic planner, we decided to make this dream a reality. And the first people we shared it with were the kids—ultimately it’s for them.

We’re hoping to take up about half this block and build a state-of-the-art education facility. It’s a $10 million project, and it takes nine months to build. But the way I know kids are embracing it is a few kindergartners did a penny drive and collected $18 and asked, “Is this enough to build the building?”

We’ve never done the big ask, but we’re excited to do the big ask. We’ve never been to big foundations before, though we have a lot of great corporate partnerships and individual donors, so it will be an all-around collaborative effort to make this a reality.

After thinking about expanding for so long, what’s it like to be in the early stages?

The first time I opened the rendering of the new Clubhouse I was speechless—tears just fell. I called Charlie into my office and just turned my computer around and he said, “Wow.” Being from this area, he said, “In my 40 years I have never seen something like that on West Street.” In this area, there are no community centers. There’s no Boys & Girls Club, there’s no YMCA. So where do kids go to hang out?

 In this area, there are no community centers. There’s no Boys & Girls Club, there’s no YMCA. So where do kids go to hang out?

What would you say is the foundation’s biggest accomplishment?

As a small nonprofit, our biggest accomplishment is to still be standing after 16 years, and to still have young people come through the doors. We have many kids who have graduated, moved on to college, and become successful. And we also have sad stories—but regardless of the good and the bad, we are still here. We don’t give up on kids. As long as one child keeps coming through our door, we’re successful.

What’s the toughest piece of the work you do?

The toughest part is knowing you can’t save everyone. We know that schools are doing the best they can—and as an afterschool program, we are doing the best we can. But there’s a window of time when you have to go home, that we can’t control.

What do you think makes a collaboration work?

Don’t just write a check. Have your organization or company be part of what we do. That’s the most value we have with our partners, they go back and are excited and motivated by the difference they made in kids’ lives. It’s all because that employer took time to let their employee go volunteer.

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

This is the city that bleeds black and gold—if we did anything other than watch a football game on a Sunday, I’d probably be divorced by now (laughs.) For 11 years in Pittsburgh, 22 weeks of the year were dedicated to football. But we’ve always had family dinner on Sunday—Soul Food Sunday. It’s one of the most important things that we do.

Teach a Kid to Code Mon, 07 Dec 2015 19:39:45 +0000 Make room, techies. This week, kids all over the world are joining your ranks.

The occasion is Hour of Code, an international initiative in its third year. The program provides free, hour-long tutorials designed to be engaging and accessible for coding newbies “ages 4 to 104.” Throughout the week of December 7-13, schools, libraries, and informal learning spaces will hold Hour of Code activities.

To the uninitiated educator with tight resources and a lot on their plates, teaching young children to code can seem like a daunting or even silly task. In her first year as the technology integration specialist at Pittsburgh’s Keystone Oaks School District, Carol Persin assumed coding—she was familiar with HTML and Javascript—was out of reach for young students. Participating in Hour of Code last year, Persin was delighted to encounter “block-based” coding tutorials, which use visual representations of abstract concepts. This year, Keystone Oaks schools are taking part.

The nonprofit, which organizes the coding week, hopes educators will share Persin’s revelation. According to research, 67 percent of new jobs in Pennsylvania are in computing, yet just one in four schools in the state offers computer science courses. Many kids in Pittsburgh and beyond are not exposed to the tools and classes that will open up entire industries to them.

“The Hour of Code is usually our students’ first experience with a necessary skill that will be a large part their everyday adult lives and quite possibly their future careers,” said Marty Sharp, technology integration specialist at Woodland Hills School District.

“They are learning to problem-solve, to collaborate, to communicate.”

The professional tech world is notoriously homogeneous, and as early as high school, the sorting begins. In Pennsylvania in 2013, only 3.7 percent of students who took the AP Computer Science exam were black, and only 2.3 percent were Hispanic, according to Nineteen percent of computer science college graduates in the state were female. Programs like Hour of Code aim to get as many kids as possible introduced to computer science as early as possible.

“We are lighting the fire of interest in the new literacy of learning to code and understand code,” said Megan Cicconi, who leads coding education workshops for Allegheny County public school teachers through a partnership between and the Allegheny Intermediate Unit. “This provides the foundation for the careers these students will have in the future,” she said.

Some educators participating in Hour of Code added that a student does not need to pursue a tech job for the lessons to be valuable.

“While coding is a wonderful skill for the students to have, what we are most interested in is the students’ thinking,” said Alison Francis, facilitator at the Fox Chapel Area Creativity and Literacy Program, which is participating in Hour of Code. “They are learning to problem-solve, to collaborate, to communicate, to persist, and the skills like sequencing that they are learning apply to other curricular areas as well, such as reading and math.”

Last year, Persin enjoyed watching students problem-solve, identifying issues in the code and debugging it. After all, she said, most of her students spend so much time using digital devices that it’s a thrill to watch them begin to create those products.

See participating Hour of Code sites in Pennsylvania here.

Connecting Rural Schools Thu, 03 Dec 2015 20:58:39 +0000 Earlier this year, amid a fierce legal battle, it appeared that school districts across Idaho were about to lose broadband internet access.

Luckily, schools secured individual contracts after the statewide system was disbanded. But the scare shed light on the need for good internet access in schools. Educators, students, and parents had braced for a strain on communications, changes to lesson plans, a lack of access to online information, and an inability to take standardized tests.

Shoddy or unaffordable connectivity is a constant for many American school systems. A three-part series in Education Week shows how rural public schools are struggling to provide basic internet access to their 12 million students.

In some cases, geographic isolation makes it hard and expensive to run high-speed lines to schools. Large telecommunications companies see little value in serving tiny populations. Local companies step in—often taking advantage of market dominance to charge inflated rates.

Take two western New Mexico campuses featured in the Education Week story. The schools share 22 megabits per second of bandwidth (mbps), for which a regional carrier charges them $3,700 a month. The same speed would cost most American schools $550, according to Education Week.

At one school it takes a teacher 30 minutes to enter 15 students’ names in the digital attendance system.
Or consider a district in Calhoun County, Mississippi, where a single wire brought the school system 1.5 mbps (the average connection speed in the United States is 11.9 mbps). When the schools bought new computers with federal stimulus money, the infrastructure could not support them. Their service providers added three mbps for an additional $5,000 per month, but little improved. It still takes a teacher 30 minutes to enter 15 students’ names in the digital attendance system. An administrator described the “gut-wrenching” feeling of watching students trying to take a standardized test and running out of time because the video-based questions and online calculators would not load.

Students who lack regular internet access don’t have the same opportunities as their national peers. As traditional rural industries experience hardships, economic and academic mobility require digital proficiency.

Clemmie Jean Weddle, a 17-year-old Calhoun County student who wants to go to Mississippi State, is well aware she is missing out. Passionate about learning, she joined the quiz bowl team and studied hard at the school’s computer lab before the first state competition. But the 15-minute lag each time she opened a webpage put her leagues behind her competitors, Education Week reported.

Those struggles hit close to home. Just hours outside Pittsburgh, rural districts in West Virginia face challenges getting connected. Last year, we reported on major leaps in digital learning opportunities in the region, thanks to a combination of grants, public money, and partnerships with Pittsburgh programs. Most schools in West Virginia, half of which are rural, have decent internet access now. The same is not true for the students’ homes.

The 2013 American Community Survey puts West Virginia in the bottom 10 states in terms of home internet access. Only 71.8 percent of individuals live in homes with high-speed internet, compared to a national average of 78.1 percent and a high of 85.7 percent in New Hampshire. The federal ConnectHome initiative brings internet to low-income housing, but so far the program includes only 28 cities.

As traditional rural industries experience hardships, economic and academic mobility require digital proficiency.
The benefit of internet access at school is diminished if the students cannot continue their work at home, said John Ross, an edtech consultant and researcher who has lived and worked in rural districts. “It’s not just typing up a Word document,” he said. “It’s having access to rich media, to simulations, to animations, to pulling down real time data, to communication and collaboration.”

There is some hope for improvement. The federal program E-rate program uses fees on consumer phone bills to help cover internet and phone service at schools and libraries. As of this fall, Education Week reports, more money is available through the program, and telecoms will be required to reveal their school rates. The noncompetitive companies may risk losing government subsidies. The overhaul of the E-rate program is part of Obama’s 2013 pledge to bring high-speed internet to 99 percent of American students by 2018, but critics say the market-based solution is not enough.

Much of the conversation today about the “digital divide”—the disparity between students who have access to technology and those who do not—is focused on devices. Which schools can afford laptops? How should teachers incorporate donated Chromebooks into their lesson plans? Are cellphones a distraction or a useful learning tool?

But in swaths of the country, those questions are far from central. When schools cannot provide basic internet connection, their students are at a disadvantage in a society and job market that increasingly demands digital competency.



A Growing Technology Cluster—Whose Products You Can Touch Tue, 01 Dec 2015 19:38:04 +0000 One afternoon in 2012, Matt Stewart was in the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh watching kids play with puzzle pieces. The pieces were part of an exhibit Stewart helped design to teach the building blocks of coding to children as young as four. He soon noticed one young girl taking charge with some puzzle pieces, and showing her classmates how to use them to solve problems. The girl’s teacher told Stewart that the student was usually behind her peers in many areas of learning, but the puzzle pieces seemed to click with her.

Photo/Digital Dream Labs

Photo/Digital Dream Labs

An idea for a company was born. Stewart and his cofounders, Justin Sabo and Peter Kinney, fellow Carnegie Mellon University graduates, founded Digital Dream Labs in 2012. Today, their first product, Puzzlets, uses puzzle pieces and sensors to control video games and teach skills like logic and sequencing in a hands-on way.

“If you’re on a touch screen, you’re in your own zone,” Sabo said. “You’re no longer here.” At a time when so much technology for kids is screen-based, Puzzlets’ physical pieces invite problem solving and collaboration with parents or peers.

Sabo and his cofounders are part of a small scene of entrepreneurs in Pittsburgh who are creating hands-on educational technology, toys, and games, and in the process are helping to create a cluster of entrepreneurs, designers, and manufacturers that could situate Pittsburgh as a hub of edtech hardware production. The scene is small but seems poised to grow into the type of industry cluster that characterizes maker-oriented Pittsburgh.

Evolving Hardware Industry

In 2012, Digital Dream Labs got a big boost—support from startup accelerator AlphaLab. If they were starting out today, though, they would have applied to AlphaLab Gear, AlphaLab’s newer spinoff. The newer accelerator, in Pittsburgh’s West Liberty neighborhood, is specifically for technology startups that make hardware. AlphaLab Gear funds several “cycles” of 8 to 10 companies a year—providing $50,000 as well as mentorship from hardware experts in exchange for 9 percent common stock equity in the company.

Chris Millard, program coordinator at AlphaLab Gear, said hardware startups were cost-prohibitive until recently. And although some aspects of hardware development are still complicated, it has become more feasible and profitable. Simple sensors are cheaper and more sophisticated, and equipment such as 3D printers can create prototypes of a product quickly, saving many months and thousands of dollars. (Several years ago, one investor said he flat-out did not “do” hardware. Millard said that same investor recently led a $2 million round of funding.)

Clusters can make regions uniquely competitive for jobs and investment in niche industries like edtech or robotics.

Plus, when it comes to hardware startups, Millard said Pittsburgh has a lot going for it, including hundreds of regional manufactures that will produce small batches, access to millions of dollars of prototyping equipment at nearby TechShop, and a rich pool of talent coming out of CMU, the University of Pittsburgh, and Duquesne University.

Tom Lauwers, founder of BirdBrain Technologies, which makes Hummingbird Robotics Kits, said finding a circuit board manufacturer right outside Pittsburgh was helpful because it let him see the progress in person.

Even more helpful, he said, was tapping into the city’s manufacturing knowledge base. In his early days, he visited 4moms, a robotics company that makes swaying baby seats, and Bossa Nova Robotics, which is building a fully autonomous robot. Both shared invaluable knowledge about warehousing, international trade regulations, and other issues.

The above features—groups of related designers, builders, and idea people plus on-the-ground manufacturing—is a classic illustration of “cluster development.” A cluster is a regional concentration of related industries, according to the Cluster Mapping Project from Harvard University. As they grow, clusters can make regions uniquely competitive for jobs and investment in niche industries like edtech or robotics.

Today, Lauwers is giving the same advice to young entrepreneurs and technologists who are coming to him with the same type of manufacturing questions he once had.

Students use Hummingbird Robotics Kits in a workshop. Photo/ BirdBrain Technologies

Retaining Talent

Despite signs of growth in Pittsburgh, developing hardware is no easy feat, whether designing for kids or not. And the amount of venture capital in the region pales when compared with Silicon Valley.

As Millard said, “It will take some more ‘big exits,’ ” or large acquisitions of tech companies, “to really get Pittsburgh on the map.”

One small company is AE Dreams, which recently graduated from a cycle of AlphaLab Gear. The company’s first product, Turtle Mail, is a wi-fi-enabled wooden mailbox that prints messages and puzzles parents send to their kids from their smartphones.

The idea came to cofounder Alysia Finger about three years ago while she was sitting in her daughter’s room as two electronic toys screamed from across the room, begging one-year-old Aedren to come back and play with them. Sitting there after a long day, Finger noticed how her daughter was content playing with simple wooden blocks, despite the expensive electronic toys’ pleas for attention.

An early play test with a Turtle Mail prototype. Photo/AE Dream

Why, she wondered, did so many companies want their toys to be a distraction for kids? Then it dawned on her. Why not design tools that help kids interact with the world and people around them, not just the toy itself?

Turtle Mail is available for pre-order, and the company is planning to attend one of the country’s biggest toy conventions next year. Finger said other support beyond seed funding would help new companies take flight. Though she said her company wasn’t quite the right fit for it, she pointed to the EdTech Refinery from the Sprout Fund, which pairs technologists with educators to help entrepreneurs refine their ideas.

Digital Dream Labs is selling Puzzlets in Toys ‘R’ Us and online. Still, Sabo said the hands-on-technology-for-children scene is still in its infancy, and he emphasized the need to retain more local talent from the universities.

“Graduates get the fever and they go out to the Bay Area,” he said. “There needs to be a way to retain that talent.”

In the meantime, companies hope their own successes will act as a magnet to talent and help build a stronger cluster down the line.

“It will take companies like ours, who go through the trenches, to able to bring that to Pittsburgh,” Sabo said.

For University Makerspaces to Succeed, Incoming Freshman Need a “Maker Mindset” Tue, 24 Nov 2015 17:28:40 +0000 Universities around the country are adding makerspaces to their campuses. At a Crafts Center at Tufts University, undergraduates work on kilns and experiment with printmaking materials. And at a Scenic Shop at Santa Clara University, students construct set pieces and props for the school’s theatre. And in at University of California, Berkeley, engineering students print body parts in a 3D printer to help children with physical disabilities.

MakeSchools, a project from Carnegie Mellon University and the National Science Foundation, has profiled 46 colleges and universities that have committed to supporting a culture of making on their campuses, whether by building a makerspace or adding courses. Although the universities’ makerspaces range in size, sophistication, and goals, each sees value in providing making opportunities for their students as a way to cultivate the kinds of collaborative thinking and innovative problem-solving required in today’s world.

The trick will be creating a pipeline of students who are makers before they start college.

A goal, says Daragh Byrne, a research scientist at CMU who heads up MakeSchools, is to create versatile thinkers, ready for anything. In a press release, Byrne said the initiative and universities are working “to showcase how making is an enormous catalyst for innovation that leads to economic, societal and community impact.”

The trick will be creating a pipeline of students who are makers before they start college, rather than immersing them quickly in the maker mindset after they arrive. What universities need, in other words, is a pipeline of makers.

Pittsburgh is certainly doing its part, as we’ve reported here on numerous occasions. Across the city’s varied makerspaces, young people are not only learning the craft, but they’re learning the type of problem-solving, design, and critical thinking skills colleges are looking for.

For example, at the Y-Creator space, an afterschool program in Pittsburgh, kids learn “human centered design” by creating prototypes and then building products that solve a problem or hurdle that a person or a community faces. Last year, they made safe-cycling much more stylish with a shirt that lights up and changes color depending how fast you ride your bike.

In many ways, they’re ahead of the college students when it comes to a making mindset.

The first year of the MakeSchools network focused on documenting what “making” looks like on campuses, and not surprisingly, the most prevalent examples are coming from engineering and robotics programs. But some are beginning to blend the disciplines and transcend academic departments. Case Western’s “think box,” for example, is a 50,000 square foot hub of cross-disciplinary innovation benefiting broader Cleveland, and University of Illinois Urbana’s space is housed in the business school. In Oregon, the makerspace is focused on bridging art and architecture for community-based projects.

The ultimate goal may be to solidify “making” in the university community, even as a new form of degree.

And perhaps one day, admissions systems too will look beyond the SAT to recognize the competencies evident in a maker project.



Closing the STEM Gap, From Pittsburgh to D.C. Thu, 19 Nov 2015 23:30:23 +0000 Jahnik Kurukulasuriya spends a lot of time in the lab. At 17, the Pittsburgh Allderdice High School junior has made nucleotide sequences that could help detect cancerous cell lineages.

Earlier this month, Kurukulasuriya dragged himself away from his research to visit Washington for the White House Summit on Next Generation High Schools. The initiative supports efforts to reinvent the high school experience, including incorporating more applied learning, “maker” projects, partnerships with colleges, and science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) curricula aimed at underrepresented students. At the summit, Kurukulasuriya was among a handful of students selected to present their academic work to educators, industry leaders, and philanthropists.

Kurukulasuriya is clearly no stranger to interactive STEM learning. After his normal school day ends, he spends two to three hours at the UPMC Magee-Womens Research Institute. He landed the lab gig through a new class on real-world science research at his high school, a Pittsburgh Public School (PPS) with a partial engineering magnet program. Students have the unusual opportunity to find a lab that aligns with their interests and work alongside professional scientists.

PPS STEAM Coordinator Shaun Tomaszewski and Jahnik Kurukulasuriya visit the White House. Photo/Shaun Tomaszewski

Kurukulasuriya’s interest in science was sparked by early experiences at school. As a kid he labored on science fair projects, thrilled by the opportunity to showcase his work. But research shows that few teenagers in America are lucky enough to have experiences like Kurukulasuriyas’s. According to the Office of Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education, one-fourth of public high schools with the highest percentage of black and Latino students do not offer Algebra II, and one-third do not offer chemistry, let alone opportunities to do cancer research.

In recent years, the public and private sectors have called attention to this STEM gap and are working to close it.

The public-private Next-Generation High School initiative that brought Kurukulasuriya to Washington injects more than $375 million nationally into campuses that lack funding for STEM programs, and urges other schools to expand their offerings. Included in the multifaceted program are $20 million in federal Investing in Innovation grants for low-income schools, and guidebooks from the Department of Education on how to redesign high schools to promote equity and STEM learning. A number of private foundations are also increasing support for existing and new schools.

In Pittsburgh local schools and out-of-school programs have responded to the White House’s call to “redesign” high school and promote STEM. In conjunction with the summit, the White House recognized Kickstarting Making, a partnership between the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh and Kickstarter that helped regional schools crowd-fund impressive makerspaces.

And Kurukulasuriya’s is not the only PPS campus to introduce new STEM programming. The district’s STEAM coordinator, Shaun Tomaszewski also went to the White House Summit. On the heels of the opening of three schools newly focused on STEAM (that’s “Arts” in addition to STEM), PPS has launched its STEAM Mini-Grant Program. Educators across the city have received $2,500 awards from the Grable Foundation to design innovative projects for their students. In one project, Pittsburgh Allegheny elementary school students will “grow a meal” by planting a garden, harvesting the vegetables, and making a salad. At Perry Traditional Academy, high school students will write, shoot, and edit a documentary about their communities with professional filmmakers.

In the spring cycle, students who think up engaging STEAM curricula for their younger peers will also be eligible for the mini grants, which could climb to $7,500.

The inclusion of students in the grant program is part of a PPS push to support students in taking charge of their own education. Kurukulasuriya and his classmates are a testament to the power of adult-supported, student-driven STEM education.

“A lot of kids go to school, come home, and aren’t super excited to learn,” the junior said. “One of the things I’ve seen in science research class is all the kids get really excited about what they’re doing, because they get to pick the project themselves, find a lab, and have our teacher approach that lab on their behalf.”

For Kurukulasuriya, the hands-on experience has helped confirm that he would like to pursue science education and possibly a career in a related field.

The hope is that with a fortified emphasis on STEM in schools, Kurukulasuriya will no longer be an exception.

Youth Take the Reins at Media Summit Tue, 17 Nov 2015 19:26:17 +0000 Pick up any major news publication this month and you’re bound to see young people front and center. From Connecticut to Missouri to California, teenagers and young adults are speaking out about racism, fear, and injustice in their communities.

Even when they don’t make the New York Times, plenty of young people, including here in Pittsburgh, have a lot to say. But they aren’t always given a platform.

Enter the Media Empowerment Student Summit (MESS) at Carnegie Mellon University. The second annual free event drew some 100 teenagers and adult allies from the Pittsburgh region on Nov. 7 to talk youth leadership, media, and social justice. The event is hosted by CREATE Lab’s Hear Me and a handful of regional partners.

“Young people in our region are really driven and motivated to create change, and they’re grasping at opportunities to be able to do that,” said HEAR Me’s Jessica Pachuta, who worked with young people to plan MESS.

MESS participants network with local organizations. Photo/Jessica Pachuta

MESS participants network with local organizations. Photo/Jessica Pachuta

When she first solicited suggestions for MESS programming, Pachuta was not surprised to hear that Pittsburgh participants had a lot of “big questions.” They wanted to talk about race and the “school-to-prison pipeline.” They wanted to talk about their rights.

The youth-designed agenda for MESS was packed with sessions on the prison industrial complex, student legal rights, and digital media tools. Half the sessions were led by “really dynamite youth facilitators,” Pachuta said.

Megan Marmol, a freshman at Carlow University, attended MESS last year and embraced the chance to take the reins on the planning committee this go-round. A disability-rights activist, Marmol facilitated a session called “One Size Doesn’t Fit All.” She led her peers in a discussion about what it means to be able-bodied or disabled, and how to close the communication and respect gap between people who identify as disabled and others.

MESS, a conference about media and empowerment, struck Marmol as the right forum for those topics. “There’s a lack of media coverage and representation of all kinds of people,” she said, explaining that the diversity of disabilities that exists in the world is not shown on screen. As an activist, she has realized that the lack of media representation breeds a lack of empathy and awareness.

Conversely, media can be a powerful tool for youths and others who lack a loud voice in society, Marmol said. The summit attendees really responded to a video she showed where people with different disabilities described their daily lives.

Three other MESS sessions aimed to teach participants how to “amplify their voices” through podcasting, web design, and other media creation tools. Many young attendees posted photos and thoughts on social media throughout the day, spreading what they learned to a near-infinite digital network of peers. That way, their peers who couldn’t make it to the event weren’t spared the empowering discussion and spirit.

Much of the conference focused on the power young people can find in networks, be it meeting like-minded peers face-to-face, working with a community organization, or starting a dialogue on social media. Even during lunch, the teenagers strolled around a “resource fair,” meeting representatives from Pittsburgh organizations that have operate their communities. Chatting with peers from different backgrounds and schools opened Marmol’s eyes to the potential to collaborate on community projects.

“Young people in our region are really driven and motivated to create change, and they’re grasping at opportunities to do that.”

“Doing a lot of interactive, engaging work opens the doors, and makes people realize something is possible as an interest or a career,” she said.

Of course, not all young people are staging rallies on campuses or spending Saturdays at youth media summits. In fact, young people are pretty abysmal when it comes to civic engagement, especially voting. In 2014, 19.9 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds voted, the lowest youth turnout ever recorded for a federal election. In 2009, the last year for which CIRCLE released data showing how frequently high school students volunteered in their communities, the percentage had been on the decline since 2005.

Part of the falloff is a cultural shift after years of fractured politics. Millennials say they are turned off by politics. In addition, where once non-college-bound youths found a hook into political and civic participation at work, through unions or other organizations, those options have largely disappeared.

Yet as researchers like Joseph Kahne argue, we may be overlooking fresh forms of engagement when we talk about the demise of civic participation. Some of the bigger social movements use unconventional means of engagement—Black Lives Matter protests, for example, have been ignited by social media. That’s good news because new media and other nontraditional models of participation bypass conventional hierarchies and skill-level barriers, and “help counter youths’ relatively low levels of engagement with many dimensions of political life,” writes the Civic Engagement Research group.

At MESS, teenagers of diverse backgrounds came together to engage on pressing issues and think up solutions. If such nontraditional venues continue to pop up, youth civic engagement levels could start to thrive.

“Making” Change at Y-Creator Space Thu, 12 Nov 2015 18:19:39 +0000 Last year, a group of kids in Pittsburgh set about making cycling safer—and more stylish. With a sewing machine and a lesson in circuitry, the pre-teens created a shirt that lights up and changes color depending on how fast you ride your bike.

The young designers were participants in Y-Creator Space (YCS), an afterschool program that serves low-income youth at three Pittsburgh locations. The mission of YCS is to teach human-centered design using science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Kids create prototypes and then build products that solve a problem or hurdle that a person or a community faces—thus the “human centered” tag.

At first glance, YCS might appear a lot like other local programs—Assemble or MAKESHOP—that emphasize creativity and hands-on learning. “But we’re different from a makerspace in that we’re very purposeful,” said Nic Jaramillo, YCS director since its start in 2011. At YCS, the goal is less open-ended tinkering and more tangible application of ideas and creativity. The kids are always making something—whether that’s the playful wearable technology or an aquaponics system that encourages healthy eating.

Kids sign up for a 10-week series of workshops during which they collaborate on elaborate projects, like building a fleet of drones. In addition, kids can just drop in for creative inspiration. Jaramillo estimates that the program serves 400-600 youth each year between its sites at the Hilltop YMCA, the Homewood-Brushton YMCA, and the Allentown Learning and Engagement Center.

“Making” change is an idea that is catching on elsewhere, too. This past spring, power tool company Dremel hosted a Making Impact contest, in which college students pitched maker projects to effect community or world change. The winner was a University of Central Florida engineering student who used recycled electronic materials to make a pediatric therapy toy. The customizable device was designed to boost cognitive development and motor skills of children. In the winning example, a special needs pediatrics patient, who previously avoided purposeful interaction, used the toy, pressing buttons that activated his favorite video.

“We’re different from a makerspace in that we’re very purposeful.”
YCS itself is a product of kids using their hands and minds to solve a problem. Before it was a youth design program, YCS was a federally funded internet access initiative for all ages. But money was tight and the equipment was often broken. Young visitors to the site took it upon themselves to fix everything from vacuum cleaners to computers. Observing the kids’ creativity and problem-solving skills, Jaramillo and other staff members thought there might be something worth pursuing there.

Jaramillo feels strongly that the kids’ creativity muscles are not exercised nearly enough in their schools, which have too few resources. According to an Afterschool Alliance report, “Afterschool STEM programs are proving to be highly effective and they deliver important outcomes.” Graduates of these programs have improved attitudes toward STEM careers, increased STEM skills, and a higher likelihood of graduating and pursuing a STEM career—an important skill set in a workforce facing a STEM gap.

Programs like YCS are also doing their part to inspire something equally valuable in today’s workforce: creativity and entrepreneurialism. Problem-solvers, in other words.



An Allentown Storefront Shows Why Afterschool Programs Truly Matter Tue, 10 Nov 2015 18:28:10 +0000 On a bright morning in October, the small storefront space that is home to the Allentown Learning and Engagement Center, or ALEC, is quiet. The walls are lined with books, games, and children’s photography and artwork. Come about 3 p.m., though, a gaggle of elementary school kids will pile through the door in a whir of energy. Today, they’ll complete homework, learn a lesson about another country from an ALEC staff member (Ireland is the topic), and snack on peanut butter tortilla roll-ups.

ALEC was originally a Carnegie Library pop-up program slated to last 18 months with the aim of providing library services to residents who did not have easy access to other public libraries. But in Allentown, a historically underserved neighborhood in the Hilltop community in South Pittsburgh, the program quickly became an invaluable resource for neighborhood kids, and a place they could visit on weekends and evenings when their parents were working.

The Brashear Association, which has ties of nearly 100 years to the neighborhood, partnered with the library and provided funding to turn the pop-up library into a permanent program that today serves 30 neighborhood kids from second through fifth grade in its after school program. ALEC is also open to first through eigth graders on the weekends.

By providing out-of-school programming for kids, and being accessible on Saturdays and in the summer, ALEC is filling a vital community need.

By providing out-of-school programming for kids, and being accessible on Saturdays and in the summer, ALEC is filling a vital community need.

Amber Rooke, education coordinator at the Brashear Association, said ALEC is one of only two afterschool programs in Allentown. The Afterschool Alliance estimates that nationally there are 19.4 million children not currently in an afterschool program who would enroll if one were available.

The two programs in Allentown collectively serve only 50 youngsters out of more than 200 in the neighborhood’s elementary school.

That’s one reason why Rooke was preparing for the “Lights on Afterschool” event organized by the Allegheny Partners for Out-of-School Time (APOST). It was one of 19 events across Pittsburgh (out of 8,000 nationwide organized by the Afterschool Alliance). The events are put on by schools and afterschool programs to attract business, political, and community leaders, and to advocate for afterschool and summer programs.

Research shows the benefits of afterschool programs like ALEC include offering a safe place for kids while their parents are at work, providing exercise, and serving healthy food. And by partnering with other community organizations and non-profits, the programs are also providing important learning opportunities.

For example, earlier this month, Venture Outdoors, an outdoor-education nonprofit, took ALEC students geocaching in Grandview Park. The Venture Outdoors team helped the students use GPS devices to locate hidden trivia questions about their community. And last summer, Venture Outdoors hosted a two-week summer camp where they took ALEC students kayaking twice on the river through downtown Pittsburgh, a place many students had never been.

“We’re trying to utilize our neighbors and partners as a way to get new resources to our kids and open more opportunities and services for all youth in Allentown,” Rooke said.

That can mean field trips just down the street. Rooke recently reached out to Spool, a neighboring fabric and quilting store, to organize future workshops where kids could learn sewing and needlework basics.

What does it look like when ALEC successfully forms a strong partnership? Rooke remembered watching the kids be afraid of kayaking at first, only to become pros by the end. As she put it, “It’s amazing to see how much they grew.”







What I Have Learned from an Artist Fri, 06 Nov 2015 17:05:54 +0000 When I started as a teacher in 1994 on the Southside of Chicago in what was then the Robert Taylor Homes, I was introduced to a concept of arts-integration. By luck or serendipity, I met one of the best teachers I know (Karla Daye, Chicago Public Schools), and I also met one of my most significant intellectual mentors (Daniel Scheinfeld, of then, Erikson Institute). Back then I thought “arts” was fun. I didn’t know how to be a teacher, but I got to work with a teaching artist who was a dancer and I learned to collaborate to find ways to integrate movement into my teaching of language arts. I got to explore and take risks and learn an artistic process for teaching that I didn’t even know I was learning at the time.

Forward to 2003, in Pittsburgh Public Schools. I took my first grade class on what I then called a “field trip” to visit the Mattress Factory, an installation art museum on Pittsburgh’s Northside. We walked up two staircases in the 1414 building to visit the installation of Jeremy Boyle entitled “Studio Project.” Jeremy engaged my students to think about process as he shared his own process as an artist. This led to our collaborative classroom work on numerous arts-integrated projects over the next years connected to Jeremy’s own work as an artist and musician.2.screw

Forward to 2010, still in Pittsburgh Public Schools, but Jeremy now a Resident Artist at Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab. He was asked to wonder about a question: What might innovation with technology look like for young children? And he thought he might like to explore this question with me in my Kindergarten classroom at Pittsburgh Allegheny (only blocks from the Mattress Factory where we started our work together seven years before).

Forward to now, still in Pittsburgh Public Schools, co-directing Children’s Innovation Project with Jeremy, working inside Remake Learning Network in the Pittsburgh region to re-imagine what innovation might look like, might inspire in children’s thinking, might nudge in teachers’ approach to growing innovative thinking.

It is the distance between 2010 and now that I want to talk about. I want to slow down and allow others to see the space inside this distance and the depth of my own learning as a classroom teacher inside this space, my learning from an artist.

Everyone sees Childrens Innovation Project for what it is now, for what it looks like on the outside. But how did it start? How did it grow? Why did it grow as it has?

Full disclosure, I likely would have never thought about or talked about or even read about technology without Jeremy. In 2010, I didn’t know what a circuit was, I didn’t know about voltage of batteries or binary numbers or diodes. I had never thought about children’s language in terms of cause-effect logic or knowns-unknowns. I wasn’t posing questions to children about systems or parts-whole. I hadn’t thought about the difference between teamwork and collaboration. I hadn’t even started to wonder about the role of creative inquiry in developing critical inquiry. The idea of learning as material was as abstract to me as a fleeting metaphor in a poem I didn’t understand.

From the beginning, my work with Jeremy has been about unknowing. I don’t know. We don’t know. Let’s jump into a space of not knowing and notice a process of children’s thinking and learning, and notice our own thinking and learning in the process.

 From the beginning, my work with Jeremy has been about unknowing.

For our first two years (2010-12), Jeremy would come to my Kindergarten classroom each week and bring some Circuit Blocks he had created. We would talk together for 10-15 minutes to plan a lesson sequence that might work. Then, we’d try it. I didn’t know the content or what would happen in the circuits or what the logic was for/with the technology. But I did know young children and how to phrase a question that might open thinking. We would both listen to what children said, we would notice what children did and then later that day we would sit across a booth at a local pub and reflect on what happened. Who was learning? What were they learning? What surprised us? What went wrong? What could we do better? What materials might come next? Why?

And Jeremy would teach me: What makes a circuit a circuit? What is a switch and how could we make one? What is a volt? How do binary numbers work? What is computational logic and why does it matter? What do you mean by artistic process? How is the discipline of art about everything and nothing? Tell me more about John Cage and Robert Irwin— why/how do they relate to what we are doing? Why do you care about this?

And I would wonder: How might we phrase the concept of polarity in a way that children might better understand? Do you notice that only some children speak in cause-effect logic, how can we scaffold language so all children have access to the logic? What might happen if we slowed that down and focused more on children’s talk about their process? Can you tell me that again so I can think of other words to explain it and maybe allow more connections?

Over the past six years, our teaching and listening, our noticing and wondering, have become more blurred, more collaborative, so seamless we barely see the edges. Although I still don’t know the content of electricity, engineering or art like Jeremy and I rely on him for much of the in-depth thinking about our theoretical frames, it often appears like I might know what I am talking about, especially when working with groups of elementary teachers starting this for the first time. The truth is, I still know nothing about most of the material of technology and we often use the opportunity of presentations for me to try to explain something to a group, later for me to ask Jeremy for critique, correction and feedback. This is how I learn. Jeremy is my best teacher.


There is a colleague with whom Jeremy and I recently talked who was explaining the challenge of interdisciplinary teaching/learning. She spoke of what was happening in her school between teachers as parallel play and how they were trying to get past this. Just as young children often parallel play side by side before they interact or co-create play together, I think most of what happens in classrooms in the name of arts-integration or interdisciplinary learning is actually mostly parallel play of teachers. Teachers come together inside their disciplinary thinking and try something alongside each other, pick a theme, find a way to approach it through art, then math, then science, then put in some robotics product and call it innovative, call it integration, call it STEAM, call it ____.

 More than anything else, art is a process of approach, a sensibility of seeing and not seeing, a deep belief in perspective as transformative, and a desire for unforming form.

What I like most about Childrens Innovation Project is that we are not trying to be anything that can be called anything. We are focused on learning about learning. And our primary focus and purpose come from Jeremy’s background in art. What is powerful, to me, about the “discipline” of art is that it is not about anything in and of itself. It is a way of looking at other things, a way of thinking, a way of process, a way of reflection, a way of unknowing in on itself.

More than anything else, art is a process of approach, a sensibility of seeing and not seeing, a deep belief in perspective as transformative, and a desire for unforming form. This is most significant to what I continue to learn from my collaboration with Jeremy in our Childrens Innovation Project. Way beyond the parallel play of disciplines, Jeremy’s perspective and approach as an artist have transformed what is possible in my thinking about thinking in my classroom and in the schools where we now work.

Childrens Innovation Project embraces technology as a vehicle for learning habits of mind that are important for innovative thinking and approach of learning. It is not about an end-product, but about process. Much in the same way, my learning as a classroom teacher is not about what I teach, it is about my own habits of mind as a teacher, my approach to my own teaching and learning. In this way, who I am as a teacher, how I approach my process, where I find meaning and why I do what I do is primarily influenced by a process of art, taught to me by an artist.

Embodied Learning Moves, Runs, Dances into Pittsburgh Schools Tue, 03 Nov 2015 20:57:51 +0000 This fall, an already robust partnership between SMALLab, the Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), and Pittsburgh area schools is expanding.

SMALLab—which stands for Situated Multimedia Arts Learning Lab—is a kind of 3-D game interface that uses a ceiling-mounted projector, motion-sensor cameras, and a computer to create a kinesthetic learning environment for students.

In the coming year, CMU students will work with teachers from eight local districts to create SMALLab games and lessons tailored to their classrooms.

Carnegie Mellon grad students designed a SMALLab game to improve grammar skills. Photo/CMU

Carnegie Mellon grad students designed a SMALLab game to improve grammar skills. Photo/CMU

SMALLab was developed at Arizona State University in 2010, and has since found its way into classrooms throughout the country. The motion sensors help create a kinesthetic learning experience for the students, employing all their sense. Physics students playing a game about velocity, for example, will hear sounds that correspond to their speeds. Meanwhile, software tracks the students’ performance and provides feedback after the game.

The recent SMALLab expansion is in its nascent stage, but previous work by CMU students provides some insight into what’s to come. Since 2013, the ETC students have been developing SMALLab games, also called “scenarios,” for Pittsburgh’s Elizabeth Forward School District, the first public schools ever to use the technology.

An ETC team called Kinetics is currently wrapping up work on two SMALLab projects for the district.

Tasked with creating a scenario that would teach third to fifth graders arithmetic, the team has produced a game that has the students doing math while also learning about nutrition. In the competitive game, the kids have to fix an incomplete recipe by selecting fruits, which each have a specified health value.

After testing the product on the students, the CMU programmers have made a number of changes. The more motivation for experimentation, and the more visual feedback, the more the students were engaged, they learned, according to Aaron Li, a CMU master’s student and a member of the Kinetics team. Plus, they had to adjust the interface for young people who hadn’t quite reached adult heights yet.

This kind of “embodied learning” gives kids something traditional technology can’t.

“They have to physically move their bodies, and this will make them master or remember the skills better than if they just look at a screen or textbook,” Li said.

Mina Johnson-Glenberg, a cognitive scientist and chief learning officer at SMALLab, writes at Getting Smart that the platform is the product of “a long research history that supports the efficacy of students ‘doing something’ in order to learn it.”

With the latest expansion, teachers in a variety of subjects will get a chance to use SMALLab. Already, the platform hosts a wide range of scenarios. In one game that is popular at Elizabeth Forward Middle School, students adjust virtual mirrors to learn about angles. In another game, “Disease Transmission,” students help a virtual population survive a pandemic. They use science, critical thinking, and teamwork to tackle resource scarcity and control the disease.

Like all the best ed tech, SMALLab is an unusual tool that builds classic skills: collaboration, problem-solving.

Li said he gets a bit jealous of his young clients. “At their age, it would have been the perfect learning platform for me,” he said.

Going to Rome Before Recess Wed, 28 Oct 2015 17:08:58 +0000 For many students, a history lesson on Ancient Rome is largely inaccessible. Understandably so: plenty of kids have seen only the architecture of their own cities, and the sights and sounds described in their textbooks couldn’t feel more distant from their daily lives.

For decades, teachers have sought to open the world to their students by scraping together funds to bus them to a nearby museum or the state capitol. But starting this fall, kids around the world are getting as close as they possibly can to visiting the Great Wall of China and the ocean floor.

Those students are part of the pilot of the Expeditions Pioneer Program, a virtual field trip program from Google. Expeditions kits, provided free to participating schools, include smartphones, Cardboard (Google’s virtual reality viewer), a tablet for the teacher, and an Internet router. The devices are loaded with software that uses Google Street View images to create 360-degree three-dimensional images of historical landmarks, natural settings, and other locations worldwide.

The program was launched in late September, with regions of the United States, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom eligible. Instead of shipping out the materials, Google sends employees to the schools so they can train the teachers to use the program.

So are these “field trips” that much better than the documentaries teachers have been showing for years? Or the images they project on large screens in front of their classrooms? In fact, the exploration is confined to those 360-degree views. But the novelty of the immersive device and three-dimensional images is sure to capture the students’ attention. Remember clicking through images in your View-Master as kid? Way more fun than a picture book.

kids are getting as close as they possibly can to visiting the ocean floor.

Expeditions joins an already competitive and, some say, saturated field of edtech options. But, as the New York Times points out, this product is one of the few designed with a classroom setting in mind. It does not erase the role of the teacher, who has an iPad app that allows him or her to give all the students a guided tour, pausing at will. (The adult involvement averts some of the problems that come with other 1:1 device programs in schools.) Plus, there are no technical difficulties or scarcity of resources because the materials are provided. At least for now.

Google hopes to turn Expeditions into a commercial product that schools can buy. Although the company says it will only do so if the cost is “accessible,” any cost could end up placing the devices in the same schools that can already afford field trips, or whose families already travel. Schools can now apply to take part in the pilot, but in the United States it is currently limited to institutions in California, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, and Texas.

It is easy to see the directions in which Expeditions could—and will— expand. Already Google has included trips to museums, national parks, and even banks in its Expeditions line-up. Michelle Obama’s trip to the historically black university Howard is one of many virtual college tours Google hopes to provide. Also in the near future, users will likely be able to use GoPro technology to create their own virtual reality images. Youtube’s #360Video content is already viewable with Cardboard.

Still, there is one potential drawback of traditional field trips that Google has not managed to entirely prevent. Sure, there are no stuffy school buses traveling on winding roads to cause carsickness—but one tech blogger reports that the motion in Expeditions almost made her throw up.

A Playbook for Building Collaborative Innovation Networks Tue, 27 Oct 2015 18:02:39 +0000 Last night, The Sprout Fund released the first printed edition of the Remake Learning Playbook at the Pittsburgh meeting of the League of Innovative Schools, introducing leaders representing more than 70 school districts from across the U.S. to Pittsburgh's Remake Learning Network.

Building on the initial digital release of a working draft in June, and the beta release of the Gameplan web app in August, this final release culminates a year-long effort of the entire Remake Learning Network to open source the "code" for collaborative learning innovation networks.

Released simultaneously in print and digital formats (including PDF, Kindle Mobi, and iBooks ePub), the complete Playbook contains:

  • Chapters that examine the history & structure of the network
  • Case studies of learning innovation and project leaders
  • Plays detailing practical and actionable strategies and tactics
  • Advocacy kits to make the case to different audiences
  • Gameplan web app to plan your own local approach

By sharing the lessons we've learned and the strategies we've developed over the past eight years, we hope that communities around the world will have the guidance and resources they need to enrich learning opportunities for the children and youth they serve.

To help readers get the most out of the Remake Learning Playbook, The Sprout Fund will offer webinars starting on Monday, November 2nd at 4:00PM EDT. Sign up to be a part of the the first Guided Tour of the Playbook.

In the meantime, you can start exploring at

Tapping, Clicking, and Reading Through the Digital Wild West Mon, 26 Oct 2015 17:34:05 +0000 In their new book, “Tap, Click, Read,” authors Lisa Guernsey and Michael Levine invent “Readialand.” In this mythical place, “human beings are in control of technology, not the other way around.” Families speaking an array of languages harness new tools to support their children’s learning and literacy development. And, importantly, in Readialand, these same adults put devices away when they are distracting. Product developers work alongside educators and families to create materials that foster language development and literacy.

But, alas, Readialand is still worlds away. As Guernsey and Levine point out, far too many American students will never become good readers. Despite many national and local efforts to strengthen reading skills, two-thirds of American children are not reading proficiently, and half of children from low-income families do not meet the low level of “basic” on readinClick-Tap-Read-Homeg tests. Meanwhile, new technology tools are either heralded as a silver bullet or rejected as a bane to reading and literacy.

Guernsey, who is director of the Early Education Initiative and the Learning Technologies Project at New America, and Levine, who is the founding director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, wrote “Tap, Click, Read” to help parents and educators find a “third way”—one where media and technology support reading and literacy in ways that were never before possible.

But what does that “third way” really look like?

Throughout their book, and in accompanying videos, Guernsey and Levine highlight places where small glimpses of Readialand already exist. In rural Maine, for example, a program called Comienza en Casa (It Starts at Home) connects immigrant families with home visitors who show up with all sorts of learning materials, including toys, art supplies, and iPads loaded with apps and iBooks. The visitor leads learning sessions, in English or Spanish, giving parents new ideas for on- and off-screen learning activities, and some approaches that merge the two, like backyard scavenger hunts for colors that kids snap pictures of along the way.

Several thousand miles away, a long-running Houston program called PALS pairs up new mothers and home visitors who are trained in promoting responsive parenting. The parents and visitors watch videos of ways parents can interact with their babies, like labeling things and explaining the world around them. The home visitor then records mom playing and talking with her baby. Together, they play back the video and point out what the mother did that was effective, and how she can improve. Evaluation studies have shown mothers who receive PALS use significantly more “verbal scaffolding”—the kind of interaction that helps build early language skills—than a control group.

The programs highlighted in the book deploy learning technology in a judicious way. That approach conforms with the recent decision by the American Academy of Pediatrics to rethink its position that children under 2 years old should avoid all screen time. Instead the AAP says we need to provide advice to help families navigate their children’s digital media use, advice that compliments past work by NAEYC and the Fred Rogers Center.

“We need to get past the tired nagging of ‘no screen time’ and the overheated enthusiasm over apps as the holy grail of early education,” Guersney said in a recent NPR interview. “Instead, let’s take a more mindful approach and combine the power of parents, educators, and high-quality media (print and digital) to make literacy opportunities available to all kids and families, regardless of income.”

Help Local Schools Build Their Dream Makerspaces Thu, 22 Oct 2015 19:24:30 +0000 A number of Pittsburgh-area schools have grand plans to support hands-on learning on their campuses, and they need your help this week.

Teachers across disciplines will attest to the educational value of tinkering, building, and playing with new materials. The problem is that many institutions lack the resources to carve out spaces for experiential learning. Enter Kickstarting Making in Schools, a joint venture between the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh and Kickstarter.

Over the summer, 10 local schools received guidance on developing and funding their dream makerspaces. The museum (home to the venerable MAKESHOP) provided professional development and helped the schools draw up plans for the physical spaces. Kickstarter trained the teachers and administrators to crowd-fund.

Now the school leaders turn to their communities to put the plans into action. Since the crowd-funding campaigns went live at the beginning of the month, two of the 10 schools have already exceeded their goals. The rest have until late October or early November to meet their funding requests.

A few of the fabulous projects that could still use support:

  • While the maker movement is gaining national traction, rural school districts can be left out of the conversation—and the support systems. Burgettstown Area School District wants to transform two existing rooms into learner-driven makerspaces with flexible seating arrangements, mobile material storage, and a maker library. Back this project.
  • In Swissvale, five schools have become one: Woodland Hills Intermediate. The transition provides an opportunity for fresh additions to the campus, including a potential makerspace. The school serves mostly economically disadvantaged students who are too often underrepresented in STEM fields. School leaders want to empower these students to envision themselves as engineers and creators by stocking the new space with 3D printers, sewing machines, and metalworking tools. Back this project.
  • Students at Lincoln PreK-5 have plenty of say in the design of their own project, an outdoor STEAM space next to the school. Together, teachers and students dreamed up a new use for an unused plot of land that borders their building. The vision includes butterflies, community food gardens, and hands-on outdoor learning. Back this project.

Check out all 10 projects–and make a move before it’s too late!