Remake Learning Kids+Creativity 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, 13 Jun 2015 03:59:41 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Gamer-in-Chief: Catching Up with Drew Davidson Wed, 28 Jan 2015 17:40:55 +0000 As director and teaching professor at Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center, Drew Davidson has his finger on the pulse of the latest and greatest in game design and learning. And he’s always pushing the envelope.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What makes a collaboration successful? 

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

How has the Kids+Creativity Network influenced your work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Game on.

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

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

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

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

Photo/Rebecca Grabman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The new MakeSchools site

The new MakeSchools site

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Value of Arts Education Tue, 13 Jan 2015 19:44:40 +0000 Settled in the heart of Silicon Valley, Stanford University is best known as a cradle to some of the world’s technology giants including Google and Yahoo. But the its also leading the pack in universities pouring big bucks into arts and culture spaces with a new, $235 million arts district that includes a theatre, gallery, art history building, and an “arts gym” set to open next year.

“I think it’s very important, as the university gains in reputation in fields associated with Silicon Valley, that we send the signal that art matters, even to students who go on to work in the valley or business,” Matthew Tiews, the executive director of arts programs at Stanford, told the New York Times.

That signal that “arts matter,” in STEM or any other discipline, is not one that every education institution has received. Even at some of the other universities the New York Times has profiled, there’s debate regarding how much the new arts and culture buildings really add to the schools’ academics. Changing this line of thinking, at universities and in K–12 schools, is at the core of the national push for stronger STEAM education—or STEM with the inclusion of arts and all the skills they nurture.

Another prestigious school, the Rhode Island Institute of Design (RISD), is a leader in pushing for the connection of the arts and sciences. The school’s STEM to STEAM Initiative works from the belief that arts and design will be just as critical to innovation in this century as science and technology were in the last.

Sculptor and RISD alumni Rebecca Kamen works closely with scientists to develop her pieces. A few years ago, after giving a lecture at the National Institutes of Health, a student introduced her to the drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal, who is often considered the father of modern neuroscience. Kamen was so inspired by his work that she sculpted a piece based on his drawings of the human retina and then traveled to Spain to study the archives of his illustrations.

Kamen told RISD she believes Ramón y Cajal’s breakthroughs wouldn’t have come about without his arts background.

“Artists are universal investigators,” she said. “We look at everything from different angles, rather than going down a straight path. That’s when discovery happens. That’s what wins Nobel prizes.”

Countless examples show how arts influence sciences and vice versa. Still, bridging the two isn’t always easy in a classroom. With schools facing tightening budgets and standardized testing pressures, time spent on music, drama, or painting has too often been pushed to the back burner or cut entirely. In Chicago, for example, a recent survey of 170 public schools found 65 percent don’t offer the two hours of arts education per week as expected by the district.

But proponents of including the A in STEM believe that much more than sculpting or painting is lost when arts are cut. Rather, arts, they say, are another way of instilling problem solving and honing divergent thinking—the very things that lead to forward motion in science, tech, engineering, or math. Whether at a university level or a first-grade classroom, arts don’t always spark scientific discoveries, but they encourage a different way of creative and imaginative thinking like they did for Ramón y Cajal.

In addition to their benefits to scientific thinking, experts like Education Week writer Anne Jolly remind us that the arts are valuable on their own. She asked Dr. Howard Gardner, a developmental psychologist best known for his theory of multiple intelligences, about whether the A really belongs in STEM.

“I don’t have strong views about whether arts should become a part of STEM or be self-standing,” Gardner told her. “What is important is that every human being deserves to learn about the arts and humanities, just as each person should be cognizant of the sciences.”

Whereas universities might be pouring millions of dollars into arts and cultural institutions, kids should be introduced to all the letters in STEAM much earlier—whether at school or in informal learning spaces. From product design to Popsicle stick architecture, an education that prepares kids for the future can’t afford to leave anything out.



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Can Music Help Close the Achievement Gap? Wed, 07 Jan 2015 18:31:50 +0000 We’re firm believers in adding the A (arts) to STEM (science, engineering, technology, and math). The Sprout Fund, the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, and local philanthropies have provided $3.9 million in STEAM grants since 2009 to 61 regional school districts.

Arts programming gives kids so much more than time to create. The arts—both learning about artists and art forms, as well as doing art—expand minds, spur imaginations, and teach kids how to think about problems in different ways. And now, it’s coming to light that the arts might help close the education gap between low-income students and their better-off peers.

The achievement gap is not an idle concern. As Stanford’s Sean Reardon found, low-income children born in 2001 are approximately four to seven years behind their high-income peers in learning, and the gap keeps growing.

The split starts early, at home. As much research has shown, being surrounded by talk, conversation, and new words early in life is critical to a child’s later ability to read, which in turn is a strong foundation for success in school. Yet the “word gap”—the number of words kids hear at home—between low-income children and their better off peers is stark. In those critical early developmental years, low-income children hear approximately 30 million fewer words than higher-income kids before age 3. A study by Betty Hart and Todd Risley found, for example, that families with higher incomes spoke and exchanged 2,153 words per hour with their children whereas low-income families spoke 1,251 words. Further, families receiving welfare—often the most fragile families—spoke only 616 words per hour with their children.

So how can art and music help close this gap? In two words: brain development. Researchers are accumulating some very convincing evidence of music’s effect on literacy development among kids in poverty.

Growing up in poverty affects children’s brain development. The chronic stress, environmental risks, and other factors of daily life, scientists are discovering, leave a biological imprint. A recent Northwestern University study found, for example, that low-income children were less efficient at processing sound because the area of their brains responsible for doing so was more susceptible to distracting noise.

Those findings made Nina Kraus and her team at Northwestern University’s Auditory Neuroscience Lab wonder whether music might be the key to rectifying that problem. They knew that musicians are keen listeners and are better at hearing tidbits of conversation in a noisy room or distinguishing similar sounds like the difference between a g and a b, because their training has shaped their brains to pick out sound. So, the researchers wondered, could immersing low-income kids in music classes help them filter out the static and better identify sounds that are critical to learning to read?

Kraus and her team turned to a community music program in a low-income neighborhood in Los Angeles to test their hypothesis. They assigned one group of kids from neighborhoods with a lot of gang activity (a proxy for high-poverty, underserved neighborhoods) to take music lessons in the community program. The second group delayed their music careers by two years, and it became a control group for the study.

It turns out that after two years of music training (one year was not enough), kids’ brains had changed such that they were less affected by noise and stimulus and better able to pick out distinct sounds. Their nervous systems were more efficient, which in turn helped their language and reading skills.

Unfortunately, at the height of the recession, schools slashed music and art programs to balance their shrinking budgets. Those budgets haven’t fully recovered. As Yohuru Williams wrote in the Huffington Post, music is too often “seen as non-essential by the non-educators making these decisions.” As such, “music and arts programs are quickly disappearing from the educational landscape.”

That may be short sighted.

Like the community music program in Los Angeles, afterschool groups are working to pick up the slack. In Pittsburgh, the Labs @ CPL at the East Liberty branch of the Carnegie Library has a music studio where teens can mix their own music.  And the IonSound Project’s “From Note to Finish” is supporting music students from North Allegheny and Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA) high schools in collaborative composition and performance of their own music both in their schools and in the community. Students will be mentored by Pittsburgh-based professional composers and educators.

Whether this form of musicianship will have the same effect on the brain is still open for debate. But as we’ve written, a 2010 study found that video games like Rock Band and others can build musical abilities. “Stepping into the shoes of the onscreen musicians motivates youths to learn the real skills that will enable them to play independently,” Indiana University researcher Kylie Peppler wrote.

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The Importance of Risk in Children’s Play Mon, 05 Jan 2015 18:52:55 +0000 Some of my most vivid childhood memories are running wild through Laumeier Sculpture Park outside St. Louis, Missouri, with a pack of siblings and cousins. The 105-acre park is more like an open-air museum dotted with sculptures that tower 65 feet into the air and holes that fall several feet into the dirt.

As we played tag and turned the abstract pieces of art into our pirate ships and dungeons, we were acutely aware of the absence of “no touching” signs on many of the sculptures. No sign meant climbing or hanging wasn’t against the rules, right?

Looking back, I’m certain these memories stay in sharp focus because our play had an element of risk. Not danger, really—only a sense of exhilaration when climbing and sliding on sculptures slightly taller and unfamiliar than I was used to.

As I wrote earlier this month, since the mid-1950s, the time children have for free play has been steadily decreasing. The decrease comes from all sorts of factors: overscheduled afterschool hours, more screen time, and an increased emphasis on academic skill development at ever-younger ages.

Running parallel to these shifts are changes in how Americans parent and growing fears concerning safety. As journalist Hanna Rosin described in her Atlantic piece, “The Overprotected Kid,” many parents today are more worried than ever before about playground injuries or stranger abductions, although the rate of both has stayed approximately the same since the 1970s.

One consequence of these fears, as Rosin reported, is that parents aren’t letting kids wander alone or with peers in their neighborhoods as they used to. And playgrounds and public play spaces have gotten safer and more boring, robbing kids of the opportunity to take risks and to grow.

Last February, Susan Solomon, author of the book “The Science of Play,” gave a keynote speech on this topic at a community conversation hosted by the Playful Pittsburgh Collaborative at the Carnegie Museum of Art. The collaborative formed last year to educate community members about the importance of play in children’s development and to advocate for more opportunities for play in the Pittsburgh region.

Solomon said behavioral science has shown that to thrive, kids need opportunities to fail, keep trying, problem solve, and eventually reach mastery. Play can help give kids these opportunities.

But how, exactly, does this happen on a typical playground?

An article in the Wall Street Journal about playgrounds being “too safe” addressed a newer type of basket swing that fits several children at once and becomes an instant social event—undoubtedly requiring occasional conflict resolution. Another 30-foot-tall climbing pyramid made of net has only the appearance of risk—and it keeps kids coming back until they’ve figured out how to conquer it.

In her Atlantic piece, Rosin describes playgrounds in England on which kids have the freedom to build fires and build and launch their own canoes across a stream.

Cara Ciminillo, collaborative member and operations director at the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children, said risk is a key element in any learning —for both kids and adults.

“What we know about all kinds of learning is that if you take challenge out of people’s learning or children’s play, they’re not going to be interested,” she told me in an interview last fall. “You’ll lose their attention. What we know is that risk plays a really important role in moving people along their learning trajectory—it’s just, how do you look at risk as a challenge instead of a hazard or danger?”

Of course, thinking about letting kids climb higher, slide faster, and wander a bit farther is one thing—making it happen is quite another.

Marijke Hecht, collaborative member and director of education at the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, was co-teaching a course on play at the University of Pittsburgh last year. One night, after the class session devoted to risk, she turned on her cell phone to see several messages. Turns out, while she was in class, her 10-year-old daughter had fallen face first and broken her collar bone while playing outside by herself.

“The whole experience of working with the collaborative helped me say, ‘That’s ok, it’s a broken bone. Bones heal,’” Hecht explained. After she calmed down a bit, Hecht said she could focus on the fact that her daughter probably was going to learn a beneficial lesson from the accident (that is, do not run and jump in the dark). “It was one of those moments where I thought . . . ‘Ok I’ve got to walk the walk.’”

It turns out that even if Hecht’s daughter had been playing on a super-padded, plastic playground crawling with supervision, she may have been just as likely to have a similar injury.

David Ball, a professor of risk management at Middlesex University, told Rosin in the Atlantic piece that new, softer playground surfaces like rubber chips haven’t contributed to children’s safety in the United Kingdom, according to injury reports. (The same is true in the United States.)

In fact, Ball has found some evidence that long-bone injuries, more common than head injuries, are actually increasing.

Rosin wrote, “The best theory for that is ‘risk compensation’—kids don’t worry as much about falling on rubber, so they’re not as careful, and end up hurting themselves more often. The problem, says Ball, is that ‘we have come to think of accidents as preventable and not a natural part of life.’”

As a culture, we should be shifting how we evaluate risk. Doing a better job of weighing its benefits could give kids more chances to be independent and practice risk assessment on their own—a key skill they’ll need in the future.

As Ciminillo put it, another generation of kids deprived of free play is a much riskier prospect than letting kids climb a little higher, slide a little faster, and take the chances they need to grow.


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What’s in a Network? Fri, 19 Dec 2014 00:17:09 +0000 Aileen Owens, director of technology and innovation at South Fayette School District, was on the hunt last year for the best way to incorporate robotics into her district’s intermediate school curriculum. Then, while at a meeting last March for Pittsburgh organizations interested in digital media and learning, she bumped into Robin Shoop, the director of the Carnegie Mellon Robotics Academy.

“Even though I was at the meeting for a different reason, we started talking,” Owens said. They started working together, and in early November, Owens brought six teachers to the academy to be trained with Shoop on a type of robotics platform called VEX IQ.

This upcoming spring, fifth and sixth-graders will be programming and designing VEX IQ robotics, with a larger roll-out through middle school and into older grades planned over time.

The collaboration is only one of many partnerships that have brought different programs into South Fayette’s four schools. Students in the district have grown vegetables in hydroponic gardens with a grant from the Sprout Fund. Another team of students developed a flash card app with guidance from a Carnegie Mellon University computer scientist. And at an upcoming lunch session, a group of students will meet with designers from MAYA Design to get professional feedback on a product they developed—“Shark Tank” style. (The product is top secret and still under wraps.)

Although these collaborations grew naturally, they didn’t exactly just “happen.” South Fayette School District and its many partners are part of the Pittsburgh region’s Kids+Creativity Network, which consists of more than 200 organizations and more than 1,000 people who have come together to build an ecosystem for learning in Pittsburgh extending beyond school walls and hours.

But the learning opportunities stemming from the network aren’t only a bonus for Pittsburgh kids. Yes, networks provide new chances for hands-on learning after the final school bell rings. But as the economy and work landscape change, the network is a critical piece of preparing kids for a changing economy and future.

Why Networks?


Hummingbird Robotics Kits. Photo/ Ben Filio

To compete in today’s economy, kids need to learn more than their A-B-Cs. High-income parents have known this for some time, and they have been cultivating their children for this more competitive world. They enroll them in afterschool programs and send them to math camp or robotics classes in the summer. They work to develop their children’s talents and skills through these organized activities.

As sociologist Annette Lareau has documented in her book, “Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life,” lower-income and less-educated parents, in contrast, are still embracing a more “free-range” childhood. The latter approach, which relies heavily on schools to prepare kids for their futures, worked as a strategy for decades. But it no longer does.

Economists Greg Duncan and Richard Murnane found that, in 2005 to 2006, the most affluent families spent an average of $8,872 on enrichment activities per year, whereas poorest families spent $1,315. This gap has grown significantly since the 1970s.

“What you see is more and more money being spent privately for enrichment activities, which means the education gap is growing,” said Michele Cahill, vice-president of the National Program at the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

And this is where citywide networks come into play. Cahill believes we need to redefine schools as more porous organizations and consider partnerships with outside organizations as a core element of schools, not only as add-ons. Networks of learning opportunities for kids can help bridge this spending divide and give all children rich exposure to ideas and opportunities to discover their interests.

Cahill believes we need to redefine schools as more porous organizations and consider partnerships with outside organizations as a core element of schools, not only as add-ons.

Although schools, Cahill explained, must continue to address the education gap head-on, “cities also need to address it. It’s really about an experience divide.”

Cahill said cities should do a better job of capitalizing on all of their existing resources to help students learn.

“Schools themselves have intellectual capital,” she said, “but a city’s ecosystem has so much more of it. Why are we keeping it so separate?”

“It’s not only the professionals, it’s the university students, community college students—it’s everybody who can be mobilized. But it does take a design. I don’t mean it’s only one type of five-year plan, but it takes intentionality.”

The Network’s Beginning

The Kids+Creativity Network began with just this type of intentionality nearly a decade ago. How could we do a better job connecting Pittsburgh kids to more experiences and resources the city has to offer? The network began as informal gatherings in 2007 when leaders from the Grable Foundation began connecting people in the education field. Interest and participation in the group grew and, in 2011, the Sprout Fund began providing strategic support to formalize the network and enhance its potential.


Photo: Ben Filio

Today, the network includes more than 1,000 members who rub shoulders at conferences and work together through more formal partnerships, professional development programs, and affinity groups like the one Shoop and Owens attended. It also provides seed funding, grants, and other support to ensure that those new relationships can blossom into real opportunities for young people.

Other cities throughout the country have built similar networks of opportunities. In Rhode Island, for example, the Providence After School Alliance (PASA) AfterZone program lets middle-school students pick from a citywide network of free afterschool activities like horseback riding, sailing, knitting, learning guitar, building solar-powered go-carts, or analyzing plankton. All activities are run on the same afterschool schedule, and PASA provides transportation to and from the off-campus sites.

Uncovering New Ideas and Ways of Doing Things

These kinds of networks have another advantage: They create a new model for continuous improvement in schools. For decades, schools have worked to improve through a painstaking, and slow, process of trying an idea in a couple of schools, assessing whether it works, tweaking it when it doesn’t, and then expanding the program district wide, testing again, and, eventually, replicating it in schools nationwide. In effect, the new method or idea is originated at a hub and then spread outward to the satellite schools.

The problem is that to develop, validate, and scale up education reform takes time—up to 14 years if the teams follow the process to a tee, according to educational research. And by the time it is implemented widely, all sorts of factors can muck it up. This approach also doesn’t take early advantage of the ideas and insights of people in the larger network or satellites.

Networks can be a solution. With networks of people and organizations, fresh approaches emerge through the very process of scaling up. Networks, in other words, spur an innovation cycle.

Tom Lauwers / Photo: Ben Filio

Tom Lauwers / Photo: Ben Filio

Tom Lauwers, founder of Pittsburgh’s BirdBrain Technologies and creator of the Finch Robot and Hummingbird Robotics Kit, has discovered the benefits of a network firsthand. He has plugged into the network in many ways, including testing his products in classrooms.

Lauwers also said he’s met regularly with Lisa Abel-Palmieri, the director of technology at the Ellis School, for feedback. Abel-Palmieri, with other teachers, suggested the second version of the kits should be packaged differently to make them more visual and logically organized for classrooms.

“The thing about a network like this is it’s hard to tease apart the effects,” Lauwers said. “But I think without the network you wouldn’t have face-to-face access to important stakeholders in what you’re doing.”

And, he said, just being part of a formal network “gives everybody a shared sense of mission” and makes people instantly receptive to the possibility of collaboration.

Or, as Owens put it, “There are no boundaries.”

“I think it’s invaluable. It’s invigorating,” she said. “Once you meet someone and begin talking, there’s this synergy—you hold a passion in the same area. It’s more powerful, [and] it helps direct innovation.”

Networks like these are able to continuously tap and integrate the stored wisdom and insights—the intellectual capital—of its members. It’s messier than the hub approach, but it’s also more dynamic.

And, as Cahill argued, there’s no reason to limit the network to only schools and their leaders. A city’s cultural organizations, businesses, and nonprofit providers have a lot to offer to schools, and vice versa.

The Department of Education and Digital Promise are working to encourage more districts to build networks like these to support public education. In August 2014, Pittsburgh hosted the first gathering of these emerging networks from throughout the country.

And with the endorsement of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Sprout Fund is preparing a ‘Playbook’ that will help other cities model their efforts on Pittsburgh’s learning innovation ecosystem.

The power of networks, the Department of Education’s Richard Culatta told us in September, is that they identify problems early and often, which makes for a better result in the end. In Culatta’s vision, education, research, and commercial partners collaborate closely.

“If you have research showing that this is not working or people saying, ‘We’re using this, and it doesn’t help solve this problem,’ you know that before anything gets out of the gate,” Culatta said.

The process results in “a higher level of reliability of the tools and services that are coming out of a region.”

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A Very Maker Holiday (Some Assembly Required) Tue, 16 Dec 2014 18:18:23 +0000 As any young maker knows, the urge to make something can happen anytime, anywhere.

But the holidays are an especially inspiring time for sparking the itch to make. From gifts to cookies to decorations, it’s the season that naturally lends itself to busting out the craft bin, getting hands dirty, and letting imaginations run wild.

This season, why not give the gift of more hands-on making experiences and upgrade the holiday season into an all-out maker extravaganza?

Pittsburgh’s an easy place to find inspiration. For one, the many makerspaces scattered throughout the city are fully set with every tool you’d ever need. This week, the MAKESHOP at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh is offering the chance to make capes and crowns or press the treadles on a traditional loom.

And this Friday night, Assemble is hosting Teen + Tween Maker Night: Game Night Edition. At this the free event, 11- to 17-year-olds can 3-D print their own dice, laser cut puzzle pieces, and design their own game with support from Assemble staff.

But chances for making extend far beyond these dedicated spaces. The Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse is packed with reused materials and is a boon for teachers and makers alike. Foam, old plates, spindles, yarn—you name it, the center probably has it, and a trip is bound to inspire making. (One maker recently built a menorah using an old slab of wood and corks.)

If you don’t live in Pittsburgh (or if you do but still want to couple making experiences with some gifts), MAKE Magazine has compiled its epic gift guide once again. Hackable drones? Check. Robots made from toothbrushes? Check. The list is full of things that could be anything after a bit of creative making. After all, a squishy circuit is only a squishy circuit until a maker turns it into a crab with glowing eyes.

In addition, writer Ruth Suehle, writer at the site GeekMom, has some great ideas for maker gifts. Who knew you could get electric conductive paint for only $10?

The Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood announced its TOADY award last week—short for Toys Oppressive and Destructive to Young Children—which recognizes what the organization considers the worst toy of the year. This year, an app that lets babies and toddlers use an iPad and a TV simultaneously took the top prize. A prebranded, dollhouse-like mall and a wearable fitness tracker for young kids were among the runners-up.

Gifts and experiences that instill a love for making are the antitheses of toys like these that come with prescribed purpose. (And if you look down any toy aisle, there’s a lot of them.) Whether it’s an entry-level 3-D printer or roll of duct tape and a handful of straws, with the right encouragement, kids don’t need a lot to tap into their inner maker—which, in the end, is a lifelong gift.

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Digital Badges—Here to Stay? Mon, 15 Dec 2014 05:39:58 +0000 In addition to checking out books this summer at the East Liberty branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, students were experimenting with photography. Some were natural photographers. They’d been taking shots and using PhotoShop on their owcarnegie-library-of-pittsburgh-the-labs-photography-360x360n time for some time. But the workshops at the Labs @ CLP, the library’s digital space for teens, gave them a chance to take that learning to the next level.

Experts say the learning kids are doing on their own time, outside of schools, needs more attention. How do we recognize this learning? How do we take better advantage of the new kinds of information and online collaboration available to today’s young people?

One possible answer that got some traction in 2014 is Open Badges.

Digital Badging 101

Digital badges have been around for some time now, but 2014 was a big year for badging—though they weren’t immune to a few bumps along the way. If you haven’t been following the evolution of digital badges, here’s the rundown of what they are and what they’re intended to do.

the-ellis-school-3d-printing-explorer-360x360At their core, badges are a digital way to document learning that happens outside of school—a way to document and show the world (and potential employers one day) what you know and how you came to know it. Or, as Taiji Nelson, naturalist educator at the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy who issued badges to students this summer, put it: “It’s like scout badges meet LinkedIn.”

Last summer badges hit the mainstream in new ways, through several City of Learning programs across the country, including here in Pittsburgh. Cities of Learning knit together many out-of-school learning opportunities for kids, ranging from programs in museums to pop-up fashion shows.

Badges were an integral part of at least three cities’ programs last summer, including Los Angeles, Dallas, and Chicago. In Pittsburgh, about 3,000 children participated in 20 programs that offered 71 distinct badges. Youth earned approximately 1,800 badges by summer’s end.

pittsburgh-parks-conservancy-beginner-tree-id-360x360“Right now grades belong to the institution, your institution issues your transcript,” said Cathy Lewis-Long in a recent interview, “Whereas with badges, a learner can earn badges throughout a city.

It’s not only Cities of Learning that are rolling out badges. For several years now, organizations as varied as NASA; the University of California, Davis; the National 4-H Council; the Manufacturing Institute; and the Department of Veteran Affairs have been using badges.

Yet, although the roster is impressive, badges have not quite hit prime time yet.

Bumps in the Road

Badges have had their share of bumps along the road, including challenges with infrastructure in the Cities of Learning programs. Badges have also been met with a few raised eyebrows among the digital learning cognoscenti, like Henry Jenkins and Mitch Resnick.

techshop-pittsburgh-maker-mindset-311x360Some of the reservations are insightful and challenging. Do badges, for example, risk becoming nothing more than an empty “achievement selfie” for kids, chronicling every achievement but stripping the intrinsic joy from learning? Resnick, for one, equated badges to those who climb the Appalachian Trail to earn “peaking” cred (attaining as many peaks as possible on a day), which seems to miss the point of being on the trail in the first place.

Others, like Jenkins, worry that adult-proffered badges kill the quasi-subversive joy of informal learning—“no adults allowed!”—especially in this already overscheduled, blue-ribboned world.

Others wonder, do we really need yet another credential to join certifications, nanodegrees, microcredentials, licenses, points, Scout badges, and more?

All of this is to be expected when a new model tries to establish itself (“disrupt,” if you must) amid an established way of doing things—aka grades or resumés.

Part of the criticism also stems from the “open” in Open Badges. As of yet, there’s not a lot of clear structure to earning badges. Kids can earn and showcase badges from a variety of stand-alone sources—a museum here, a YMCA there—and for a variety of skills and talents. But few organizations as of yet have created a series of badges that build on one another across the different organizations.

Photo/Ben Filio

2014 Open Badges Summit to Reconnect Learning. Photo/Ben Filio

Paving a Way Forward

Pittsburgh may have a solution. In addition to piloting badges through the City of Learning initiative,The Sprout Fund has recruited about 120 educators and subject matter experts across seven different focus areas, such as Making, coding, STEAM, or career-readiness. Like curriculum designers in schools, these working groups are developing a shared set of competencies for learning outside of school, or “learning pathways.” The working groups are also developing which artifacts kids need to create to prove mastery, like an audio recording to earn a badge in digital recording.

Afterschool providers across the region could conceivably use these competencies for awarding badges, and to identify gaps in programming where essential competencies or skills are not currently being offered in programs.

As Ryan Coon, program officer at the Sprout Fund, explained, “In a way, we’re asking them to think like curriculum designers in schools. The process is also helping some of these smaller providers professionalize their planning and offerings. It’s helping them set goals for the kids and for their own programs.”

RMLDC  Remix BadgeBadges could help to make these pathways clear. Kids can earn badges as they progress along the curriculum that the working groups have created, and organizations can sharpen their thinking about what kids should learn in their programs and how.

Marijke Hecht, director of education at Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, which has created five badges for their Young Naturalists summer program, said that the process of issuing badges has helped them better understand their mission. Hecht said badging helped push her and her colleagues to narrow in program delivery, goals, and how to best evaluate student learning.

“The benefit was that it encouraged us to look really closely at the learning goals that we had for this out-of-school experience,” Hecht said. “When we do our school programs, we go through a lot of depth in tying lesson plans to state standards. But with informal learning, you don’t always have to do that. This pushed us to go a little deeper on criteria.”

For Hecht and others starting to dabble in badges, there’s still some work to be done to make badges easier to use and understand.

“We need people thinking about where do these things live and how do they get communicated. I really hope that gets cleared up, because I think there’s so much potential with badges. I think our kids would really like there to be clear recognition for the kinds of things they do out of school.”

Kathleen Costanza contributed to this story.

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What’s Behind the Fears About Student Privacy in the Digital Age? Wed, 10 Dec 2014 01:02:02 +0000 ClassDojo, a popular app that teachers use to track students’ behavior and to reward or reprimand them accordingly, made the news recently because of student privacy issues. The program, like dozens of others in the $7.9 billion educational technology industry, gathers a trove a data often on very young kids’ behaviors and habits.

This particular app does not sell or share the data it collects, and shortly after the app appeared in the New York Times, the company changed its policy so that the information in its system is automatically deleted after a year. But such protocol is the exception among its peers, whose vague or nonexistent privacy policies—which were documented in a recent study by the Center on Law and Information Policy (CLIP) at Fordham School of Law—can attach labels to students that may follow them for years.

At this point, the worries are largely speculative, as data collection practices are a fairly new phenomenon. But the fears of data gathering and sharing seem to point to something more basic: the resulting power dynamic. Who has access to information about whom? Who is being watched, who is vulnerable, and who can profit from others’ vulnerability?

Most commonly, privacy advocates worry that kids’ information will be sold for commercial purposes. Services like—a website that tells students which scholarships they may be eligible for based on the personal information they share—have received attention for selling the often sensitive data they’ve collected, including information on students’ sexual orientations, to third parties eager to market to that demographic.

But the concern when it comes to data brokering is not relegated to the commercial realm. As discussed in a New York Times op-ed, data brokers have been known to sell demographic and personal information—such as the kind collected by some educational technology—to property managers, lenders, insurance companies, and employers who could potentially discriminate against a particular group.

Not all data collectors have ulterior motives. Schools and parents simply need policies that help them figure out whom to trust, explained CLIP’s Joel Reidenberg, a law professor at Fordham, in the Boston Globe.

“There are companies out there with very laudable goals about what they are trying to accomplish for improving education, and then there are companies whose practices and goals are first and foremost their financial gain,” he said.

Recently, some states and districts have begun to establish privacy policies to prevent the release or exploitation of student data. (The 1974 federal law that aims to protect student data, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, was not written for the digital age.)

A new California law is the widest reaching: It prohibits the sale or commercial use of any student information, from web searches to biographical information.

Throughout the country, approximately 30 other bills focusing on different risks attached to student data have been passed this year. Some states now prohibit school districts from even gathering certain sensitive information, such as students’ religious beliefs or medical data. Others have new transparency measures that disclose the nature of the data that districts and private companies collect. School districts themselves can create their own policies instating automatic data deletion—or parental notification or consent.

But parents and ed-tech advocates may wonder: Is the relinquishing of some privacy an appropriate price to pay for enhanced digital learning? After all, student data can be hugely beneficial—for teachers who want to tailor lessons to their students’ individual needs and for districts that may use the information to find out which resources and services a campus could use.

Most of these efforts are not intended to curb the collection of information. In most cases, privacy advocates simply want to ensure that the appropriate protections are in place so schools and students can comfortably and safely take full advantage of the wealth of technological resources out there.

After the California law passed, James Steyer, CEO and founder of Common Sense Media, a major advocate of the law, told the New York Times, “You can’t have an education technology revolution without strong privacy protections for students. Parents, teachers and kids can now feel confident that students’ personal information can be used only for educational achievement.”

Others say transparency is the solution. That’s the idea behind MyData, the federal government initiative that will give students and parents access to all the data that is collected about them through the years, from test scores to financial aid information.

Although educators and families are grappling with important questions about appropriate privacy protection, efforts like this aim to empower students without stopping the services that help them.

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A Look Back at Learning Remade in 2014 Fri, 05 Dec 2014 19:00:33 +0000 2014 was a year of increased depth and reach for the Kids+Creativity Network—in schools, in communities, and among our region’s leadership. As a collaborative, connected network, our potential to provide all children and youth with remarkable learning is greater than ever.

We’ve collected a sampling of some of the Network’s accomplishments this year 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.

Download the 2014 Kids+Creativity Year-in-Review recap (PDF, 1.4MB)


The year began with a string of hands-on learning spaces opening up where students can flex their creative muscles while also developing important technical skills:

We welcomed a new network member in January as Rick Fernandes became the new executive director of the Fred Rogers Center at Saint Vincent College, bringing his years of experience producing children’s media to bear in leading the center into its second decade.

In February, Sprout hosted the Summit to Reconnect Learning in Silicon Valley with the support of the MacArthur Foundation.

The event brought together nearly 300 participants from around the world—including more than 20 Pittsburghers—to work together on setting the course for the next evolution of Open Badges as digital credentials for learning.

The summit laid a foundation for the ongoing development of an infrastructure for digital badges in Pittsburgh, something we will continue to work on in 2015.

Also in February, the Pittsburgh Technology Council, in partnership with Carnegie Mellon University, released a report on Pittsburgh’s creative industries and the people who are contributing their creativity and innovation to Pittsburgh’s ongoing transformation.

Among the report’s findings was the exciting fact that Pittsburgh’s creative industry clusters are growing at a faster annual pace than the national economy.

This fact should challenge us to make sure that as those creative sector jobs continue to grow, we do all that we can to prepare the region’s youth with the skills and competencies they’ll need to thrive in the creative economy.


Conference season kicked into high gear in the spring, and Pittsburgh was well represented coast-to-coast.

Several Kids+Creativity Network members attended SXSWedu in early March, including representatives Sprout, The Grable Foundation, The Children’s Museum, The Saxifrage School, Carnegie Mellon University, and Elizabeth Forward School District.

More than 20 Kids+Creativity Network members attended the Digital Media & Learning Conference in Boston. Several network members had presenting roles, including:

Michelle King from the Environmental Charter School joined a panel organized by Working Examples about building a connected learning community with MacArthur Foundation Director of Education Connie Yowell.

And most exciting of all— four students from South Fayette High School presented their STEAM Studio Model for Innovation, one of only a few panels that included students.

Pittsburgh was also heavily featured at Beyond Screen Time, an event hosted by the New America Foundation exploring new understandings about the role of digital media in the lives and learning of young children.

Illah Nourbakhsh from the CREATE Lab and Michelle Figlar from PAEYC both participated in panel discussions, while Melissa Butler, Jeremy Boyle, and Junlei Li led a demonstration of the Children & Teachers’ Innovation Project.

Also in March, the Remake Learning Digital Corps launched its first deployment, matching trained digital literacy mentors with host sites throughout Allegheny County. Over the course of the year, the program reached more than 500 youth at 25 afterschool sites in neighborhoods and communities throughout the region, providing free and fun digital literacy learning opportunities and filling a much needed gap in out-of-school time learning.

In April, Pittsburgh became the first US city to be awarded a Disruptive Innovation Award at the Tribeca Innovation Festival in New York City. The award recognized the leadership of Kids+Creativity in creating more creative and innovative learning opportunities for youth in the region.

While in New York, Kids+Creativity members Gregg Behr, Drew Davidson, Michelle King and I presented a special panel at the Games 4 Change Festival presenting our approach to building a regional learning network to a national audience.

Also this spring, local school students collaborated with some of the region’s leading institutions on some amazing project-based learning programs.

Students at Avonworth High School worked with art professionals from the Andy Warhol Museum, the Pittsburgh Glass Center, the Toonseum, the Carnegie Museum of Art, and the Mattress Factory to curate and produce their own exhibition of contemporary student art on their school campus.

Students at Winchester Thurston contributed their insights to urban design projects underway in Hazelwood and Oakland.

In celebration of the month of the young child, and to get people excited to play in the sunshine again, the Playful Pittsburgh Collaborative hosted the Ultimate Play Day. The outdoor event attracte more than 400 people to experience the joys and benefits of play in Schenley Plaza.

And in celebration of Pittsburgh’s homegrown creativity and innovation, the Pittsburgh Technology Council hosted the 2014 Creative Technologies Summit and DATA Awards.

Pittsburgh’s innovative potential was on display at the White House Science Fair as well where local high school student Ananya Cleetus showcased a robotic prosthetic hand she designed and built to aid leprosy patients. That’s truly a remarkable accomplishment for one of our region’s students.


In June, the Fred Rogers Center hosted the biennial Fred Forward Conference on early childhood education and children’s media.

A notable addition to this year’s event were Fred Chats, which gave young people a chance to give fifteen-minute talks inspired by the innovative spirit, passion and values of Fred Rogers.

The young Fred Chatters offered a great insight into where learning is now headed as they themselves become the educators and parents of the next generation of early learners

Also in June, regional leaders came together as the Remake Learning Council, bringing a new level of leadership and vision to this work.

The Institute of Play returned to Pittsburgh again this summer, partnering with the Center for Creativity at the AIU to host Teacher Quest, a week-long program where teachers become designers and imagine how teaching and learning can be more like games.

This summer, Pittsburgh joined Chicago, Los Angeles, and Dallas as a City of Learning, pairing summer learning opportunities with digital badges in ways that allow learners to think about, pursue, and develop their interests.

Almost 3,000 youth participated in programs offered by 20 local organizations like the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, the Carnegie Science Center, and Goodwill Industries, with 1,800 badges earned by students demonstrating new knowledge, skills, and dispositions.

Pittsburgh City of Learning culminated in August at the Pittsburgh Maker Party, a day of free hands-on building, tinkering, and webmaking for more than 200 children and youth.

Pittsburgh’s Maker Party was part of the global Maker Party campaign led by Mozilla. Network members also hosted several mini-maker parties in neighborhoods throughout the region.

At the end of August, Sprout partnered with Digital Promise and the U.S. Department of Education to host the Education Innovation Cluster Convening in Pittsburgh, welcoming people from a dozen different regions across the country to discuss strategies to create and nurture education innovation clusters.


In September, Sprout convened Badges Working Groups to identify competencies, assessments and model pathways in 7 areas: Coding & Gaming, Design & Making, Media Making, Robotics, STEAM, Early Learning, and Career Readiness.

Representing more than 100 local subject matter experts, teachers, program managers, and other professionals, the working groups are laying the foundation for the meaningful use of digital badges to recognize and credential learning wherever and whenever it happens.

This fall also saw some impressive examples of local youth talent:

  • At the STEAM Grant Showcase, students from 25 school districts, accompanied by their teachers, demonstrated how they’re using new technologies and media tools to produce creative, cross-curricular projects during the school day.
  • And at the Teen Media Awards, affectionately known as the Labsies, teens were recognized for their creativity and hard work in the Labs at CLP with awards for music, design, video, making, and photography.

At the World Maker Faire at the New York Hall of Science, network members joined the Hive Learning Networks tent where they taught kids how to build robots using the Hummingbird kits.

Back in Pittsburgh, Connected Learning researcher Mimi Ito delivered a lecture at Pitt on the ways digital media and technology are changing the ways children learn and connect with their peers, and the potential to make the most of this new paradigm to enhance learning and engagement.

Fall also saw the return of two important regional conferences:

Educators in our network received some prestigious recognition this fall:

And just two weeks ago, more than 400 people, including more than 100 students and 36 school districts, participated in the Pittsburgh Learning Pathways Summit.

At the event, participants explored opportunities to connect in-school and out-of-school learning and digital badges to create new learning pathways connecting more students to real-world opportunity.

Looking Ahead

Of course, these are just a few of the highlights to give you a sense of what we’ve accomplished together. If I had to sum up Kids+Creativity’s work in 2014, I’d say it was the year of more.

We saw more school transformations:

We also saw more innovative learning during out-of-school time.

  • The Digital Corps brought new digital literacy opportunities to youth throughout Allegheny County and empowered afterschool providers with enhanced professional in digital teaching and learning.
  • The Labs at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh took its show on the road with Labs On Location, helping to expand digital programming for teens at each of its neighborhood branches.
  • The MAKESHOP also went mobile and expanded its hands-on, creative and constructive activities to schools, libraries, and museums throughout the region.

And at the network level, we saw more commitment to this work by our region’s leaders with the formation of the Remake Learning Council, a cadre of distinguished leaders from the education, government, business and civic sectors.

After nearly three years of formalizing the Kids+Creativity Network, together we have built a solid foundation and are poised to leverage the strength and connectedness of the network to make the most of these opportunities in 2015 and beyond.

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Making Pittsburgh Playful Thu, 04 Dec 2014 18:10:57 +0000 Last February, a group called the Playful Pittsburgh Collaborative hosted its second community conversation at the Carnegie Museum of Art. The topic? The role of risk in children’s play. And although it was the dead of winter, more than 300 people registered for the event

It took the collaborative by surprise.

“This was the community conversation that surprised us the most,” said Cara Ciminillo, operations director at the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children (PAEYC). “It was such a thought provoking conversation starter that you really pulled in lots of people.”

The conversation drew educators, parents, city officials, nonprofit organizations, and even two grocery store owners who wanted to know what their role could be in supporting play in their neighborhoods.

Indeed, the conversation was thought provoking. But it’s only part of a wider discussion happening in Pittsburgh and throughout the country on the importance of play for children’s development and the roles of cities in creating more opportunities for kids to play.

“Since about 1955, children’s free play has been continually declining,” wrote psychologist Peter Gray, “at least partly because adults have exerted ever-increasing control over children’s activities.”

One study found that since the late 1970s, kids have lost 12 hours of free time per week. They’ve also experienced a 25 percent decrease in play and spend half as much time doing unstructured outdoor activities. This decrease comes from all sorts of overlapping factors: overscheduled afterschool hours, more screen time, and—after No Child Left Behind—an increased emphasis on academic skill development (in lieu of activities like art, pretend play, and recess) at ever-younger ages.

But play today is more important than ever. In addition to building necessary social and emotional skills, experts say play naturally fosters the types of skills needed for 21st-century learning—problem solving, creativity, self-regulation, and collaboration.

The organizations that make up the Playful Pittsburgh Collaborative are harnessing their resources to educate and advocate for play throughout the city—in public spaces, in schools, and at home.

Collaborating for Play

The idea for a collaborative fist started in the early spring of 2013, just after construction workers outside the Carnegie Museum of Art installed the last piece of a long, orange tube that twists and turns and overlaps itself.

Called the Lozziwurm, the opening of the Swiss play sculpture kick-started a relationship between the museum and PAEYC. Eventually, 11 other groups joined, including the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh and the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.

The play collaborative is drawing on the resources and partnerships of Pittsburgh’s learning innovation ecosystem—a large network of schools, museums, libraries, afterschool programs, higher education institutions, the private sector, and the philanthropic community working together in specific ways to support learning opportunities for kids throughout the community.

“We’re all able to support our individual goals without any mission drift at all—that’s very unusual,” said Marijke Hecht, director of education for the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. “Play is the kind of topic that crosses many sectors.”

Hecht said each group in the collaborative speaks to a different audience and can advocate for play in different circles. But work with the collaborative has informed each individual group’s work as well.

For example, the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, a local nonprofit with expertise in working with Pittsburgh’s Department of Public Works, is in the middle of building a new environmental center at Frick Park. Part of the agreement reached with the city is that it will also manage the surrounding 115 acres.

“I think we have a real opportunity to look at where we can do some small-scale interventions in the park for natural play spaces,” Hecht said. Rather than a playground, Hecht and the conservancy are planning to rearrange natural materials in the park to create more opportunities for visitors to play. As families walk the paths, they might be able to balance on a log or hang from a sturdy branch.

“Some of these things happen naturally,” Hecht said, “but we have the opportunity in a park, which is a designed landscape, to make these more deliberate.”

Play Everywhere

The collaborative knows that for play to reach all kids, it has to be integrated into everyday life—not only at play “destinations” like playgrounds or museums, which take planning, packing, and driving to get to. (Plus, only one in five kids in the United States lives within walking distance of a park of playground.) In 2015, the collaborative is planning programming in the Hazelwood neighborhood to “activate” a new playground and other underused play opportunities.

Some national experts believe work like this could be key to making sure families stay in urban areas. National nonprofit Kaboom! recently released a report that found playful cities are more walkable, workable, and family friendly. In Chicago, 80 percent of business owners near “People Spots,” or parking spaces transformed into mini parks, said the spots brought more foot traffic.

With so much vacant space left from Pittsburgh’s population decrease, Hecht said Pittsburgh has a unique opportunity to keep play in mind as the city moves forward in figuring out how to redevelop these parcels.

“Because we’re a city that’s lost so much population, we have a lot of vacancy, and a lot of underused green space,” Hecht said. “We’re just thinking about how the idea of play everywhere fits into our open space plan.”

But before more widespread interventions can take root in the city, PAEYC’s Ciminillo says they’ve realized the very meaning of play needs to be reframed.

“We know there’s a segment of our work that needs to be about just educating around the word ‘play,’” Ciminillo said. And as of now, she says too many people think of it as frivolous and siloed off from anything truly beneficial for learning. “We know people see it as a luxury, and not as an inherent part of people’s lives.”

At the same time, so much discussion happening in education reform relates to the types of skills play fosters. Innovation? Problem solving? Risk taking? Ciminillo said learning advocates constantly talk about the skills that play naturally lends itself to—they just don’t use the word “play.”

“We sort of said, ‘Should we just not use the world play?’” she said. “But we all were like, ‘No! We’re using the word play. We’re taking back play. It’s ok!’”

To highlight the deep benefits of play, last April the collaborative hosted an Ultimate Play Day at Schenley Plaza and the Carnegie Museum of Art. The day’s activities were carefully designed to make them easy for parents to replicate at home.

Kids and their families could be found digging around in buckets filled with pine cones and wood, painting on the street with washable paint, and chasing giant cardboard soccer balls. Here’s to hoping it was only the first of many play days ahead.


Homepage screenshot/ Carnegie Museum of Art

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End of Cell Phone Bans in Class Opens New Possibilities for Learning Tue, 02 Dec 2014 05:17:05 +0000 Traditionally, cell phones have been the bane of teachers’ existences. Even with bans and threats of consequences for using cell phones, students have developed an arsenal of tactics for maintaining access to their devices during class: They peek at them under desks, text without looking at the screens, and pretend to rummage around in their backpacks while checking their messages.

In New York, such covert cell phone use will soon be unnecessary. The city’s disposal of its stringent cell phone ban in its 1,800 public schools (the School District of Philadelphia has a more nuanced policy) is partially a simple acknowledgment that cell phones are here to stay.

It’s also a whole new educational horizon.

Many teachers nationwide have already been experimenting with innovative and productive—and fun—ways of integrating mobile phones into the classroom. Several educational apps and programs are designed for this purpose. Some, like Socrative and Poll Everywhere, are tools for in-class polls and quizzes with nifty features for displaying and analyzing results. Others, like Remind and Celly, help teachers communicate with students through classroom-specific social networks or scheduled text messages prompting students to complete assignments.

And cell phones are naturally creative implements. They can inexpensively film, photograph, and record.

Craig Watkins, professor of media studies at the University of Texas at Austin, argued that using new technology in schools is especially important for black and Latino youth, who—research shows—are more likely than any other group to go online via a mobile phone or use new social networking tools like Twitter. But, Watkins said that although these teens use mobile phones as social, recreational, and entertainment devices, they need help viewing their mobile phones, cameras, and iPods as learning devices and as “tools for critical citizenship and engagement in their communities.”

Jose L. Vilson, an eighth-grade math teacher in Washington Heights, told the New York Times he often asked students to use their phones for projects in class.

“Why would you limit kids from having access to technology that could perhaps enhance their learning?” Banning phones “just keeps pushing the disparity forward,” he said.

This philosophy has given rise to BYOT (bring your own technology) programs in some schools, which we’ve written about in the past. BYOT means students can bring a phone, a tablet, or a computer—whatever they’re comfortable with—to use in class on a given assignment.

And, as Watkins notes, afterschool programs and community groups are in many ways leading this charge, helping kids use their mobile devices in ways they can learn from.

So how can educators devise new mobile-positive curricula and policies while keeping in mind the circumstances that gave rise to phone bans in the first place?

There are, undoubtedly, risks, including cyberbullying and opportunities for theft. And there is certainly potential for distraction—but some research shows that cell phones can actually increase classroom participation, particularly among shy students.

This summer, we wrote about how educators were using KQED’s “Do Now” program to discuss social issues in real time on Twitter, helping young people build critical civic engagement and digital literacy skills.

As more schools experiment with mobile use, we’ll figure out the kinds of rules and limitations needed to ensure safety and privacy, and more teachers will continue to discover how the technology does or doesn’t work in their classrooms.

But in an educational environment where one-half of the nation’s high school students already carry smartphones, it’s time to pursue creative and positive ways to incorporate the inevitable into the classroom.



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How Libraries Help Families Encourage Learning Outside of School Wed, 26 Nov 2014 05:37:10 +0000 Education equals schools—right or wrong? That deceptively simple question kicked off the Harvard Family Research Project (HFRP) web conference on October 15. “Creating a Conversation About Anywhere, Anytime Learning” was the second installment of HFRP Interact, a yearlong series that explores family engagement in the context of out-of-school learning.

As the host, Heather Weiss—HFRP founder and director—asked panelists with expertise in education and digital media for their thoughts on ways to provide children with meaningful learning opportunities outside the classroom.

Traditional schooling is still important, but according to Weiss, the data increasingly show that learning doesn’t begin and end with a ringing school bell. Kids also learn through extracurricular activities, cultural institutions, health and wellness programs, and especially the internet.

Parents play a huge role in shaping kids’ out-of-school learning opportunities. “You’d be hard-pressed to find a parent or a caregiver who doesn’t want amazing, wonderful opportunities for their children,” said panelist Gregg Behr, executive director at the Grable Foundation.

Unfortunately, not all families have equal access to those opportunities. Panelist Terri Ferinde Dunham, who leads the National Network of Statewide Afterschool Networks, noted that higher-income parents outspend their lower-income peers 8:1 on outside-of-school activities, mainly because they have the disposable income to do so. Low-income families seek extracurricular options for their children, but cost and transportation obstacles often stand in the way. Currently, fewer than one-third of US children have access to afterschool programs, Dunham said.

Parents also need help creating a pathway for their children to follow their interests and passions and to bridge what they learn in and out of school. In Pittsburgh, for example, the Kids+Creativity Network is working to help parents find those paths. The 200 organizations and 2,000 people in the network are coordinating their efforts to make sure that kids who have a passion for robotics, spoken word, or computer coding can be challenged and guided to more advanced learning opportunities as their skills develop.

Behr talked about this pathway at the Harvard event, noting the important role of mentors as “tour guides” and supports for this anytime, anywhere learning.

To help guide kids, “We’ve placed fellows in the Carnegie libraries of Pittsburgh,” Behr said. “They have some makerspaces in the libraries, and those individuals know well the other maker opportunities in the community. So, if a child interested in ‘making’ visits the Northside branch of the Carnegie library, just down the street is the Makeshop at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. Making those handoffs happen between institutions and supporting parents and caregivers to build upon the learning interests of their kids is critical.”

Libraries, in fact, are an important resource for families. Libraries have been engaging teens for decades, and now many are on the leading edge of reaching today’s kids where their interests lie. Often that means with digital media.

YOUmedia, teen-focused learning spaces that opened at the Chicago Public Library in 2009, is one of the more cutting-edge efforts. The library devoted a large space just for teens to work with the latest digital media tools. The teens can mix music in the sound studio, produce podcasts of video game reviews, put visuals to their favorite books, and create documentaries of their lives. At the Labs at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, the city’s teens can head to local library branches to make robots or try out instruments with local musicians. YOUmedia spaces have spread to more than two dozen cities.

“That’s not the traditional view of libraries or museums,” Amy Eshleman, who led the team that created these spaces, told Remake Learning last year. “But this is the way folks learn now: they work collaboratively, iterate, show work they’ve done, try and fail and try again.”

Anywhere, anytime learning isn’t a new concept for libraries, panelist Lori Takeuchi pointed out. Libraries have always been interested in extending learning opportunities for community members. Along with updating libraries for the 21st century, it’s important to strengthen links between libraries and other community institutions—and to simply put the word out.

You can watch Creating a Conversation About Anywhere, Anytime Learning in the Harvard Family Research Project media archive and hear more from Gregg Behr of the Grable Foundation, Terri Ferinde Dunham of National Network of Statewide Afterschool Networks, Lori Takeuchi of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, and Heather B. Weiss of the Harvard Family Research Project.

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Perspectives on Learning Pathways Tue, 25 Nov 2014 18:43:42 +0000 Written by Margaret J. Krauss, Photography by Kristi Jan Hoover

On Friday, November 21st the Sprout Fund hosted the Pittsburgh Learning Pathways Summit, a town hall meeting where teachers, students, mentors, and others gathered to explore ways to connect in-school and out-of-school learning experiences and create new pathways to opportunity for students in the greater Pittsburgh region.

Learning pathways are sort of like ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ books, except that instead of deciding which chapter to jump to next, students move along a learning pathway choosing from a variety of educational experiences that appeal to their interests and enable them to acquire skills and competencies that lead to future academic and career opportunities.

The creation of such a system of learning pathways in Pittsburgh would allow school teachers and out-of-school educators to help students navigate an enriched educational landscape brimming with personalized learning opportunities, turning the city into a living campus for learning.

More than 400 teachers, artists, students and learning experts gathered at the Pittsburgh Learning Pathways Summit to exchange ideas and help design new pathways that make best use of the rich educational resources Pittsburgh has to offer, both in school and out. Below you can listen to attendees’ thoughts on learning pathways and what it could mean for the city.

Kristi Jan Hoover

Emmai Alaquiva, Photography by Kristi Jan Hoover

Emmai Alaquiva is the founder and executive director of Hip Hop on L.O.C.K., an arts and mentoring organization that uses music to connect children to real-world learning. He says education has to be flexible and personal.

Kristi Jan Hoover

Maggie Negrete, Photography by Kristi Jan Hoover

Maggie Negrete, a teaching artist for MGR Youth Empowerment, emphasizes the important role mentors play in students’ lives. She says establishing mentorship results too often from chance encounters. Instead of trusting in serendipity, she hopes learning pathways can more effectively connect students to community talent.

Kristi Jan Hoover

Jordan Lippman, Photography by Kristi Jan Hoover

Jordan Lippman struggled with a learning disability throughout his education. Now a psychologist and learning expert, he attributes his academic success to a self-directed high school project that helped shift his education paradigm. He says it is crucial to help students tap into their own agency.

Kristi Jan Hoover

Jamillia Kamara, Photography by Kristi Jan Hoover

Jamillia Kamara, the Training and Learning Manager for Public Allies Pittsburgh and a former classroom teacher, says learning pathways help validate intangible but crucial skills and strengths. In addition, an interconnected system of learning enables teachers to assist students in creating their own visions of success.

Kristi Jan Hoover

Dr. Michael Loughead, Photography by Kristi Jan Hoover

Dr. Michael Loughead is the assistant superintendent for South Fayette School District. By challenging students to find solutions for real-world problems, he says a new educational ecosystem will dramatically increase engagement and has the potential to transform the city.

Kristi Jan Hoover

Taiji Nelson, Photography by Kristi Jan Hoover

Taiji Nelson is familiar with ecosystems. As an environmental educator for the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, Nelson says he’s less concerned with the jobs that his students may choose to pursue and more interested in creating people who see themselves as part of a larger community.

Thanks again to everyone who participated at the Pittsburgh Learning Pathways Summit! We collected so many great stories and personal reflections on learning and life. Stay tuned as the story continues on

If you couldn’t make it to the Summit, catch up with the conversation via Storify!

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Pittsburgh School Leaders Honored at The White House for Technology Integration Mon, 24 Nov 2014 18:15:01 +0000 Superintendents from Avonworth, Elizabeth Forward, and South Fayette school districts were invited to the White House’s ConnectED to the Future summit last Wednesday. They were among 110 superintendents recognized for their schools’ technology integration.

Superintendents Bart Rocco (Elizabeth Forward), Bille Pearce Rondinelli (South Fayette), and Thomas Ralston (Avonworth) at the White House.

The invite probably isn’t a surprise to anyone familiar with the districts’ work. We’ve written before about Elizabeth Forward’s Entertainment Technology Academy and its SMALLLab, where motion capture cameras and sensors let kids act out math and science problems with their bodies. Meanwhile, in the South Fayette Township School District, students are learning the building blocks of computer programming with Scratch. And in Avonworth’s school library, shared by the middle school and high school, students have a permanent maker lab.

But nationally, there’s a struggle to get the majority of schools and homes hooked into fast internet connections—much less integrate meaningful, cutting-edge technology into the curriculum. As President Obama pointed out at the summit, only four of every 10 schools have high-speed internet in their classrooms.

“In a country where we expect free Wi-Fi with our coffee, the least we can do is expect that our schools are properly wired,” Obama said. “We have to bring the world to every child’s fingertips.”

The White House’s multifaceted initiative to narrow this gap, called ConnectEd, aims to connect 99 percent of students to broadband by 2017. It involves funding from the Federal Communications Commission and several unprecedented public-private partnerships from companies like Apple and AT&T.

But that goal can’t be met without superintendents on board, because they’re critical in allocating funding for technology, staff, or new programs. After Obama’s address, the superintendents in attendance joined thousands of others in signing the Future Ready District Pledge, which asks them to prioritize access to high-speed internet and digital devices, as well as support for educators integrating them.

Bart Rocco, Elizabeth Forward School District superintendent, is going even further. As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported, Rocco is helping the White House by bringing together superintendents throughout the region for a meeting in Pittsburgh next summer where they’ll learn and strategize together. The Obama administration is planning 11 similar meetings in other regions.

“So often school administrations are reacting and following directives from the state or federal government. But we need to be more involved like we were today,” Rocco told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Superintendents can drive this. That’s the power of this movement.”

Of course, superintendents are an important factor in driving change. But any educator knows there’s no magic button for seamless technology integration.

In Pittsburgh, the superintendents who represented their schools at the White House are only three important pieces in a much larger effort to remake learning throughout the city. Here and nationally, integrating technology meaningfully takes a community effort from teachers, parents, principals, librarians, informal learning spaces, and many more.


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Digital Badges Give Credit Where Credit Is Due Wed, 19 Nov 2014 19:17:25 +0000 Teens—especially in Pittsburgh—have tons of opportunities to learn outside of school. They can make music with digital tools, experiment with circuitry, and program LED lights. With the help of mentors and others, they expand their horizons and learn new skills, while no doubt benefiting their schoolwork.

Yet most of that out-of-school learning goes undocumented. So how can we track which skills kids pick up when they’re away from the classroom? And once they’ve mastered those skills, how can we get better at helping kids build on them?

Educators and students will explore these questions and more on November 21 at the Pittsburgh Learning Pathways Summit. They will gather with librarians, artists, and researchers to explore innovative concepts, like digital badges and connected learning pathways, as a continued step in connecting in- and out-of-school learning.

A main item on the agenda is digital badges—a new way to document the whole gamut of kids’ learning. Badges are digital credentials that let kids document the skills they’ve learned. Because the badges are virtual, they can convey what the badge holder learned in much more detailed fashion. For example, if you want to find out what a badge like “audio production” really entails, you can click on it and read a description of the skills associated with it or hear the song created at various stages of production. Badges can help present out-of-school learning in ways that make universities and companies pay attention. Simply put, they can give young people credit where credit is due.

Digital badges aren’t just an idea. Massive open online courses (MOOCs), high-tech employers, K–12 programs, and more than 40 universities accept them. Even NASA uses them: “There are common skill sets that NASA and other organizations are seeking,” said Leland Melvin, NASA’s former associate administrator for education. “Badging can be used in a cross-cutting way to help learners, educators, and institutions meet the demands of the future.”

Other examples include:

  • TechShop Pittsburgh, which offered a “Maker Mindset” badge this summer that rewarded kids for learning to think like makers. Earning the badge meant the learner had started approaching problems with an engineer mentality while engaging in the entire making process.
  • The Young Adult Library Services developed a badge system to recognize, improve, and enhance the skills of library staff working with teens.
  • The Providence After School Alliance, which formally launched an open badge system that captures and publicly recognizes student learning in arts, STEM, civics, and other subjects. Students can even use badges to earn elective credits toward graduation from Providence public high schools and can include badges as part of their applications to local colleges.

Badges also help adults who design programs for kids. “I was really excited when I found out that this was happening in Pittsburgh,” said Rachel Shepherd in a webinar last summer. Shepherd, the former youth and media program manager at the Steeltown Entertainment Project, explained that badges help her and her colleagues ask themselves what skills they’re ultimately trying to teach.

In a way, adding structure is what badges are all about. Badges can be the breadcrumbs along the pathways of learning, documenting what kids are learning along the way.

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What Does a “Learning Pathway” Really Look Like for a Pittsburgh Kid? Tue, 18 Nov 2014 15:19:25 +0000 We talk a lot about learning networks and pathways on this blog. But we often get asked, “What does a network actually look like? Is it a concrete thing or just an abstract idea?”

In a nutshell, it’s both.

As we approach the Pittsburgh Learning Pathways Summit on November 21, we thought it might be a good time to answer these questions, and describe what we mean by “learning pathway.” A learning pathway is indeed a real thing, but it’s also an idea that guides our work here at Remake Learning. So what does a pathway really look like for a Pittsburgh kid?

Let’s imagine there’s a high school student, and let’s call her Maria. Maria is really into taking pictures and videos on Instagram, so her teacher recommends she check out the YMCA Lighthouse Program. She gets her first exposure to media production, photo editing, and lends a hand on a short film.

Now that she’s got the basic technical know-how down, she decides to work on some of her own footage at The Labs at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. She starts going to open lab hours but ends up sitting in on workshops where she learns about green screens and Adobe After Effects.

At The Labs, Maria discovers Pittsburgh Filmmakers’ Youth Media Program. She and a group of other students work with Super 8 cameras to make a film they feel pretty good about, so they enter it in the Take a Shot film festival from Steeltown Entertainment.

Up until this point, Maria’s films and photos have all been funny narratives. But she’s interested in using film and storytelling for documentaries, which she’s recently begun watching on YouTube. She wonders if there’s a program where she could try that out—and finds just what she’s looking for at Pittsburgh Youth Media.

By this point, Maria’s schoolwork is starting to reflect these new summer and afterschool opportunities. In school she’s connecting coursework to things she’s learned out of school, and she’s even documented some of her new skills with badges. Plus, she’s way into film.

Maria is not alone in finding these connections and outlets. There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes work happening in Pittsburgh to make Maria’s hypothetical pathway a reality. Though it might seem as if she happened upon all these media production opportunities by happenstance, a pathway like this actually takes quite a bit of coordination and work on the part of educators in Pittsburgh, both in and outside of school.

At the Kids+Creativity Network we’re working hard to bring together educators and topic area experts across our region to map out these pathways.

How? Seven working groups have mapped out sets of competencies teens need to know in order to advance in robotics or design, for example. And they’re considering which pathways kids could take to gain those skills. For example, the coding and gaming working group considers which specific skills a young person needs to go from a beginning to an advanced level in game design. The group examines which programs are already in place and asks what’s missing.

Ideally, badges will be little breadcrumbs along these learning pathways. Badges are digital credentials that let kids document the skills they’ve learned. Maria’s already completed the camera fundamentals badge at Steeltown Entertainment. Next step could be digital storytelling at Heinz History Center.

“The approach we’re taking is not to churn out a bunch of badges and hope they connect,” said Cathy Lewis Long, executive director of The Sprout Fund, the nonprofit that’s leading this community effort. “Instead, we’re trying work with potential badge issuers to understand how badges will work within a continuum of in-school and out-of-school learning experiences.”

Every major city has creative afterschool or summer activities. And the idea of connected learning ecosystems, or basically turning cities into big campuses, went national last summer with Cities of Learning in Chicago, Dallas, and Los Angeles.

In Pittsburgh, we’re building on this momentum by helping connect participating organizations so that they’re familiar with the other opportunities out there. That way, program staff can help young people figure out where they can head next to level up their competencies in gaming, media production, robotics, and more.

To us, these pathways are serious business. An education that prepares kids for the ever-changing future should be multi-faceted, full of chances to explore interests and make mistakes. Schools shouldn’t be the only ones responsible for this education, and we envision these pathways running parallel to that experience, each one enriching the other.

“If we’re talking about learning pathways, we’re having a conversation about how learning is a journey, not a destination,” said Anna Smith, a doctoral candidate who researches learning pathways, in a Connected Learning webinar last year. “And I think we’re hyper-focused in education right now on those destination markers. Our curriculum, our standards, our assessments —what counts as learning is being confined by that.”

Sometimes it’s tricky to visualize what all this work with learning pathways looks like on a large scale—thus hypothetical Maria. But it won’t be hard to see the real results from the new pathways kids in Pittsburgh are trailblazing right now.

We’ll have more to report after workshopping these ideas with more than 400 teachers, students, mentors, and others at the Pittsburgh Learning Pathways Summit this Friday. Follow along on Twitter with #LearningPathways for live updates throughout the day.

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The Gap in Sparking STEM Interest Thu, 13 Nov 2014 22:08:27 +0000 When media reports dive into the impending shortage of STEM workers, they often pose the question, “How do we get more kids to pick STEM majors, and stick with them?” Better qualified teachers, more hands-on learning, and earlier introduction are all tossed around as potential pieces to a solution.

But there’s another aspect to the pipeline of workers heading into STEM fields: Low-income kids, who make up almost one-half of US public school students, too often are shortchanged on STEM classes.

There’s also a startling gap between the quality and availability of STEM courses between schools with a large population of minority students and those without. Only 65 percent of high schools with large minority populations offer Algebra II, compared with 82 percent of high schools with small minority populations, according to the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

Only three in 10 African American students who are likely to succeed in advanced-placement math—a gateway to engineering careers—take the course. This disparity stems from both a lack of both education access and personal confidence, according to Change the Equation.

There’s also a disparity between STEM education in rural and urban or suburban areas. The Carsey Institute found that suburban and urban schools offer, on average, three to four more advanced mathematics classes than rural schools do.

“Rather than trying to squeeze a few more STEM students from populations that can already choose STEM if they want to, perhaps policymakers should focus even more on giving currently underserved populations the ability to make a STEM choice in the first place,” wrote Andrew J. Rotherham, cofounder of Bellwether Education Partners.

Some groups and schools are working to close the gap. McKinley Technology Education Campus in Washington, D.C., offers specialized classes in biotechnology, engineering, information technology, and mass media technology with a hands-on, project-based curriculum. The high school is a Title I STEM magnet school, with approximately 6 of every 10 students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch.

As Nathan Saunders, president of the Washington Teachers’ Union, told PBS Newshour in a story on McKinley, it’s all about familiarity: Offer a STEM class and students can begin to imagine a future in science, engineering, or math.

Based here in Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon’s CREATE Lab expands access to STEM courses for low-income and rural areas with its satellite locations throughout West Virginia. To date, it has partnered with three universities to reach 47 schools in the region, one-half of which have majority low-income student bodies.

One of those satellite locations is the June Harless Center, which brings CREATE technology and training to rural teachers. This summer, the center also hosted three Arts & Bots camps in Mingo County where kids built moving, blinking robots with juice bottles and paper-towel rolls.

We wrote about Mingo Central Comprehensive High School last year, which is in the heart of a region that’s been hit hard by the recession and the decline of the coal industry. By partnering with the CREATE Lab, students in the area are exposed to cutting-edge learning materials like GigaPan cameras and Arts & Bots curriculum.

“It’s tough to show the kids, ‘Hey, you’re going to use this somewhere,’ when they’ve never seen that job,” Richard Duncan, Mingo County STEM coordinator, told me in January. “That’s why we’ve been pulling on the CREATE Lab and our other partners, because we want the kids to see what else is going on outside of this area.”

As we build up the pipeline of future STEM candidates, it will remain critical that we don’t inadvertently shut a door on any child’s future.


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Youth Make Media for Community Change Wed, 12 Nov 2014 00:09:41 +0000 Bullying, prejudice, and identity: They’re touchy topics, but the Hear Me project has plenty of experience tackling them with grace. The project, an initiative of the CREATE Lab at Carnegie Mellon University, helps young people share their stories, opinions, and experiences through media. Last Saturday, the organization brought teens, artists, activists, and other community members together for the Media Empowerment Student Summit (MESS), which took place at Carnegie Mellon.

“The goal of the summit was really to try to bring youth who are interested in media leadership advocacy into one space for at least one day—to connect them to each other, and connect them to adults, resources, and allies,” said Jessica Pachuta, Hear Me project codirector.

Pachuta emphasized that although Hear Me was the summit’s main organizer, MESS wasn’t the “Hear Me summit,” per se—it was a community-wide event. Partners included the Environmental Charter School, the University of Pittsburgh, the Youth Media Advocacy Project, Teens 4 Change, Duquesne University, and others.

Hear Me has plenty of experience bringing community members together to listen to kids. In one campaign, Hear Me recorded kids and teens talking about their perceptions of police officers and featured their stories in “tin can” kiosks around Pittsburgh. When Mayor Bill Peduto began searching for his next police chief, the first community voices he heard came from seven of those campaign participants, who met with him for a roundtable. In other projects, young people recorded messages to incarcerated parents, talked about school climate, and expressed their thoughts on food security. The recordings are available on the Hear Me website.

The summit gave teens the chance to learn about the ins and outs of launching media-based projects. Much of the summit focused on helping participants build practical skills. Hear Me tapped nonprofits, experts, and young people in the region to organize various sessions on making media. The day kicked off with an audio workshop led by the Saturday Light Brigade, a Pittsburgh nonprofit that tells the stories of young people and families through radio and audio. Additional workshops taught attendees about making animations and using social media, and a panel of professional filmmakers wrapped up the summit.

But the summit had an additional goal: helping young people discuss the kinds of topics they might use media to address. At workshops, teens discussed stereotyping, race, and youth rights in the education system.

Pachuta said media is the number one tool young people turn to when they’re thinking about becoming advocates. A study by the MacArthur Research Network on Youth and Participatory Politics found that 41 percent of young people had engaged in “participatory politics” in the 12 months before they’d been surveyed. Teens are participating by joining online political groups, sharing blog posts about political issues, and sending political videos to their peers.

“Anyone who cares about democracy needs to pay attention to this important dimension of politics for young people,” said Joseph Kahne, a professor of education at Mills College and one of the study’s authors. “Participatory politics spread information, mobilize individuals to act, and provide many ways for youth to voice their perspectives.”

When teens gain the ability to voice their views through media, they don’t just learn about animation and videography. They gain a sense of agency—a sense that they can use their experiences to make a real impact in their communities. “It’s so important for them to be participating in [media] creation instead of just consuming it,” Pachuta said. The more effectively they’re able to leverage it, the more powerful their advocacy becomes.

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Helping Children Find Something New Inside Something Known Thu, 06 Nov 2014 21:18:26 +0000 This post originally ran at the Fred Rogers Center. It appears here with permission.

Children sit in a circle around a pile of loose parts. They are asked to play with the parts and talk about what they notice and what they wonder. They play with hinges, a door knob, screws, pieces of plastic, scraps of wood, a small motor, a piece of conductive rubber, a spring, some wires, old circuit boards, a toggle switch, and odd scraps of things.

These students are part of the Children’s Innovation Project, an effort for young children to create with technology in new and meaningful ways. The project is now in its fifth year of development at Pittsburgh Allegheny K-5 in the Pittsburgh Public Schools.

Children observe and debate what they see: “It looks like a part of a sponge.” – “It has a circle.” – “Maybe it’s a waterspouter.” – “I put it together and it turned around.” – “This is metal.” – “I put this in.” – “This is for a light.” Even what makes a hole a hole is debated. Some children think a circle is a hole; after much discussion, they come to share an idea that you can’t poke through all circles.

Next, children take one object back to their table. They begin to draw. Each child picks up a pencil with no eraser and looks closely at one small object. Children move their eyes back and forth between their objects and the paper in front of them. This is slow work. It is quiet. Children are looking so closely to see more. They are often asked, “What more do you see from your drawing?”

After a long period of observational drawing, children come back together to talk. Their drawings are presented to the group and other children are asked to look in the pile to find the object that was drawn.

Teachers ask, “How do you know that is the object s/he drew?” And, “What is good about the drawing?” Children talk about line, shape, and space related to the objects they noticed and drew. They talk about perspective and what someone else saw that they could not see.

This is an example of the kind of learning children experience with the Children’s Innovation Project.  The project was developed from a question posed in 2010 by Carnegie Mellon’s CREATE Lab: “What might innovation with technology look like in a kindergarten classroom?”

Photo/ Children’s Innovation Project

Now in our fifth year exploring this question, we’re finding more questions as we continue to watch and listen to children’s exploration with the raw material of technology.

Our approach to technology as raw material permits us to view technology as a means for—not an end to—learning.

The Children’s Innovation Project grows children’s habits of mind to notice, inquire, and persist. Children take these habits with them as they continue to explore, create, and socialize in the world. They develop a sensibility to notice small things and be curious inside parameters, rather than keep pace with consumption of the never-ending flow of new digital devices.

Our theoretical frame allows us to think about “technology” and “innovation” quite differently from other definitions operating in conversations about young children’s innovation with technology.

“Technology”: Our interest in “technology” is as raw material, rather than a tool. Children explore with the raw material of technology much like they would play with clay, paint, paper, or sand. Locally produced Circuit Blocks are our primary technology materials.

“Innovation”: We think of “innovation” as finding something new inside something known. We ask children (and teachers) to slow down and look closely because there is always more to see. Infinity is in the smallest of things. Depth comes from slow and small.

At first glance, Children’s Innovation Project learning experiences might appear invisible in the end-of-year classroom technology survey (unlike the cool, new technological tool or iPad app), but these are the experiences that empower children in their relationships with a digital world.

We want children to grow a critical relationship with the world—one that encourages tough questions and complicated relationships. We believe this is what will prepare children to become civic-minded adults ready to change the world for the better.

The Children’s Innovation Project will continue to develop in the coming years in partnership with the Fred Rogers CenterCarnegie Mellon UniversityCarlow UniversityClarion UniversityPittsburgh Public Schools, The Sprout Fund, and the Kids+Creativity Network

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A Future in Science Wed, 05 Nov 2014 18:32:54 +0000 Concerned about the global food crisis, Ciara Judge, Émer Hickey, and Sophie Healy-Thow were compelled to study the impact of bacteria on crop growth.

Their findings—that naturally occurring strains of certain bacteria could significantly speed up crop growth and increase crop yield—may certainly contribute to the fight against global hunger.

The research is impressive even without considering that Judge, Hickey, and Healy-Thow are just 16 years old.

The three teenagers from Ireland won the Grand Prize at the fourth-annual Google Science Fair, whose results were announced this fall. As Grand Prize winners, the teens will share a $50,000 Google scholarship and receive a 10-day trip to the Galápagos Islands sponsored by National Geographic, a personalized LEGO prize from LEGO Education, and the chance to participate in astronaut training at the Virgin Galactic Spaceport in the Mojave Desert.

Thousands of students ages 13 to 18 from more than 90 countries submitted entries by the May deadline to the 2014 Google Science Fair, an online science competition for solo entrants and teams of up to three people. After whittling down the contestants to 18 finalists in early August, a panel of judges assessed student presentations at Google’s Mountain View, California, headquarters in September to determine the overall winner and standouts in several categories.

Among other amazing inventions created by teens: a flying robot for potential use in search-and-rescue missions; sand filters designed to filter toxic substances from pond water; and low-cost wearable sensors designed for Alzheimer’s patients that alert caregivers via smartphone when the wearer gets out of bed and begins to wander.

The Google competition, however, cannot claim a monopoly on impressive young scientists. We’ve got plenty of them right here in Pittsburgh, including 17-year-old Ananya Cleetus—a student at Upper St. Clair High School in Pittsburgh—who made headlines with her invention, a robotic prosthetic hand, which she brought to the 2014 White House Science Fair in late May.

Her project was inspired by summer visits to her grandparents’ home in India. While volunteering there and touring the Jaipur Foot foundation, a nonprofit that develops artificial limbs, she realized the critical need for low-cost artificial limbs for amputees—especially those affected by the stigmatizing disease leprosy.

Internships at the University of Pittsburgh Human Engineering Laboratories and the Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute, as well as experience in competitive robotics, gave her the background she needed to develop her own solution to the problem. Using materials from the Robotics Institute along with Arduino sensors she purchased, Cleetus designed a robotic control system for a 3-D MakerBot-printed hand created from InMoov open-source computer-aided design files.

Cleetus hopes the affordable robotic hand she developed will increase the accessibility of effective prosthetics. In that spirit, she has decided not to seek a patent for her invention.

Although she still has a few years to decide on a profession, Cleetus sees a promising future in biomedical engineering. “It’s a good combination of science and technology,” she said. “As much as I like other fields of science, I enjoy seeing the impact science has on other people.”

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Teaching Digital Citizenship Mon, 03 Nov 2014 23:43:22 +0000 The internet: It’s filled with video-based Algebra tutorials, games for language learners, and university-generated advice on how to succeed in college. But it can also be a very dark place, fraught with trolls, misinformation, and temptations to overshare.

The internet can be an especially risky place for kids and teens, who are prone to making impulsive decisions because of their age. “Adolescents are more oriented to the present, so they are less likely than adults to be thinking about the future consequences of what they’re saying,” Laurence Steinberg, psychology professor at Temple University, told the New York Times in an article on teens and the criminal justice system.

It doesn’t help that the internet allows people to do things instantaneously and often anonymously. Case in point: “Why Kids Sext,” an illuminating piece by the Atlantic’s Hanna Rosin. “Surveys on sexting have found pretty consistently that among kids in their upper teens, about a third have sexted,” she wrote. Sending a nude picture to a boyfriend might seem harmless in the moment, but that picture could easily end up somewhere far more public.

What happens on the internet tends to stick around for a while—and that’s a lot to handle for people who’ve spent fewer than two decades on Earth. The implications extend to everything—from finding credible information, to understanding digital copyright, to forging relationships with peers.

In late October, the national nonprofit Common Sense Media led the second annual Digital Citizenship Week to raise awareness about these thorny issues. The goal was to get students to pause, step away from their screens, and think critically about their engagement with the digital world. The week is part of Connected Educator Month, which encourages educators to make full use of online spaces.

As the stories above illustrate, though, digital citizenship is too complex and too important for only a week in the spotlight. Common Sense Media’s K−12 digital literacy and citizenship curriculum has downloadable lesson materials and resources for engaging families and caregivers. Jennifer Ehehalt, Pittsburgh regional manager for Common Sense Media, is working with Pittsburgh schools to make full use of these resources. One example for middle school students: “Scams and Schemes,” a lesson that addresses identity theft and ways to prevent it.

Along with the curriculum, Common Sense Media has a wealth of other resources on digital citizenship. Digital Passport, a suite of interactive and collaborative games, teaches third- through fifth-grade users the fundamentals of digital literacy. Digital Glossary translates internet slang, covering classics like “selfie” along with newer terms like “sub-tweeting” (the Twitter equivalent of talking about someone behind his or her back). There’s even an animated video—complete with rapping—on the dangers of oversharing.

The Common Sense Media blog reported that in Grand Island, Nebraska, elementary school classes came up with digital citizenship slogans and used them to decorate their doors and walls. If you believe ten-year-olds don’t need to consider that kind of stuff, think again: A 2011 self-report survey of nearly 21,000 Massachusetts students found that 39 percent of fifth-graders own cell phones. On the other side of the country, many Los Angeles Unified School District teachers pledged to teach five lessons on digital citizenship in the course of the week. The lessons covered subjects like privacy, password creation, and digital footprints.

In the Pittsburgh area, schools have begun addressing digital citizenship year-round with their own curricula. Earlier this year, Mars Area Middle School in Butler County launched a series of 21st-century digital citizenship courses. They zero-in on three main topics: safety, cyberbullying, and social networking.

“You get wrapped up in the conversation and, next thing you know, you say something you shouldn’t have,” Patrick Scott, one of the school’s computer teachers, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “It’s hard in email for the recipient to realize you are joking or sarcastic.”

Both teachers and caregivers can also show younger kids episodes of “Ruff Ruffman: Humble Media Genius,” PBS KIDS’ new animated broadband series on media and technology. The title character, a bespectacled dog, guides viewers through topics like web search and photo sharing in a relatable, entertaining way.

We’re not losing our digital citizenship anytime soon. That means we’ll continue to have unfathomable amounts of information at our fingertips. It also means we need to keep thinking about how to use that citizenship wisely.

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What “Steel City” and “Cottonopolis” Have in Common Thu, 30 Oct 2014 17:29:42 +0000 At first glance, it might not seem like Pittsburgh and Manchester, England, have a lot in common—other than the Manchester neighborhood on Pittsburgh’s north side.

Manchester, with a population of 2.6 million, is a sprawling metropolis and economic powerhouse driving a big chunk of the United Kingdom’s economy. The city is all-out obsessed with soccer, and you’d be hard-pressed to find an authentic Primanti sandwich there.

But at closer look, the two cities have more in common than you’d think. To start, they’re the only cities with Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Awards. (More on that later.) And they’ve both reinvented themselves for a 21st-century economy.

Pittsburgh, once nicknamed “Steel City,” and Manchester, once nicknamed “Cottonopolis,” have all but shed the industries that once drove their economies. In the 1960s and 1970s, textile mills in Lancashire, the county in which Manchester is located, were closing at a rate of nearly one per week as other nations produced textiles cheaper and quicker.

Across the pond, Pittsburgh’s factories were closing en masse and thousands of people were leaving the city for jobs elsewhere. In the 1980s, Pittsburgh lost seven percent of its population.

But the story of renewal that’s happening here in Pittsburgh has caught national attention.

“Pittsburgh, after decades of trying to remake itself, today really does have a new economy, rooted in the city’s rapidly growing robotic, artificial intelligence, health technology, advanced manufacturing and software industries,” wrote journalist Glenn Thrush in the Politico Magazine feature, “The Robots That Saved Pittsburgh.” The story detailed how smart investment and collaboration from universities, start-ups, nonprofits, and health care services have transitioned the industrial economy to an innovative, creative one.

The city has also built a hub of intertwined education opportunities unlike anywhere else. Throughout the city, kids are joining the burgeoning maker movement, using gardens to learn about STEM, and building their own circuits, thanks to the many cultural, science, and education institutions that have joined the Kids+Creativity Network.

This type of collaboration and planning earned Pittsburgh and Manchester a Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Award, which recognizes people or organizations that “have broken the mold to create significant impact.” Most of the awards go to people. But in this case, Pittsburgh and Manchester are the only cities to have won the award.

“We’ll never be the biggest city in the world, but we know to succeed we’ve got to be one of the smartest,” said Sir Howard Bernstein, Chief Executive of Manchester Millennium Limited, when accepting the award for the city. In the 1990s, the city invested in a cultural plan that eventually boosted its presence in the art world and kick-started creative industries by leveraging its three major universities. “What we’ve been trying to do over the last 10 or 15 years is to actually create one single strategy built around place for the entire city where our universities and our businesses can all bind to.”

Sounds a bit like the planning we’ve put into action here.

“What we’re seeing [in Pittsburgh] is an unprecedented collaboration of people and institutions from the entire city pulling together to remake education and rebrand themselves in the process,” said journalist and filmmaker Perri Peltz, who emceed the awards ceremony.

Pittsburgh’s mines were filled with iron ore and Manchester’s air was damp enough to not break the fragile cotton threads. For much of the cities’ histories, geography shaped the economy. But in the 21st century, cities like Pittsburgh and Manchester are tapping into an even more valuable resource: their people.

And just as manufacturers once learned from each other by being in such close proximity, the same goes for education innovation. When universities, schools, afterschool programs, and nonprofits feed off each other, it makes for a new type of innovation chain fit for the 21st century.

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