Remake Learning Remake Learning is a network of people, projects, and organizations in the greater Pittsburgh region that are empowering children and youth by creating relevant learning opportunities through the compelling use of technology, media, and the arts. Mon, 16 May 2016 03:59:35 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Leaving the Lab for the Classroom Mon, 05 Oct 2015 17:08:44 +0000 Ten years ago, Edwina Kinchington was holed up in a laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh, researching lung cancer. It was a far cry from where she finds herself these days, in front of a classroom of teenagers at Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy (SciTech)—working a job she deems her “true calling.”

Unlike many educators whose careers were inspired by extraordinary teachers, Kinchington went into the field to give students something she never had herself.

“I didn’t have mentors that really pushed me or encouraged me until it was fairly late in my educational life,” she said. As a postdoc and researcher at Pitt, Kinchington was patient with all the students who came through her lab because she knew they might be as lost as she once was. Supporting them was rewarding.

Kinchington’s students do “real-world science”—tasks like micropipetting and gel electrophoresis.

“You come to a point in time when you reevaluate where you are in your work and life,” Kinchington said. “I wanted to help those students. I wanted to teach high school because there’s so many opportunities out there today. Everything is so much more competitive and you have to be well-prepared.”

After receiving her teaching credentials, in 2009 Kinchington found herself among the inaugural faculty at SciTech, a grades 6-12 Pittsburgh Public Schools magnet. She teaches advanced life sciences to 10th and 11th graders, and co-leads a required senior research project. This year, she received the Pennsylvania Outstanding Biology Teacher Award from the National Association of Biology Teachers, the top award in the state.

Her transition from lab to classroom was made easier by SciTech’s hands-on curriculum and an administration that grants teachers flexibility and creative control. Kinchington’s students do “real-world science”—tasks like micropipetting and gel electrophoresis. Although it has been years since she worked in the field, Kinchington closely tracks biomedical research and technology. She calls her students’ attention to developments and even started a “journal club” where students analyze the latest academic publications. Students doubting the relevancy of their schoolwork to their lives and careers need only look to their teacher.

Kinchington’s connection to Pitt provides rich opportunities for her students. SciTech is located on the university’s campus in Oakland, and her students have been able to network and intern with researchers there.

“Pittsburgh is being redefined, so to speak, as a hi-tech industry, so there’s a need for computer science, a need for biotechnologists, a need for engineers.”

“All of the people I’ve worked with through University of Pittsburgh and locally, they want to help, to give back to the students and our next generation of science employees,” Kinchington said. “Pittsburgh is being redefined, so to speak, as a hi-tech industry, so there’s a need for computer science, a need for biotechnologists, a need for engineers.”

The former researcher is constantly thinking of ways to immerse her students in hands-on work. In the senior research class, Executive Experience, her students design their own projects. In the past, some have worked with local scientists to clone a gene. Last year, one of her classes got some press when it participated in a worldwide videoconference about Ebola.

“It takes a hardworking and knowledgeable teacher to make things relevant,” Kinchington said. But she knows that is easier said than done, for any educator.

Kinchington struggles to find time to support each of her students, who need more one-on-one guidance than she can provide. “With diverse classes and minimal prep time, there’s just some students who need more support and other students at the other end who need to be pushed more,” she said. “The challenge is time.”


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Manufacturing Day Puts a Modern Twist on Old-Fashioned DIY Fri, 02 Oct 2015 14:50:16 +0000 Until relatively recently, it wasn’t uncommon for someone to build himself a table. Or know how to fix a watch. Now, most of us struggle with—or derive a sense of pride from—successfully assembling an Ikea dresser.

It’s easy to romanticize the days of DIY. The truth is, most of our lives were made critically easier with the advent of mass production and high-tech machines. That said, there is still plenty of potential—cognitive and career-wise—in bringing young people closer to the creation of the products they use.

Today is the fourth annual national Manufacturing Day, designed to honor manufacturers and attract young people to jobs in the field. The holiday is a good reminder to celebrate and carve out opportunities for innovative, hands-on building.

Manufacturing education doesn’t have to resemble the shop classes of yore. These days, there is an emphasis in the inventive and unusual—“an economic imperative,” according to President Obama, who hosted the first White House Maker Faire last year.

The benefits of making and building are manifold, for individuals and society. In the New York Times, Allison Arieff described the scene at San Francisco’s Tinkering School, where kids are given real tools and safety lessons, and told to build a mechanical King Kong or an eight-person bike.

“This isn’t just a bunch of kids messing around with stuff,” Arieff writes. “Behind the chaos you can see the gears turning. There is no template, no set of instructions (and no screens). They need to be attentive, engaged, and curious. As they begin a project, they’re learning how to collaborate, identify the skill sets of their group, deploy those talents accordingly, and problem-solve creatively.”

“Behind the chaos you can see the gears turning.”

Building, making, tinkering—whatever you want to call it—equips young learners with technical expertise and sets the stage for big ideas. Once someone knows how something is made, they can better figure out how to improve it or come up with a new version. Steve Jobs grew up observing his mechanically skilled father (who built his son his own workbench), and has partially credited that early experimentation with his later ingenuity.

Most people feel empowered when they create something themselves. And not just kids. A Harvard Business School study on the “Ikea effect” found that participants who successfully make a product value it more than if they hadn’t make it. The authors include an anecdote about cake mixes. Designed to make housewives’ lives easier, cake mixes were not immediately embraced by the intended users. Instead, customers were resistant to a product that made their labor and skill no longer valued or necessary. Thus, cake mix companies changed the recipe to require bakers to add an egg themselves.

We may have a newly dedicated national day for manufacturing, but several programs in the Pittsburgh area, site of the 15th largest steel manufacturer in the world U.S. Steel, encourage it year round. (Although Pittsburgh doesn’t yet, some cities like Philadelphia have tool lending libraries, which make building projects accessible and cheaper.)

Chartiers Valley School District launched its high school Engineering Academy in 2012. Students learn to draw and design, and eventually manufacture, products and systems as varied as infrastructure and robots. At East Westmoreland Career and Technology Center, which serves students from three school districts as well as adults, a grant-funded windmill teaches students about green energy. The windmill is part of a new outdoor classroom designed and built by students in the center’s construction, information technology, mechatronics, and digital media programs. The center even has a dedicated cabinetmaking track.

Over the summer, 412Build offers Pittsburghers ages 16 to19 the chance to transform a vacant lot into a valuable community space. That means they learn to design and build features like dog feeders and planter boxes, picking up practical financial planning and market research skills along the way.

For those who aren’t enrolled in these immersive programs, Manufacturing Day offers curious young people plenty of casual forays into the field. Available tours include a 3D printing showroom, steel wire factory, winery, or technical college. Peruse the nearly 2,000 national events online and don’t miss the Pittsburgh Maker Faire on October 10 and 11.

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10 Pittsburgh Area Schools are Kickstarting Making in the Classroom Fri, 02 Oct 2015 13:03:15 +0000 to donate!]]> Making, or hands-on tinkering and learning with old and new technologies, has grown in popularity in schools. To engage students and develop creativity, critical thinking, and persistence, teachers are designing learning experiences with less direct instruction and more open discovery as a way to advance student knowledge of different tools, materials, and processes as they transform their ideas into reality.

The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, where I work as the project manager for Kickstarting Making in Schools, has researched making and learning for the past five years and has developed a set of learning practices that evidence shows are important for effective hands-on learning through making. These practices include inquiry; tinkering; seeking and sharing resources; hacking and repurposing; expressing intention; developing fluency; and understanding different parts of objects or machinery and how the parts function together as a system.

image courtesy Children's Musem of Pittsburgh / Larry Rippel

Young learners tinker at the Children’s Museum MAKESHOP / image Larry Rippel

The Children’s Museum has partnered with local schools to support teachers as they integrate these practices and learn how educators realize making in the school environment. In May, the Museum selected ten schools to participate in the Kickstarting Making in Schools pilot program. The program, which seeks to develop a sustainable national model to integrate making into schools, is receiving support through a partnership with Kickstarter, the online crowdfunding platform.

The schools include Pittsburgh Public Schools Lincoln PK-5; Environmental Charter School; Falk Laboratory School; Kiski Area Upper Elementary; Ligonier Valley High School; Monessen Elementary Center; Cecil Intermediate School; Burgettstown School District; Woodland Hills Intermediate Center; and Yeshiva Schools.

“Each time we [at the Children’s Museum] work with a school, or library or community to integrate making into a new educational context, we learn so much!”

Teachers from each school began working with the Children’s Museum this summer to learn about making and explore curricular connections and project ideas. In addition, they attended a training session facilitated by Kickstarter to learn how to produce and launch a crowdfunding campaign. The campaign is necessary to fund professional development with the Children’s Museum, which will begin after the campaigns close, and design services that provide furniture plans and inventories for custom makerspaces in the participating schools. Makerspaces are spaces where students can explore different types of projects in areas such as design, sewing, woodworking, electronics, and robotics.

The campaigns launched this week. While Kickstarter and the Children’s Museum offered support throughout the process, each school produced its campaign independently. The passion and hard work that went into developing the campaigns is inspiring. What is most exciting is that the campaigns communicate the different ways schools are proposing to weave maker learning practices into their classrooms. Through their campaigns, you get a sense of each school’s personality.

My colleague, Lisa Brahms, the Children’s Museum’s Director of Learning and Research, has often noted this to be the case. “Each time we work with a school, or library or community to integrate making into a new educational context, we learn so much! Every context is different, and presents unique opportunities and challenges that, when looked at together, help us to build understanding about the affordances of making as a rich and expansive learning process,” she said.

Projects include having students design solutions for urban gardens that seek to address food justice issues, an exploration of the Hebrew language through making-oriented activities, and integrating making with the development of a new outdoor classroom. Schools are putting new structures in place to maximize the partnership with the Children’s Museum and allow time for teachers to explore making. For example, Kiski Area Upper Elementary principal Joshua Weaver created a Makerspace Committee intended to bring teachers together to collaboratively create cross-disciplinary units using making as an instructional strategy.

A sign at Kiski Area Upper Elementary marks the future site of their makerspace.

I’m excited to move into the implementation phase, which will begin after the fundraising campaigns close on November 2. It has been fascinating to reflect on the work that went into creating the campaigns. It provided an opportunity for the schools to consider their visions and articulate them. That’s not easy to do, but I think it’s an important step in developing a deeper understanding of the intersections between making and learning.

The schools and I have also had the opportunity to learn from Julio Terra, Outreach Lead at Kickstarter, who has been generous in providing the schools with feedback. “At Kickstarter we strongly embrace creativity and openness, which are core values shared by makers. We are excited to help schools create spaces that support learning through the creative practice of making,” Julio said.

We are hopeful that this model of crowdfunding will help schools throughout the country acquire the necessary funds for teachers to explore making with their students. Central to the model is providing the schools with an opportunity to develop a close relationship with an organization like the Children’s Museum in order to provide the in-person support teachers need as they design new learning experiences.

I am excited to see where this partnership leads. But for now I’m eager to pound the pavement to ensure these ten schools get the support they need to move forward in their journey.

You can view and make a contribution to support all campaigns here. Campaigns are open until Monday, November 2.

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Teaching Spanish as a Window to the World Tue, 29 Sep 2015 04:16:22 +0000 A plate of poisoned cookies, a ghost named Charlie, a mysterious assassin in lunch detention. These are the dramas that unfolded in the telenovelas that City Charter High School students wrote, filmed, and edited last summer in a project called Epic Telenovelas. 

Leading them through the process (and appearing a few times herself) was teacher Katie Bordner, who thinks of her class not just as a way to teach Spanish but as an opportunity to instill global awareness in her students.SpanishTelenovela


This year is Bordner’s fourth at City Charter High School, a unique, year-round school in Pittsburgh’s central business district where students “loop” with their same teachers each year. (Though as a Spanish teacher, Bordner is one of the few who do not loop, meaning she teaches every student at the school.) The school pulls students, 70 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, from across the city.

Although it is her tenth year of teaching, Bordner said there are a few things she still returns to when getting ready to welcome a new batch of students every fall. She revisits the book “Teaching with Love and Logic” to remind herself how best to talk with teenagers. And while the building blocks of the Spanish language have not changed in those 10 years, her students certainly have. So every year Bordner revisits her language curriculum and switches things up in her classes.

“Technology is only as good as it connects and deepens our learning, not replaces it.”

“Today I went to a coffee shop and was there from 8 am to 2 pm, just thinking through everything,” Bordner said in an interview before the school year started. “I’ve taught this content to thousands of students at this point, but I’m always reworking it to make it more exciting, clearer, and to connect the activities to other worlds.”

Beyond language skills, Bordner says one of the main aims of her class is to teach acceptance and multiculturalism. Although her students tend not to have a lot of experience or familiarity with Spanish-speaking cultures, she said she pulls together real-world examples to connect the vocabulary and concepts they are learning to the outside world. For example, to teach vocabulary words about family, Bordner might root a lesson in immigration stories about mothers and their children from Mexico and Central America.

City High is a one-to-one laptop school, and no matter the topic her lessons often integrate some aspect of hands-on technology, such as blogging, filming Spanish music videos, and researching online. Bordner also has a website students can turn to.

SpanishTelenovela“There are plenty of people who think if they want to learn to communicate with someone in a different language they could just put a phone up to Google Translate,” she said. “But technology is only as good as it connects and deepens our learning, not replaces it.”

That was the case for the cameras and editing software her class used in the Epic Telenovelas project, which Bordner said was a “huge collaboration” among coworkers, administrators, and outside partners.

While she supported the students in writing scripts (which were filled with many dramatic “¡Dios mios!”), two team members from a local nonprofit, Steeltown Entertainment Project, came to her classroom for five days to help students draw storyboards, test camera angels, and figure out sound quality.

The effort was bolstered by the video production classes students take at City High. It is not uncommon for Bordner to see schoolwide learning make its way into her classroom. Math and science teachers, for example, have focused heavily on collaboration, which she said made the teamwork aspect of production go more smoothly.

However, Bordner says she knows she is only to able to do what she does because of the extra supports and resources available to her at City High, supports that are too often not available to other public high school teachers.

“I feel really lucky,” she said. “The resources in public school systems are really minimal compared to what students and teachers really need.”

This year, Bordner is optimistic about introducing ways to help students speak and hear more Spanish in class. And she is always eager to try new projects to engage her students.

“If anybody has ideas for me,” she says, “let me know.”

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Closing Achievement Gaps Where They Begin Wed, 23 Sep 2015 16:54:49 +0000 Last Friday, national experts in early learning met in Washington D.C. for a symposium on closing achievement gaps among young learners.

Co-sponsored by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), Children’s Defense Fund, and Sesame Street Workshop, the Success Starts Young event drew leaders from universities, state and local governments, and advocacy groups. Its three panels covered early learning standards, kindergarten readiness, and technology and young children’s learning. All told, the event centered on strategies to close the achievement gap between low-income children and their higher-income peers.

Several prominent experts spoke, including Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund, and Rosemarie Truglio, vice president of education and research at Sesame Workshop.

We were pleased to see West Virginia in the spotlight for their universal pre-K program, which has been lauded as one of the most successful models in the nation. In 2002, the state passed legislation to ensure that every 4-year-old would have access to a pre-k classroom by 2013. In 2012, the National Institute for Early Education Research ranked West Virginia fifth in the nation for pre-K access for four-year-olds.

“In most states, the discussion about college and career readiness starts with high school,” said Clayton Burch, assistant director of the Office of School Readiness at the West Virginia Department of Education, who spoke on a panel on early learning standards. “In West Virginia, it’s a more balanced discussion because we’ve backed that discussion up into our PreK to 3rd grade. You’ll never get to the outcomes you’re looking for unless you have strong PreK to 3rd.”

Burch said the state’s largest providers of early childhood education—including Head Start, the Department of Health and Human Resources, and the Department of Education—worked together to come to a consensus on a common set of early learning standards for children ages 3 through 5 that can be used across settings. Unlike other states, West Virginia will not have to juggle multiple levels of learning standards in and out of the P-12 system, an approach that experts say better aligns the state’s system with the way kids learn.

“We’re kind of at a different point than a lot of other states,” Burch said. “It’s not one system trying to fit into another. It’s just one system.”

Other experts on the panel emphasized how early learning standards have to be culturally sensitive to address the needs of dual language learners, or of children who are learning both English and a home language at the same time.

Another panel discussed technology and young children’s learning. Authors Michael Levine and Lisa Guernsey discussed their new book, “Tap, Click, Read: Growing Readers in a World of Screens.” The book focuses on ways digital media can help promote literacy in young children, rather than undermine it. The authors profile innovative uses of digital media for learning and in some cases to support dual language learning. For example, in rural Maine, Comienza en Casa is bringing tablets loaded with educational apps to the homes of immigrant families and training parents on how to use the apps with their children to ready them for kindergarten.

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


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New Hands-On Professional Development Models Provide Support Teachers Need Mon, 21 Sep 2015 17:25:33 +0000 Ask any teacher and they will tell you—professional development can be pretty hit or miss. Recent national coverage has focused attention on the “miss,” spotlighting PD that is wasteful, unhelpful, or downright insulting to educators.

But as Howard Gardner of Project Zero, an educational research group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and two of his colleagues noted in the Washington Post, helpful, rich, professional development that truly supports teachers and makes a difference is often overlooked.

Gardner explained how hundreds of teachers and administrators have attended Project Zero’s summer institutes, where they have built a professional development model “around understanding as the goal of learning.”

At the institutes, educators work in small groups to wresle with classroom challenges, then create plans to take back to their schools. According to the institutes’ website, teachers also meet with leading scholars to explore how globalization, the digital revolution, and advances in neuroscience are changing learning. Schools send teams of teachers and administrators to the institutes, who then can work together to incorporate this new knowledge into their school community.

“It’s time we drastically alter course and deploy professional development funding more intelligently,” Gardner and his colleagues wrote.

Here in Pittsburgh, several groups are doing just that, opening professional development opportunities for teachers that go far beyond the “sage-on-a-stage” model. Instead, the programs are hands-on and often self-directed. Teachers are forming their own networks and connecting through social media to share what they have learned and to teach each other.

“We have moved so far beyond the old model of professional development that the new approach is invigorating all of us.”

As Linda Hippert, executive director of the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, explained at Getting Smart, districts like Elizabeth Forward are forming their own PD programs and sharing ideas with neighboring districts. Meanwhile, the AIU’s TransformED space is serving as a “digital playground” for educators, immersing them in experiences as varied as robotics and flight simulation.

“We have moved so far beyond the old model of professional development that the new approach is invigorating all of us and creating a new platform for learning,” Hippert wrote. “Collaboration is at the highest level I’ve seen in 37 years.”

A partnership with Robert Morris University, called the Ohio River Consortium, is receiving a $225,000 grant over two years from the Grable Foundation. The money will help build makerspaces at elementary schools but some will also be devoted to teacher training. The consortium will work with the MAKESHOP at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh to shape the activities and programs inside the makerspaces.

This fall, MAKESHOP will also be hosting a group of West Virginia educators, among them principals, IT experts, and classroom teachers, at Maker Educator Boot Camp. The recruits will try things like woodworking and circuitry, and learn how to better incorporate project-based learning into their teaching. The boot camp will serve as a kickoff to the West Virginia Maker Network, after which educators will work with museum exhibit designers to create makerspaces in their schools. The training and support will continue online via Google Hangouts once the boot camp ends.

“We have all oversimplified and overestimated the challenges of helping teachers improve,” wrote Daniel Weinberg at TNTP, a teacher training organization. Weisberg said solving the problem of lackluster professional development will take more than a few tweaks to models already in place—it will take rethinking educational structures and how teachers are supported as a whole.

Like much else in Pittsburgh, educators and organizations are reimagining the most effective, hands-on ways to support teachers in what they are already experts at: teaching Pittsburgh’s kids.

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Perfecting the Art of Afterschool Science Fri, 18 Sep 2015 19:09:29 +0000 Venneasha Davis, a sixth grade science and language arts teacher at Woodland Hills Academy in Turtle Creek, started her hectic school year with business as usual—bus duty and new lesson plans. But in a few months, she’s planning a surprise for her students: Aquaponics tanks.

“There will be fish on the bottom and vegetables on the top,” she explained. “Through the nitrate system, the fish will provide nutrients for the plants, and the plants will provide nutrients for the fish.”

Davis clearly loves to learn and teach science. She is also the creator of Sisters e S.T.E.A.M., an afterschool program that engages seventh and eighth grade African-American girls and girls from low-income families in STEAM experiences that connect with their lives and interests.

“I hated school. I wasn’t the straight-A student,” she said. When she was in middle school, her grandmother, a nurse anesthetist, enrolled her in science programs at the University of Pittsburgh. She dissected rats and cats, saw her first cadaver, and witnessed open-heart surgery. As her fascination grew, she took an elementary-education class, where all her interests melded.

I love being able to take everything that I hated about school and flip it—so that students have a curriculum that’s culturally relevant.

“I loved just being able to be creative and take everything that I hated about school and flip it so that students have a curriculum that’s culturally relevant,” she said.

Her belief that science should be a part of her students’ lives and interests is at the core of Sisters e S.T.E.A.M., which is in its third year and meets twice a week. The idea arose when an administrator mentioned new funding opportunities available through Teachers Leading Change, with support from the Allegheny Intermediate Unit. She interviewed middle school girls on their general interests, and on their likes and dislikes about science.

“What surprised me was their disdain for the science curriculum,” she said. “How far removed they were from it. They couldn’t connect the two. They couldn’t understand that science was all around them.”

She wrote the program’s curriculum by matching Next Generation Science Standards with the girls’ interests and added in aspects of the program that focus on confidence building and friendship (“e S.T.E.A.M.” is a play on “esteem.”) The AIU and Teachers Leading Change awarded her the $50,000 to make it happen. The program includes a self-esteem component and activities that focus on friendships among seventh and eighth graders.Screen Shot 2015-09-18 at 9.24.38 AM

Now in its third year, the program has a wait list. On a typical day, the 22 girls who are enrolled might explore principles of physics through dance, take photos with pinhole cameras to reveal the qualities of light, or experiment with the building blocks of chemistry by making soap. The group also creates spoken-word poems about science news like the drought in California.

And the group travels to competitions, where they have been challenged to engineer an environmentally friendly “people mover” or build a catapult for flinging a marshmallow at a bull’s-eye. The competitions, though, tend to be dominated by white male students—which is true of the STEAM fields themselves. Davis said that by ninth grade, research shows, young women are mentally checking out of science and enrolling in classes mostly for the grades. Down the line, women earn fewer degrees in STEM and are drastically underrepresented in STEM fields.

“A lot of times, when we show up, not only are we the only girls, we’re 75 percent African-American. And on top of that we’re not ‘gifted,’ ” she said, adding that the girls walk into competitions saying they are going to lose. “I have tell them: ‘No. You’re just as good as they are. You deserve to be here. You can do this.’ ”

Davis is looking for new grants, as her previous funding covered only two years. But she says her afterschool program has become her “new love” and she will find a way to keep it thriving.

“It’s going to be OK, someone is going to believe in what we’re doing, we’re going to find the funding,” she said. “They’ll believe in what I’m trying to do.”

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For Pioneering Pittsburgh Educator, It’s Full STEAM Ahead Wed, 16 Sep 2015 18:44:00 +0000 Last week marked not only the start of a new school year for Shaun Tomaszewski, but the launch of three Pittsburgh Public Schools refashioned as STEAM academies—which he will oversee as the district’s new STEAM coordinator. In a major shift away from single-subject curricula, teachers at the academies will focus on multi-disciplinary, project-based learning that boosts science, technology, engineering, arts, and math education.

Previously a science instructor in the Mt. Lebanon School District, Tomaszewski was hired last February and tasked with building the program from the ground up. Woolslair PreK-5 has been converted into a partial STEAM magnet school, and Lincoln PreK-5 and Schiller 6-8 are now STEAM-focused campuses. The schools have added lead STEAM teachers to their faculties and have new STEAM labs for projects. The three schools are part of a larger effort to emphasize STEAM learning district-wide.

As they transition, the three STEAM campuses are in good hands. A PhD student with a teaching background and love for learning, Tomaszewski is immersed in current pedagogies and loves to dig into science projects with kids.

But how does a 27-year-old, new to the district, get Pittsburgh’s veteran teachers to rework their approach to their jobs?

Empathy and attentiveness, in Tomaszewski’s case.

Photo/Shaun Tomaszewski

“I think it’s just being upfront and sincere with people,” he said. “Continuously pushing and at the same time supporting people. Shifting instructional practices is extremely difficult.” Middle and high school teachers, for example, have often spent years developing lesson plans in just one subject area, while elementary school teachers are more used to working across disciplines.

Teachers are working through these challenges together. Over the summer, Tomaszewski and STEAM school staff got together to develop project-based learning modules. The Schiller faculty for example, developed a cross-subject STEAM curriculum on the environment and human impact. In science classes, students there will learn about the natural and human causes of weather and climate, while social studies curricula will focus on economies of scale and resources.

Tomaszewski said the Pittsburgh Public Schools has a “necessary and ever-present focus on equity,” which he is working to keep front and center in developing the district’s STEAM programming. Brainstorming project-based learning modules, for example, was a great opportunity for the educators to embrace culturally relevant pedagogies.

“We really see the STEAM program as way to engage kids in learning.”

“We really see the STEAM program as way to engage kids in learning,” Tomaszewski said. One simple way to make that happen is by using examples in daily instruction that make sense to and resonate with all students in the district, he said, especially for students of color or others from diverse cultural backgrounds.

That means choosing an engineering lesson that uses both the traditional Ancient Greek examples as well as African innovations, or a music class that highlights Asian composers and South American music theory.

While the STEAM schools are exciting new endeavors, Tomaszewski is quick to point out that they are also platforms for educational values that have been around for quite some time, among them experimentation, inquiry, and critical thinking.

The district is working to extend these opportunities for multi-disciplinary STEAM learning to the district’s other schools as well, in the form of $80,000 “mini-grants” for STEAM projects. The STEAM schools and related initiatives are supported by the school system, the Grable Foundation, and the Fund for Excellence.

Plans are in the works for a STEAM high school that could open as soon as next year. Meanwhile, Tomaszewski and his staff are taking it day by day, trying to leverage STEAM learning to foster environments where kids are comfortable experimenting and teachers are comfortable letting them.

Tomaszewksi sees one of his primary duties as “trying to get teachers to think about how they can facilitate students really persevering through difficult problems and not giving up at the first sign of failure.” It’s in the failure, he said, where there’s real opportunity for deep learning.

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Family to Family: Remaking Family Learning Wed, 16 Sep 2015 13:25:44 +0000 In solidarity with my daughters who are finishing up their school reports describing their summer adventures, I thought I’d share mine. The last week of August, my family and I headed to Long Beach Island (LBI), New Jersey for what turned out to be much more than a day at the beach. Through a program called Passport to LBI we explored the history and ecology of the island: we used a seine, or small net, to catch minnows and crabs in the bay, held baby clams, visited the island museum to see a schoolhouse from 1915, and counted together as we climbed over 200 steps the top of a lighthouse. The best part–it was all free!

As we drove back home, my daughters were clamoring to learn more. They were curious about the world in new and exciting ways. My oldest daughter, inspired by the schoolhouse, wanted to jump back into reading the Little House on the Prairie books. My youngest daughter started using vocabulary and descriptive language we’d never heard from her before. Their newly-gained background knowledge was immense. This got me thinking – why should these activities only be available to me and my family? Why just on vacation? Why not everyone, everywhere, all the time?

In fact, there are a number of initiatives across the country coming together to create cities of learning where children, youth, and families have access to experiences just like the one my family had. These initiatives are designed particularly for children and families of low-income households, who often have unequal access to outside-of-school learning opportunities compared to children from households of higher-income status. In  Pittsburgh, as well as in Chicago, Dallas, and Washington, DC, networks of schools, museums, libraries, afterschool programs, community centers, higher-education institutions, the private sector, and the philanthropic community have joined together to create learning opportunities for families and children throughout the year. These initiatives include strong digital media and technology components to provide learners opportunities to think about, pursue, and develop their interests. Students earn badges for participating in activities, which they can track, accumulate, and share with their families and teachers.

What’s exciting about this work–especially what’s going on in Pittsburgh–is that it promotes family engagement in new and emerging ways. These initiatives ensure that all families have access to programing, along with the knowledge and encouragement they need to help learners pursue their interests. The programs make clear, transparent, and coordinated connections among different learning opportunities so that families can easily navigate them. They create pathways so that experiences from summer learning can be explored both in and out of school throughout the entire year.

Most importantly, these initiatives bring about equity. We know that learners spend only 20% of their yearly waking hours in schools, leaving 80% of their time to learn outside of school. By making out-of-school learning available to all, these initiatives help reduce opportunity gaps that are detrimental to children’s and youths’ academic outcomes. In Chicago, for instance, the majority of students who participate in city-wide learning activitiesfrican-American or Latino and are from low-income households.

So, what did I learn this summer? That a trip to the beach, or anywhere, has the potential to be so much more.

Margaret Caspe is a Senior Research Analyst at Harvard Family Research Project, where she has been working in various capacities since 2000. Her research focuses on how families, early childhood programs, schools and communities support children’s learning.

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Connecting West Virginia to Pittsburgh’s Maker Movement Tue, 08 Sep 2015 20:40:23 +0000 Since 2011, the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh’s MAKESHOP has been a well-established destination for families to immerse themselves in projects as wide-ranging as circuitry, woodworking, stop-motion animation, and operating looms. Now, thanks to $200,000 in grants from the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation and Chevron, the museum is extending its reach into neighboring West Virginia.

Partnering with the Education Alliance, the museum will help build makerspaces in four West Virginia public schools and three education centers—the Robert C. Byrd Institute in Huntington (a manufacturing institute for adults that partners with Marshall University); the Larry Joe Harless Community Center in Gilbert; and the Heritage Farm Museum and Village in Huntington. Collectively, the new spaces will be called the West Virginia Maker Network.

Although the West Virginia border is only an hour or so from Pittsburgh, the seven new sites span all corners of the state, including rural areas and university towns. And while opportunities for making and hands-on learning are blossoming in Pittsburgh, similar opportunities in rural parts of West Virginia are geographically farther apart and sometimes scarce. In recent years, the state has fallen near the bottom of the country in math and reading scores.

Lisa Brahms, director of learning and research at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, said the region was “ripe for possibility and change,” and that early planning meetings showed a hunger for new educational opportunities.

“We really see West Virginia as part of our region, so it’s exciting to be part of this work,” Brahms said.

“We really see West Virginia as part of our region, so it’s exciting to be part of this work.”

The pieces of equipment that will end up in the new makerspaces—anything from drills and hammers to 3D printers or electronic components—are of little use, however, without educators who can guide the students who are learning in the spaces. That’s why the museum is hosting educators from the new sites for a week-long Maker Boot Camp this September at the museum’s MAKESHOP. The boot camp will serve as a kick-off for the initiative, where educators from each site will begin to conceptualize how they could incorporate making at their own locations. Museum exhibit designers will then meet with teams from each site to help design their new makerspaces to align with their priorities and goals.

Brahms said the diversity of roles that educators play “really runs the gamut,” with attendees including middle school classroom teachers, an assistant principal, and an IT director.

“We love when that happens,” she said. “It’s really great because that means there will be voices from all the different approaches of learning in makerspaces.”

One of the overarching goals of the network is that the new sites one day serve as hubs for making and learning in their own communities, and eventually expand their work within each region.

Or, as James Denova, vice president of the Benedum Foundation, explained in a statement, “The Education Alliance’s partnership will not only help disseminate the Children’s Museum’s best practices, but provide an anchor through which West Virginia can build its own community of practice around making,”

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Cybersecurity: A Critical Component of Tech Ed Thu, 03 Sep 2015 19:35:51 +0000 What does privacy look like? Earlier this year, Carnegie Mellon University’s CyLab posed that question to respondents ages 5 to 91. For part of the project, representatives from the tech research and security lab, along with CMU artists, visited Pittsburgh schools and asked the students to draw their answers.

Some of the younger participants—whose work is assembled into a collection called Privacy Illustrated—drew pictures of masks or of kids hiding under blankets. But plenty of the older students’ images invoked social media, cell phones, and even the NSA.

Savvy students know that the internet is both an endless source of information and inspiration as well as a potential danger zone. But they may not know how to best protect themselves. As schools continue to introduce tech tools this new school year, more are developing cybersecurity literacy alongside the technical know-how and other “digital literacies.”

Given that adults are plenty prone to hack attacks, identity theft, and scams too, it can be overwhelming for educators to figure out how to avoid putting their students at risk. (And often students are way ahead of teachers. To wit: the hacking of iPads in Los Angeles school district and in Indiana among others). Districts have long been concerned about issues ranging from student identity theft to plagiarism and cyberbullying. But with each year, digital tools become further integrated into schoolwork, and security becomes even more of an imperative. Districts and companies have lately begun developing curricula aimed at teaching cybersafety in an engaging manner, with some new options out there in time for this academic year.

In Iowa this fall, middle schools are adopting a curriculum created by Iowa State University. Doug Jacobson, the project lead and a professor of engineering, told FedScoop that the lessons are designed to help teachers incorporate cybersecurity topics into existing school subjects.

“That would allow teachers in a math class to talk about passwords, because they’re nothing more than a complex mathematical concept,” he said.

Less immersive though similar is Common Sense Media’s Digital Bytes project. Aimed at teenagers, each byte corresponds with a digital issue—cyberbullying, copyright law, personal data. Young users can watch videos and projects created by other teens proposing ways to respond to the dilemmas, or upload their own.

Along with imperiled security comes the need for people willing to fight it.

Some educators are using games-based learning to help teach these concepts. The Center for Identity at the University of Texas at Austin developed a digital game that teaches kids ages 8-10 appropriate social behavior online. According to the Center, children are 35 percent more likely than adults to be victims of identity theft. In the game, they wade through messages, determining whether to send them to their friends, their whole contact list, or nobody. For older students, PBS’ NOVA offers a cybersecurity game where players try to defend a company that is targeted by hackers.

Although these threats are real, and unnerving from an adult’s perspective, abstinence is not the answer. Crafting an online presence and sharing digital creations can be empowering, help kids connect with their peers, or serve as a resume or portfolio that can lead to later opportunities.

Along with imperiled security comes the need for people willing to fight it. Some cybersecurity education includes a career-oriented component, so kids can understand that they are not just potential victims but could play a powerful role in reducing the risks. According to the Peninsula Press, openings for cybersecurity jobs are skyrocketing, with over 209,000 positions available in March.

As of last year, half of all states counted computer science credits as a math or science graduation requirement. Tech education is catching on—and critical complementary cyberliteracy lessons are slowly catching up.


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Should Kindergartners Do Tougher Math? Mon, 31 Aug 2015 18:42:57 +0000 Welcome back to our new STEAM series. For two weeks, we’ve been deconstructing the acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math with posts that explore each subject in a new light. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is an engineer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what does design thinking look like in the classroom?

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dive in and share your feedback

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

Get started today at

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Ben Filio

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Ben Filio

Photo: Ben Filio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. It takes a design.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Cultivate leadership at many levels.

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

  1. Don’t Reinvent the Wheel.

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

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

  1. Leverage your community.

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

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

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

  1. Find common language to ensure communication.

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

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

Barbara Ray contributed to this story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remake Learning: What’s new at Zulama?NikkiNavta_Pic

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

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

What are you most proud of?

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

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

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

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

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

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

In your mind, what makes a collaboration successful?

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

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

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


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