Remake Learning Kids+Creativity is a network of people, projects, and organizations in the greater Pittsburgh region that are empowering children and youth by creating relevant learning opportunities through the compelling use of technology, media, and the arts. Fri, 04 Dec 2015 22:59:45 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Saltwater Batteries, Finland, and Pittsburgh’s Promising Advanced Industries Mon, 02 Mar 2015 21:20:40 +0000 Before you think a new report on the state of “advanced industries” in the United States might be a bit dry, two words for you: Saltwater. Batteries.

Pittsburgh’s Aquion Energy builds saltwater batteries that, although complicated, truly sound like the stuff of the future. The environmentally friendly battery uses nontoxic materials like saltwater to act as the electrolyte. The batteries can be used in large-scale energy systems like solar and wind power generators.

Aquion Energy is an example of what the new report from Brookings calls the “advanced industries.” Ranging from software publishing to ship building, the 50-industry segment of the economy is characterized by its deep involvement in technology research and development, and in STEM.

It’s not a huge industry, but for its relatively small size, the advanced industries pack a major “economic punch”:

“As of 2013, the nation’s 50 advanced industries employed 12.3 million US workers. That amounts to about 9 percent of total U.S. employment. And yet, even with this modest employment base, U.S. advanced industries produce $2.7 trillion in value added annually—17 percent of all U.S. gross domestic product (GDP).”

Advanced industries also provide high-quality economic opportunities for workers. Wages are rising sharply in the sector, and in 2013 the average advanced industries worker earned $90,000, nearly twice as much as the average worker outside the sector. But the researchers find the advanced industries are accessible, too: more than one-half of the sector’s workers possess less than a bachelor’s degree.

It’s not all great news, though. Yes, the advanced industries have grown, but the United States is still losing ground to other countries in several measures of innovation performance and capacity, like patents, for example. Plus, the report again finds that the United States is falling behind in producing STEM graduates. As a comparison, only 15 large US metro areas beat the global leader, Finland, in the share of STEM graduates as a proportion of the young adult population. Thirty-three large US metro areas fall behind Spain, which ranks 24th internationally.

So how do we sustain the advanced industries and keep the segment competitive and in the United States? Short-term workforce training is like a bandage. Instead, the report said sustaining the advanced industries long-term means increasing the STEM proficiency of Americans through the formal education system, starting early with universal prekindergarten.

Graph/The Brookings Institution

It also means getting creative—forging partnerships, adjusting hiring requirements, and thinking outside the box about ways to widen the channels that encourage people to enter these industries and give young people more options.

That sounds a lot like what we’re doing here in Pittsburgh. Both in and out of schools, kids throughout the region are getting the opportunity to experience STEM long before college or even high school.

Just one recent example: The Allentown Learning & Engagement Center recently hosted the Digital Corps for the second time. The students learned to manipulate code, learn basic machine functions, and build their own robots. As Amber Rooke, education coordinator for the Brashear Association, recently described in a post, one student who struggles in schools lit up when working with the materials, jumping ahead without needing further directions.

Additionally, the Chevron Corporation is investing in the region’s STEM pipeline through its Appalachian Partnership Initiative with the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, RAND, and the Allegheny Conference on Community Development. It is supporting graduate students at Carnegie Mellon, for example, in a game-based learning project with students at Elizabeth Forward Middle School. The team is designing a game to teach kids about solar energy. The game, which centers on a touch-sensitive globe the Carnegie Mellon students built, requires kids to figure out how to keep the lights on in their adopted city 24/7 using only solar power.

We hope opportunities to make, tinker, and explore will give kids not only a base of STEM skills to build on, but excitement for and engagement in learning what’s possible for them both in and out of STEM careers.

If there’s anywhere that can make this happen, it’s Pittsburgh. But don’t ask just us. The report’s video highlights Aquion but also calls out the Pittsburgh region as a spot that epitomizes a strong segment of advanced industries.

“Places like Pittsburgh with their sophisticated technology assets and experienced workforces epitomize the kind of synergies a city can provide to a new company,” said Mark Muro, Brookings senior fellow and director of policy for the Metropolitan Policy Program.

Those same synergies are helpful to leverage for education, too—not only companies. Plus, as we’ve known all along, Pittsburgh has a culture of collaboration, innovation, and getting down to work.

“Even though the steel industry wound down over 20 years ago, those people are still here. That heritage is still here,” said Aquion CEO, Jay Whitacre, in the video. “It’s amazing how much we benefit from that.”


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Shared Story Adventures Fri, 27 Feb 2015 12:12:23 +0000 This February, Interactive Story Adventures took first graders from three diverse Pittsburgh schools on a three-week journey to build understanding and connections. In the Shared Story Adventures program, first graders from Pittsburgh’s Miller African-Centered Academy, Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh, and the Environmental Charter School (ECS) were brought together to share stories about their favorite places.

According to Dr. Lippman, the founder of Interactive Story Adventures, the Shared Story Adventures program was designed to provide children with formative experiences interacting with individuals they would not have met otherwise. “The community event was included in the program to create a bridge between school and community life. Research suggests this is one way to create robust learning.”

Student interacting with the Isa puppetStudent interacting with the Isa puppet

 The adventure began in classrooms where students at each school met their first puppet friend, Isa. Interactive Story Adventure’s educators introduced the program and asked students to locate their favorite spots in their classroom.

ISA’s puppet modeling story creationISA’s puppet modeling story creation

 The students also got to see their classrooms in a whole new way thanks to the GigaPan. What’s a GigaPan? Well, I found out it’s much more than a funny name. The GigaPan robot took hundreds of pictures of each room. The GigaPan software automatically combined the pictures into a 360-degree panoramic photo. Students in each participating classroom were presented with a printed GigaPan image of their classroom and they used sticky notes to mark their favorite spots on the photo. This provided a great visual map of their daily world.

Student marking his favorite spot on the GigaPan imageStudent marking his favorite spot on the GigaPan image

With their favorite classroom spot in mind, students got an introduction to writing story introductions. Students were then introduced to Dr. Senso, a puppet character in ISA’s adventure world. Dr. Senso has trouble writing the beginning of her story, so the students helped her by learning writing techniques that they could share with her. Through using hooks, they learned how to grab the reader’s attention.

The middle of one student’s storyThe middle of one student’s story

Throughout the rest of the first week, students continued their adventure by learning how to write the middle and end to their stories. Isa’s puppet friends, Sir Klomp the eccentric frog and Mr. Maxilla the gorilla also needed guidance writing their stories. Sir Klomp wasn’t quite sure how to write the middle of his story and Mr. Maxilla needed help completing his story. Helping the puppets and giving them suggestions taught the students how they could keep their own stories moving.

Student writing his storyStudent writing his story

Once they completed their stories, students practiced telling their story with their peers so they could video record them for their new friends from other schools. Students also practiced active listening by coming up with one thing they wondered and one thing they liked about the videotaped stories of their new friends.

making a video storymaking a video of a story

At the next stage of the program, students and their new friends from other schools met face-to-face via video conference. Students shared their thoughts about each other’s stories.   They asked each other questions ranging from “Where is your school?” to “What does ECS stand for?” It was exciting to hear their conversations about their teachers and favorite things.

Videoconference between studentsVideoconference between students

After spending over a week writing and learning about each other’s favorite spots in the classroom, the students were ready to write another story—this time about their favorite spot in the community. When they met in Google Hangouts for the second time, some of their initial shyness had faded, and they were excited to learn that some of their favorite places were the same!

Families from different schools at the community eventFamilies from different schools at the community event

At the end of the program, the Shared Story Adventures culminated in a community event generously hosted by the Kingsley Association. Students and families from all three schools met in person and engaged in improv activities and collaborative story creation. These activities allowed the families and students to engage with each other and promoted parent-child interaction. Connected by the Shared Story Adventures, people who had begun the night as virtual strangers had now made connections. One parent from ECS commented that the event had a “terrific feeling – [it was] great to be out with others sharing laughs and stories.”

Improv comedy at the community eventImprov comedy at the community event

The Shared Story Adventures program was paid for by generous donations from The Lippman Group at Merrill Lynch and The Kingsley Association. Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab provided a GigaPan for use in this project.


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Learning at Libraries in the Information Age Thu, 26 Feb 2015 18:18:07 +0000 At an elementary school in Riverside, Connecticut, the campus library has been rechristened. The new “learning commons” is home to a makerspace equipped with a 3-D printer and an active staff of digital media specialists. Students can still check out any of the thousands of books on the shelves or work quietly on their homework, but the new moniker and resources reflect a widespread shift in libraries throughout the country.

For centuries, libraries functioned as unique archives of written information and stories. Now, that information is available on many portable devices, but libraries are not obsolete. Far from it.

“In many communities around the world public libraries are still the only place where any person, regardless of education or skill level, can have access to information,” wrote IDEO in a recent report. Libraries are actually uniquely situated to support new types of learning and curious communities.

Recognizing the changing role of libraries, the Knight Foundation focused its 12th annual Knight News Challenge on the topic. The contest posed the question: “How might we leverage libraries as a platform to build more knowledgeable communities?” Twenty-two winners, who split $3 million in prize money, were announced in January.

The Metropolitan New York Library Council will use its winnings to assemble a mobile team of digital archivists, who will help residents in Brooklyn and Queens tell . At the Chicago Public Library, the Knight funding will go toward in-person study groups for students who want to supplement their online courses with live discussion. The Library Freedom Project, a series of traveling workshops, will teach librarians digital security methods and privacy law.

Most of the Knight projects share a premise: Libraries have always been excellent repositories of information. With some restructuring and support, they can continue to serve this function in the digital age. Another winning initiative, Boston’s Open Data to Open Knowledge, will corral the city’s public data—“digital artifacts of our life in a digital environment”—and release it in an accessible and organized manner.

As libraries carve out these new identities, many librarians are taking a thoughtful look at their physical spaces. “When every student has the potential to carry a global library on the device in his or her pocket, the role of physical libraries may become even more important, not just a place to house resources, but one in which to create meaning from them,” wrote Beth Holland in Edutopia. For young learners, it can be particularly important for a physical space to be inviting. At Westlake High School in Austin, Texas, the library was redesigned without any walls or other physical barriers, so the site is ripe for spontaneous collaboration and colearning.

In the report “Design Thinking for Libraries,” IDEO encouraged librarians to apply the principles of design thinking to their buildings and programs. The creative approach to problem solving asks empathetic, intuitive designers to focus on human needs. The process can be simple. When a second-grade teacher in New York noticed his students were disengaged, he asked them how the classroom could better meet their needs. It turned out the bulletin boards he used in most lessons were too high for the kids to see, IDEO reported.

Libraries can redesign their spaces and programs to better serve the needs of their patrons, too, whether that means simply lowering the shelves or adding a brand new children’s play area as the Chicago Public Library branch did, IDEO reported. The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh has long served as a venue for informal and digital learning. At The Labs, teenagers engage in hands-on creative tech projects, building robots and shooting videos.

These experts remind us that the piles of dusty books and literate librarians cherished by patrons of yesteryear are still around. Building on—not discarding—our print past, libraries have the opportunity to take on many new and necessary roles, be it a community center, data hub, or makerspace.





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TeacherQuest Case Files: “Engaming” Special Needs Students Wed, 25 Feb 2015 22:00:56 +0000 In this series of articles, we check in with teachers from TeacherQuest—a unique professional development program focused on games and game design.

Through this 11-month program, which includes a summer intensive followed by a series of online design challenges, teachers learn to design and use games to develop 21st century skills. 

At Rankin Promise School, a small group of students are huddled around a deck of playing cards. They’re yelling out numbers and scribbling on sheets of paper. Each student is both eager and focused; they are “engamed” as teacher Bill Wilson calls it. A blend of game and engaged, it’s his term to describe learning through game play, a methodology he has been incorporating into his classrooms since he started in the TeacherQuest program last summer.

Wilson teaches both math and reading at the fifth and sixth grade level at Rankin Promise, part of the Woodland Hills School District. Those who attend Rankin demonstrate a need for an alternative learning environment, or have special needs. Each student receives individualized academic support to help them succeed in graduating, along with professional counseling to enhance social and behavioral skills that carry into the real world. Teaching such a diverse group of students poses many challenges, but it also allows many opportunities.

Bringing Games Into the Classroom 

This school year, Wilson brings gaming into the classroom at least once a week, whereas last school year he almost never played games in class. After the TeacherQuest summer intensive, he was excited to put his new game-based learning skills into action and see how the students would react. During the first few months of school, he took it slow. He wanted his students to grasp the basics of working together and problem solving.

In a recent week, Wilson’s students played a few different games that focused on math: Rush 21, a mod of the fast-paced blackjack card game, and Kornered, a store-bought game that teaches spatial awareness and patterns. He ensures that the games he uses are aligned with district standards and that the needs of each student are being met. Wilson also debuted new game he discovered called Fraction Flip It, which generated random fractions that students had to solve. The room buzzed with enthusiasm. While one student was shouting out an answer, another would be helping a friend with their cards.

“The students never know when we are going to play the games,” Wilson said. “So, I notice they pay extra attention to learn the concepts because they want to be able to get the answers right when we do play. And if I can get one student to focus, then the rest tend to follow suit.”

Gathering Student Feedback

Gaming in the classroom has proved to be a success for Wilson, but he’s also faced some bumps along the way. Some days his kids are motivated to learn, and other days they need a little more coaxing to concentrate on the task at hand. His small class size of just four students has both worked for and against him. With so few students, games are limited to teams of two or individual play.

Although Wilson continues to look for inspiration for new games and ways to modify existing games, he has yet to allow students to create their own games. He says they’re just not at that stage yet, but he hopes to get the kids designing their own games by the end of the school year.

When asked if they liked learning with games, all four students emphatically said, “yes!”

Even though Wilson’s students aren’t designing their own games, he regularly solicits feedback from the group. He uses “heat-checks,” a facilitation tool he learned through TeacherQuest that allows students to give immediate feedback. Based on a scale of one to ten, Wilson will have students raise their hands as he counts. They put down their hands when he reaches the score they choose. He analyzes levels of difficulty and interest this way. And afterward, he allows the students to defend their scores and offer ways to improve the game. When asked if they liked learning with games, all four students emphatically said, “yes!”

Sharing Ideas and Inspiration

With the full support of the school’s administration, including principal Lamont Lyons (who attended a day-long session as part of the TeacherQuest summer intensive), Wilson is looking for a way to incorporate games as an assessment tool. Taking full advantage of the TeacherQuest online community where other educators in the program share advice, successes, questions, and challenges, he is learning just like his students. Wilson also inspires his fellow teachers with his own posts, especially his story about watching the Price is Right and coming up with a new spin on the game 4 in 40 that teaches students vocabulary in his English class.

In the future, Wilson knows he will continue to use gaming in the classroom. One day he hopes to lead an afterschool program and to hold district-wide sessions for teachers who are interested in using games as a teaching tool. And he wouldn’t hesitate to return to another TeacherQuest program or to encourage his colleagues to get involved. But for now, you can find him and his students laughing, learning, and playing games.


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The Maker Movement Gets a Dose of Critique Mon, 23 Feb 2015 22:06:07 +0000 ...Continue reading »]]> Seems everyone is a cheerleader for the maker movement these days, from President Obama to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Who isn’t in favor of more self-directed, hands-on learning projects; cupcake cars; or kids working with old-fashioned looms?

That’s why—for a lot of maker-oriented folks browsing the internet late last January—Debbie Chachra’s “Why I Am Not a Maker” in the Atlantic made them do a Twitter-scroll double take. It certainly did for me.

“An identity built around making things—of being ‘a maker’—pervades technology culture,” she wrote. “There’s a widespread idea that ‘People who make things are simply different [read: better] than those who don’t.’”

As Chachra, who is an associate professor at the Olin College of Engineering, went on to explain, placing such high value on making things isn’t only buying into an overtly capitalistic mindset—it’s carrying on a gendered history of prioritizing creation of stuff over occupations like caretaking or education, roles historically taken by women.

She also points to the peculiarity that coding has been folded so seamlessly into the maker movement. She attests that’s because we’ve figured out how to sell code—and it’s perceived to be done mainly by men. Meanwhile, teaching and caregiving, traditionally women’s work, isn’t considered part of the “maker” domain.

“Making is not a rebel movement, scrappy individuals going up against the system,” she wrote. “While the shift might be from the corporate to the individual (supported, mind, by a different set of companies selling a different set of things), it mostly re-inscribes familiar values, in slightly different form: that artifacts are important, and people are not.”

Cue the mental tire screech-sound effect at that one.

Although Chachra’s piece may be controversial, as far as I can tell, the general reaction on social media seemed to be an appreciation for her thoughtful critique. People all around the web—maker advocates or not—called it “challenging” or “thought provoking.” She does not hold back. And because so much coverage routinely hails the maker movement as the greatest thing since sliced bread, something that looks at it from a skeptical angle is refreshing to hear.

Of course, the piece elicited response from many who do consider themselves makers, often very proudly. At DML Central, educational researcher Nicole Mirra took Chachra’s critiques one by one.

“Couldn’t we instead proudly embrace our multiple identities and work to draw out the connections between them—the ways that we cannot fully realize our potential as makers until we work on cultivating the crucial caring virtues of listening, empathizing, and loving?” – Nicole Mirra

“Couldn’t we instead proudly embrace our multiple identities and work to draw out the connections between them—the ways that we cannot fully realize our potential as makers until we work on cultivating the crucial caring virtues of listening, empathizing, and loving?” Mirra wrote.

Meanwhile, blogger and the chair of computer science at the Baldwin School, Laura Blankenship, noted that the maker movement arose from our existing culture, meaning it brings with it cultural sexism, racism, and classism. But similar to Mirra’s articulations, Blankenship thinks it’s worth trying to change the movement from within.

“The maker movement deserves our critical eye, for sure, but it should be changed and not rejected,” she wrote. “Its focus can’t be on what makes white, middle aged men happy—robots, cool gadgets, cars—but we need to point out when this is happening and correct it.”

As Mirra pointed out in the beginning of her post, there does seem to be a gap in definitions. Although she doesn’t explain it, Chachra’s maker movement seems to focus in on techie, Silicon Valley start-up culture that builds the types of things that could be sold or, at the very least, shown off. But in schools and informal learning spaces, it’s the wondrously frustrating process of making that’s valued—the result of a catapult or a sword or circuit is really only a bonus. Many would likely argue there is no “adult” maker movement and educational maker movement but that it’s one and the same. However, there does seem to be a difference in definitions between what Chachra has experienced and what goes on day in and day out in makerspaces built for kids and their families.

A dialogue on making can’t be a bad thing, though. Along with recognition, at this point the maker movement has gained a key ingredient to any thing that’s ever made an impact: healthy critique.

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Project Zero: What Does Learning Look Like? Thu, 19 Feb 2015 23:32:13 +0000 Nearly 200 teachers took to Harvard Square one summer afternoon. They wandered the grounds, observing, touching, and documenting their surroundings. The professionals were participants in the Project Zero Classroom (PZC), an annual summer institute for educators. The hosts of the PZC sent their guests outdoors to get “an experiential feel” for their learning materials.

When Project Zero (PZ) began in 1967, it “functioned as a loosely knit think tank,” wrote former director Howard Gardner (the current director is Daniel Wilson). In this early form, the Harvard Graduate School of Education project, founded by philosopher Nelson Goodman, focused its research on cognition and the arts. The name was a snarky nod to the state of research on arts education at the time: Virtually “zero” was known about the field.

In the following decades, PZ expanded to encompass a much broader range of inquiry. Now, many of its programs and studies examine learning at large. PZ asks: What does learning look like? What type of learning is relevant for these students in this moment and in the future? What is the nature of understanding?

PZ asks: What does learning look like? What type of learning is relevant for these students in this moment and in the future? What is the nature of understanding?

At the most basic level, this means an emphasis on all types of engaged, self-directed learning and a departure from standardized, test-based teaching.

During a period of expansion in the 1990s, PZ built the bridge between theory and practice that is now its hallmark. At Gardner’s insistence, the PZC institute began, encouraging educators to participate in the same type of critical, interdisciplinary thinking they foster in their students.

“We need to have the individuals who are involved in education, primarily teachers and administrators, believe in this, really want to do it, and get the kind of help that they need in order to be able to switch, so to speak, from a teacher-centered, let’s-stuff-it-into-the-kid’s-mind kind of education to one where the preparation is behind the scenes and the child himself or herself is at the center of learning,” Gardner said in an interview.

Although dozens of initiatives and programs under the PZ umbrella have launched and ended, a few foundational principles have remained constant. Teaching for Understanding, a concept developed in the 1990s, refers to the idea that understanding is an ever-changing activity, not a static condition. Initially a five-year research project that produced a template for a curriculum, Teaching for Understanding has become a guiding framework.

Visible Thinking is another fundamental phrase in the PZ lexicon. Although we might assume we know how we arrived at a conclusion, “Mostly, thinking happens under the hood, within the marvelous engine of our mind-brain,” according to the PZ website. Visible Thinking is a call to get kids—and adults—to trace their cognitive processes, and to integrate this type of thinking-about-thinking with traditional content-based learning.

So what do these concepts look like when applied to modern-day classrooms? Like the educators at the PZC, students might spend an afternoon taking a hands-on walk or contemplating a painting. But PZ calls for learning tailored to today’s world. And the project is a fertile setting for digital learning.

Speaking in 1997, Gardner encouraged teachers to use interactive technology to reach different types of learners. “We have this myth that the only way to learn something is to read it in a textbook or hear a lecture on it,” he said. “But that’s nonsense. Everything can be taught in more than one way. And anything that’s understood can be shown in more than one way.”

Kristen Kullberg, a Washington, D.C. teacher, told Greater Greater Washington her students’ “comprehension has sky-rocketed” since she began implementing the principles of Project Zero. “They begin to understand that ambiguity and unanswered questions don’t need to be sources of frustration,” she explained.

Another D.C. government teacher, Karen Lee, said PZ “provided a framework for deep thinking” in an exercise in which her students drew connections between a Langston Hughes poem and the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

Here in Pittsburgh, collaborations between schools and Project Zero have taken many forms. Most notable was the five-year Arts PROPEL program in the Pittsburgh Public Schools. The Arts PROPEL curriculum emphasizes making, as well as time to observe and reflect.

And recently, teachers at Quaker Valley School District have spearheaded the development of a consortium of five school districts to participate in ProjectZero training and workshops exploring how school extension activities can incorporate lessons learned from decades of ProjectZero practice.

If it seems like Project Zero is expansive, multifaceted, and maybe a bit nebulous—well, that’s because it is.

“Attempts to create a short and sharp ‘mission statement’ for Project Zero have never succeeded,” Gardner wrote. “Project Zero is too loose a confederation of researchers and practitioners, and it is too much subject to the whims of national priorities and funding preferences, to lend itself to a simple formulation. In that sense, our ‘zero’ is both a benefit and a curse.”




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Talking to Teens About Social Media Tue, 17 Feb 2015 22:09:03 +0000 Teenage girls at a high school in Berkeley, California, logged onto Instagram one day last year to find photos of themselves populating a so-called slut page. Their male peers had taken the liberty of uploading their photos and captioning them with derogatory and misogynistic phrases. The Instagram account was eventually deleted and the perpetrators were suspended, but not before the incident caused emotional trauma.

One thing is clear: The internet did not give birth to sexism. Or to teenage bullying. It’s easy to forget that a social network is simply the digital manifestation of dynamics that exist in daily offline life, as dana boyd described in her book, “It’s Complicated.” But social media certainly provides ample opportunities to take those dynamics to the extreme.

There’s been plenty of conversation about how traditional media, from magazines filled with Photoshopped models to unrealistic TV shows, affect young people’s (and particularly girls’) perceptions of their own bodies. But there’s much less research on whether social media has a similar effect.

When Common Sense Media surveyed teens about social media, they found that many, particularly girls, are self-conscious about how they appear online. Thirty-five percent worry about being tagged in unattractive photos. And four in 10 teens say they encounter sexist or homophobic comments on social media.

In one study, teenage girls who used Facebook were found to be significantly more likely to want to be thinner than were teenage girls who did not use Facebook. (Common Sense Media notes the study didn’t prove causality; Facebook may attract a certain type of user.) Some young women struggling with eating disorders spend time in “pro-ana” or “thinspiration” social media forums, where they post pictures of their ideal bodies and cheer on each other’s weight loss.

Teens need help navigating and learning how to behave in the digital world, just like they do in the real world. Common Sense Media says parents should remind their kids that “If they wouldn’t do something in real life, they shouldn’t do it online.” When we teach kids to challenge beauty standards and to be tolerant of differences, we need to ensure those messages carry over to their digital lives.

“Students must be made to understand that online behavior has offline consequences, be given the tools to stand up and support their peers and know that, when they are being targeted, they have people to talk to,” said Common Sense Media CEO and founder Jim Steyer.

Here in Pittsburgh, Mars Area Middle School has put that advice into practice. The school’s digital citizenship curriculum tackles appropriate online behavior. Jennifer Ehehalt, the Pittsburgh regional manager at Common Sense Media, facilitates similar conversations in schools throughout the city.

Social media’s massive power can also be harnessed as a tool for effecting positive change, at school and elsewhere. Responding to the Instagram slut page—and to what they perceived as their peers’ rampant offline misogyny—the Berkeley students launched a campaign against sexual harassment. Much of the activism took place online, including on the app used to target the girls in the first place.

For some young users, social media may actually boost body confidence. Some say the selfie—much maligned as the quintessential symbol of social media narcissism—is a confidence builder. These selfie advocates say young women are celebrating how they look and curating their own self-expression rather than letting others do it for them. In a TODAY/AOL survey on body image, 65 percent of teenage girls reported that flattering selfies they or others posted online improved their self-esteem. Forty percent of all teens said social media lets “me present my best face to the world.” However, in the same survey, 53 percent said that unflattering photos posted by others made them feel bad about themselves. Further, 55 percent of girls said overall, social media made them feel more self-conscious about their appearance. It seems that self-esteem depends on who is controlling the image.

The percentage of girls who said social media makes them more self-conscious is notably larger than the percentage of boys—55 percent compared with 34 percent. This difference, which appears repeatedly throughout the survey, suggests that social media’s effects are not inherent to the medium. Offline, adult women spend 100 more hours annually on their appearances than men do, noted the same survey. Social media, like other media, is only one component of a society that, across the board, demands more of girls and their bodies than it does of boys.

The surveys cited in this post are some of the first that looked at social media’s relationship with adolescent body image. Studies on boys and ethnic minorities are particularly scant, and few researchers actively seek youth voices. The first step for those of us wondering how growing up in a digital world affects teenagers may be sitting down and listening.

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The Digital Corps comes to the Allentown Learning & Engagement Center Fri, 13 Feb 2015 19:15:46 +0000 The Allentown Learning & Engagement Center (ALEC), a project of the Brashear Association, provides young people in Pittsburgh’s Hilltop communities with a space that’s all their own. Brashear’s Amber Rooke recently shared this post about the Digital Corps at ALEC.

We have had the amazing opportunity to be a host site for the Sprout Fund’s Remake Learning Digital Corps program, twice! We participated in one class, once a week for 8 weeks. Our students love this program and always look forward to it every time.
Don’t know what Digital Corps is? Watch this quick video to learn more:


Over the course of the 8 week program, our students learned how to manipulate code, learn basic machine functions, build their own robots and more. It became a reward for good behavior because all of our 5th graders could not wait for our Tuesday sessions with their Digital Corps teachers, Ms. MK and Mr. Mike.

Each session built off the last session. They played educational games to understand functions the first week which set the foundation for lessons to which the instructors would refer back to each lesson. The students seemed to understand the way the technology worked from when they acted it out in a game.
This was a great learning tool to see in action. When students act or participate hands on in a lesson they are more apt to retain the information, and in a way have become the teacher as well.
Our students really seemed to like the hummingbird kits and had a lot of fun manipulating the technology to work for them and and their desires for a specific robot.
The best part of the program, for me, was watching two particular students. Student A tends to excel in school, at homework and likes to spread knowledge to anyone who will listen. Student B experiences great difficulty when it comes to homework, reading and following basic directives in a classroom setting. Student B came alive in this class, he quickly grasped the concepts that were taught and jumped ahead immediately without needing further instruction. When I asked Student B if he had done this before he replied “No, It’s just easy, Ms. Amber!” Student A struggled and needed frequent assistance and often sat back and gave up or expected the teacher to do the project for him.
It was amazing to see how the roles were reversed given the environment and the task. A constant nod to Ingnacio Estrada who stated:
“If a child can’t learn the way we teach, 
maybe we should teach the way they learn.”
Ignacio Estrada

I also appreciated how empowered our girls felt after each class.  Back in October, before the program started and after hearing the class description, one of our girls commented that this was a boys class. We discussed that this was not true, girls and boys can both excel at technology based programs and so much more.  After each class the girls would excitedly tell me all about what they did and how much fun they had.
We have greatly appreciated all the hard work and effort that Ani Martinez, Digital Corps Program Manager, has poured into this program as well as the many Digital Corps instructors.

We look forward to doing it again in the future!

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What’s the Next Step for Pittsburgh’s Learning Pathways? Your Feedback. Fri, 13 Feb 2015 16:16:06 +0000 Back in November, more than 400 educators, artists, students, and learning experts came together for the Pittsburgh Learning Pathways Summit. There, they exchanged ideas and envisioned pathways that would harness the region’s diverse learning opportunities. Now, seven working groups are looking for feedback from fellow subject-matter experts.

In case you need a refresher, a learning pathway is a bit like a “choose your own adventure” book where students move through various education opportunities that both interest them and equip them with a set of skills.

Theoretically, this could happen in any city with a rich web of education programs. But in Pittsburgh, seven working groups in different focus areas (robotics, STEAM, design and making, coding and gaming, media making, early learning, and career readiness) have identified the competencies young people need to gain along each path, helping them build on their talents and interests every step of the way. And badges, a new type a digital credential, are serving as way finders along these paths to show what kids have already accomplished.

In recent months, the groups have been poring over feedback from the summit, making adjustments, and identifying evidence that could be used to demonstrate competence in each focus area.

For example, in a model pathway for media making, students might start by taking a stop motion animation class at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and then move onto a digital photo workshop at Pittsburgh Filmmakers. From there, they would head to WYEP’s audio workshop to learn how to capture audio for video projects, and then they’d move on to Duquesne University, where they’d learn to add music. The pathway continues through workshops for editing, script writing, and presentation screenings.

“I’m invested in the idea of digital badges and what they could mean for Pittsburghers, especially at-risk youth.” Corey Wittig, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh

Though the members of the working groups were putting their heads together to map out these paths for kids, several members said the process was helpful for informing their own work.

“The working group project really helped to bounce ideas off of a bunch of folks serving youth around the city,” said Corey Wittig, the digital learning librarian for teen services at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. “I’m invested in the idea of digital badges and what they could mean for Pittsburghers, especially at-risk youth.”

Jessica Ruffin, site director of Public Allies Pittsburgh, agreed. “Our organization could be well-positioned to recognize badges,” she said. “It was a great opportunity to share about our region’s resources and opportunities. I learned a ton.”

But there are plenty of experts who weren’t in the room for these discussions. That leads to our next step: We need your brainpower.

We’re collecting more feedback through a set of surveys where everyone can rate and comment on each of the competencies developed by the Working Groups. After that, the Digital Badge Lab at The Sprout Fund will incorporate this last set of feedback and finalize the competencies and learning pathways, complete with graphics.

It’s been a long process to develop this project, but Maggie Negrete, a teaching artist for MGR Youth Empowerment, summed up an overarching goal at the summit last fall: “It’s about connecting community members,” she said. “There are so many people who live in our community who have the knowledge and resources we’re searching for. I wish every kid could find that one person who knew how to just get started.”

The Remake Learning Badge Competency Surveys are open now. Share your feedback!

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Rethinking Reuse: Catching Up With Erika Johnson Tue, 10 Feb 2015 18:05:32 +0000 Erika Johnson is the executive director of the Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse (PCCR). The center is both a shop of reclaimed materials and a center for hands-on creative programming. An evangelist for reuse, Johnson believes reuse is an essential and underappreciated way to build sustainable communities. Johnson is also an installation artist with a long-term passion for found, rescued, and reclaimed materials, and a more recent obsession with microscopic animals.

Remake Learning: What’s new at the Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse?

Erika Johnson: We specialize in used and reclaimed materials, but there is always something new going on. Nora and Katy on our education team have been helping our friends in the Climate & Urban Systems Partnership to develop fun, creative ways of sharing scientifically accurate information about climate change. Their 2015 calendar is filling up fast with afterschool events, workshops for kids and educators, and festivals.

Our biggest news this minute is that we are racing the clock to meet a dollar-for-dollar matching challenge from an anonymous donor to help us purchase a new van. Since our old van died in December, we haven’t been able to pick-up large donations and our staff and volunteers are carpooling to events. Our community is totally pulling together for us, and we’re having a pay-what-you-can, potluck, grown-up crafting party on February 12 to help us raise the last little bit. We keep the shop open late the second Thursday of every month for Open Studio, where creative minds 18 and older can play with the abundant materials in our “bulk” section. This month will be extra special.

We like to think these kids will grow into adults who reimagine waste as a resource for building a better world.

What do you consider the center’s biggest accomplishment so far?

I am so proud that we exist! Since 2010, we’ve grown from a tiny team of artists in an attic to a thriving resource for our community. I love that so many of our city’s libraries, schools, nonprofit organizations, teachers, artists, and innovators use materials from PCCR for their creative projects.

An entire generation of Pittsburgh kids is practicing creativity and sustainability through play with reclaimed materials. We like to think that means they will grow into adults who reimagine waste as a resource for building a better world.

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

The hardest thing is knowing how much amazing stuff gets thrown away every day in our city and not having the capacity to get more of it into the hands of educators, artists, and makers who could use it. We’re proud of the fact that we diverted over 35 tons of reusable material from the landfill last year, but that’s actually less than the city’s recycling team picks up every day.

What makes a collaboration successful?

Successful collaboration requires trust—both in ones’ collaborators and in the process of co-creation—and a willingness to surrender individual control. My friend Hannah DuPlessis recently gave a brilliant talk at Google’s Pittsburgh offices in which she talked about successful collaboration through the lens of improvisational theatre. It’s a great read for anyone interested in creating with others.

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

If it’s cold outside, there’s nothing better than a visit to one of our great museums. On a sunny day, though, you’re more likely to find me in the Homewood Cemetery looking at frogs and moss and collecting pond water to look at with my homemade microscope.

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Why Google Could Use a Lesson in Design Thinking Thu, 05 Feb 2015 19:02:40 +0000 Before consumers even had the opportunity to purchase the digital eyewear, Google announced in January it would pull Google Glass off the market. The company isn’t completely shattering Glass, but rather it’s putting an end to the “Explorer” program, which allowed curious developers to try out the product for $1,500. Google insists this is hardly the company’s last foray into wearable technology, but the original Glass has fielded overwhelming criticism since it was launched to the elite crowd in 2012.

The primary cause of concern? Privacy. The camera feature caused discomfort among unwitting passersby who couldn’t tell whether they were being quietly photographed or filmed. “Glass is easy to ignore” for the person wearing it, but “Google’s challenge in making the device a successful consumer product will be convincing the people around you to ignore it as well,” wrote Simson Garfinkel in the MIT Technology Review. Other Explorers complained that Glass was no more useful than existing devices—only much more conspicuous. New tech gadgets are often praised for their sleekness and style, but Glass just looks like a pair of geeky spectacles, wrote Jake Swearingen in the Atlantic.

Glass’s (at least temporary) demise is a cautionary tale for technologists. In another light, it’s a ringing endorsement of design thinking.

Problem solving is at the core of design thinking, which IDEO CEO Tim Brown defined as “a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.” A key element—“the needs of people”—may have evaded Google.

“It’s simple,” wrote Mickey McManus, chairman and principal at MAYA Design. “We can make strides or we can make crap. Discerning between the two will require a new workforce of design thinkers: creative, flexible, and able to imagine and solve a problem that doesn’t yet exist.”

OK, Glass? What problem did you solve?

OK, Glass? What problem did you solve?

Design thinking is a socially conscious approach that demands tech savviness but also calls on the humanity of the designer. In the case of Google Glass, a simple, intuitive assessment of the cultural moment may have revealed the culprits of Glass’s eventual downfall. Students of all ages who are engaged in design thinking could have told us: It’s kind of creepy. It’s dorky. We have to wear a computer on our faces?

Google could learn a lesson from REALM Charter School in Berkeley, California, where students put the principles of good design thinking into practice. Emily Pilloton, teacher and Studio H founder, wrote that design should be “an active response to a context . . . a social act that builds citizenship in the next generation.” Students in her program have built a school library, a farmers’ market, and an outdoor classroom. But before diving into the projects, they conduct ethnographic research to identify their community’s (or, in the case of the library and classroom, their own) needs.

Some designers have argued Google Glass is actually an exemplar of design thinking. The project was a grand experiment that incorporated creative risks and unconventional thinking—and a failure that is possibly more revealing than success would have been. Design thinking is simply manifested differently at a massive company like Google than it is in a classroom or studio, said Daniel Rose, an officer at a design-oriented consulting firm, in a LinkedIn discussion.

“For most organizations, doing some prototypes and a small beta test would be a good example of Design Thinking, but for a company with the heft of Google, they can absolutely afford to ‘launch’ something and see how it does without putting themselves at risk,” Rose wrote. “The amount of info that they learned from developing and launching it was incredible.”

He has a point. Problem solvers and out-of-the-box thinkers have to be willing to engage in some trial and error. And creative ideas often result from less successful ones. But tech for tech’s sake—products created without humanity in mind—won’t have an audience.

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Student App Designers Get Feedback From the Pros Mon, 02 Feb 2015 22:38:31 +0000 Last year, a team of high school students came to Aileen Owens, director of technology and innovation at South Fayette School District, wanting to solve a problem by using technology. The students just didn’t know which problem.

But with a little digging, the team landed on its mission: keeping kids safe on their way to and from school. Soon, the idea for the BusBudE was a born—an app that texts parents when their kids have hopped on the bus and when they’ve gotten off. And last month, the team took its prototype to local design consultancy MAYA Design, where professional designers gave the members a slew of feedback to work with.

The “Rose, Bud, Thorn” feedback process at work. Photo/Aileen Owens

Here’s how BusBudE works: An elementary school student attaches a lanyard with a small barcode to his or her backpack. When the student gets on the bus at the end of the school day, he or she scans it on a tablet at the front of the bus. The student’s parents or caregiver receive a text showing them what time their student got on and the bus number. Same goes for when the student gets off the bus.

The students coded the app using the MIT App Inventor, which is a simple block-based programming tool a bit like an advanced version of Scratch, the kids programming language developed by the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab. The BusBudE team members—Meghan Banerjee, Joe Cavanaugh, Sam Cohen, and Nick Wilke—have designated roles including programming, product development, and research and communications. Seniors Allie Kenawell and Nick Karafilis also previously worked on the project.

After the app was in working order, the team headed over to MAYA Design where the designers gave the members feedback through a process called “Rose, Bud, Thorn.” The designers helped the team sort out what works, what pieces have potential, and the aspects that still need to be ironed out or tossed altogether.

Although the designers thought BusBudE was a good first iteration, they had questions. Don’t a lot of kids have cell phones nowadays? Are you sure you can keep all this data safe and private? Have you thought about using GPS? The designers also gave the team tips on how to beta-test effectively.

Owens said rather than being discouraged by the feedback, the critiques energized the team.

“They felt valued, to think designers took their time to give them feedback. The feedback they gave them, in every instance, was another area they needed to explore,” Owens explained. “On the way home, they were rejuvenated—they wanted to get the beta test going right now. It fueled their ideas.”

All the work on BusBudE was extracurricular as part of South Fayette’s Emerging Innovation Leaders program in which students can come to Owens to get support for working on a project or solving a problem. Another middle school student is currently building two robots that will monitor the intermediate school’s hydroponic gardens. And for the last three years, another team of high-schoolers has been developing a pen-based flashcard app

For Owens, watching students go through the process was eye opening. Students had to work together, communicate their ideas, organize, and get up to their elbows in what MAYA Design, South Fayette, and others call the human-centered design process.

“If you see these types of programs taking off and students finding their passion and becoming innovative thinkers, that is something you take back into the curriculum,” Owens said. “How do we the change our curriculum to allow more students this kind of opportunity?”

Owens’ goal is to eventually develop a capstone course that would let students do this type of work within the curriculum of the school day.

In the meantime, the team is preparing for its first beta test at South Fayette Elementary School, where a small group of students will start checking in with BusBudE later this month.

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When Ed Meets Tech, Both Fields Win Thu, 29 Jan 2015 20:58:15 +0000 When Nikki Navta, founder and CEO of edtech company Zulama, was testing Zulama’s login system in classrooms five years ago, there was a hiccup right out of the gate.

The company included the standard username and password login, but schools blocked students from logging into personal email accounts to retrieve an activation link—and logging in through a social media account was out of the question. Plus, students had a difficult time remembering their passwords. Zulama wasn’t able to get students into their system at all.

“There are people who are developing technology for a classroom that have never set foot in a classroom.”

“We thought, ‘Wow, we’re operating in a whole different world here,’” Navta said. “‘We’re not going to make any more assumptions.’”

The company started asking teachers for their input, beginning a close collaboration with educators. Today, Zulama is used in more than 50 schools throughout the United States and internationally, including Elizabeth Forward High School in Elizabeth, Pennsylvania, and West Allegheny High School in Pittsburgh. Matched with a thorough teacher-training process, Zulama’s Entertainment Technology Academy teaches students the principles of game design through hands-on projects with the goal of recharging their engagement with school.

Zulama grew alongside Pittsburgh’s expanding edtech scene, which is forming around a small hub of startups popping up in new coworking spaces and tech incubators throughout the city. Like Zulama, several key players in the city’s tech scene have found that listening and collaborating with the people who will use their products—teachers and students—are invaluable in building products that work.

Growing Scene

Photo/ EdTech PGH

The EdTech PGH Meetup Group. Photo/EdTech PGH

Ever since Tom Lauwers, founder of BirdBrain Technologies, started commercializing the Hummingbird Robotics Kit in 2010, which he originally developed at Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab, he too has witnessed the edtech scene in Pittsburgh grow around him.

Lauwers said he has used Pittsburgh as the “test bed” for new products before scaling nationally, partnering with educators almost every step of the way. BirdBrain recently started shipping its new Hummingbird Kit Duo, which was shaped by the feedback from a number of Pittsburgh teachers who have been using the product for years.

“Many of the same teachers who have worked with us in the past have provided us tons and tons of advice in terms of how could we improve,” he said. “Most of those people [who have been giving me feedback] have been in Pittsburgh, because I see them around and at Kids+Creativity Network events. Because the events and network exists, that’s what helps me connect more easily with people who are, in a way, my customers, but also my co-developers.”

A similar idea exchange happens monthly during the meetings of the Courtney Francis, the organizer of the group and co-organizer of the upcoming Startup Weekend Education Pittsburgh, has worked in the edtech field for 10 years. She said the group’s 241 members are fairly evenly split between educators and technologists and that the goals of the group speak to each group’s unique interests.

“It’s such a complex ecosystem,” Francis said. “There are people who are developing technology for a classroom that have never set foot in a classroom. There’s such a complex system around doing this effectively that I think people really want to do it right. Working on the tech side, I’ve seen clearly that there needs to be 360 degrees of support for developing this kind of technology.”

“I’ve seen clearly that there needs to be 360 degrees of support for developing this kind of technology.”

For example: At one open forum, technologists had the chance to showcase their work and receive teacher feedback.

“There were a lot of lightbulbs that went off,” Francis said. For one thing, technologists weren’t aware of the really low budgets for tech in the classroom, and some didn’t understand how many schools’ sluggish internet connections can’t run web-based applications well. Others weren’t aware of how difficult implementation can be.

Although getting ed and tech in the same room can be eye opening for the tech side, the reverse can be true as well.

“The collaborative aspect is really important,” Francis explained. She said introducing teachers to the process of development can both broaden their perspectives and introduce new tools to teachers who are interested in using different technology in their classrooms.

Sales vs. Learning: Can Goals Really Align?

Although there’s a healthy back-and-forth between educators and technologists in the group, Francis said some educators have been “burned” before by poor implementation or products that don’t serve their needs. Not all of the estimated $7.9 billion pre-K–12 edtech market in the United States is made well. Seeing gaps or becoming frustrated, many teachers have struck out on their own to develop products. But Francis believes that teachers’ priorities of learning outcomes and technologists’ goals of creating great products can be aligned. Ideally, products are going to sell better if they really work.

But collaboration across sectors isn’t just key for tech to work better in schools. As Jesse Schell, founder of Schell Games, told Barbara Ray in an interview, collaboration across sectors is how new ideas pop up in all disciplines.

“Interdisciplinary collaboration is where the best and newest innovations are coming from,” said Schell.

Zulama’s Navta sees the growth of the city’s edtech scene, and the emerging partnerships, as running parallel to an overall renaissance of Pittsburgh.

“Along with this revitalization, there’s been a lot of opportunities to imagine what Pittsburgh can be like in the future. And I think that’s carried over into our educational community,” Navta said, adding that the same is true in the edtech field, where new coworking spaces—like the one Zulama is in—have helped form a community that works off one another.

“Now we have the physical spaces for very small companies to set up shop, talk to each other, and share successes and failures.”

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Gamer-in-Chief: Catching Up with Drew Davidson Wed, 28 Jan 2015 17:40:55 +0000 As director and teaching professor at Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center, Drew Davidson has his finger on the pulse of the latest and greatest in game design and learning. And he’s always pushing the envelope.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What makes a collaboration successful? 

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

How has the Kids+Creativity Network influenced your work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Game on.

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

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

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

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

Photo/Rebecca Grabman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The new MakeSchools site

The new MakeSchools site

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Community Network Eyed as Model for Supporting Digital Learning Wed, 14 Jan 2015 13:55:15 +0000 Writing for Education Week, Benjamin Herrold visits Pittsburgh to explore how members of the Kids+Creativity Network are collaborating across sectors and leveraging new technologies to make an impact on early childhood education.

From hands-on circuitry projects for kindergartners to “maker spaces” inside local museums, this former steel town has quietly emerged as a national model for supporting fresh approaches to technology-infused education, especially for young children.

The energy and innovation flow from a close-knit network of philanthropists, educators, technologists, and advocates who prize collaboration over competition. National experts are smitten with the approach.

“Pittsburgh is absolutely a leader when it comes to building a learning ecosystem for the 21st century,” said Constance M. Yowell, the director of education at the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which is supporting the city’s efforts. Ms. Yowell described the city’s active funders and universities, as well as the willingness of unlikely partners to work together, as “core ingredients for really dynamic learning opportunities.”

Take, for example, “Message From Me,” a new app for preschoolers developed by Carnegie Mellon University and the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children. The project centers around a simple digital tool, extensive training for the adults who will be using it with children, and outside-the-box outreach that will soon include weekly programs at a local barbershop.

Early-childhood advocate Cynthia Battle and Greg Powe, who works at a local barbershop, are among the unlikely partners who have come together to support digital learning efforts in Pittsburgh.

Undoubtedly, there are challenges: Bringing the 25,000-student Pittsburgh public schools into the digital-innovation fold has been difficult, raising questions about how broad the benefits of the city’s efforts will be. Large pockets of southwestern Pennsylvania—including Pittsburgh’s devastated Homewood neighborhood, where Message From Me is being piloted most extensively—are profoundly disconnected from the city’s overall renaissance.

And the lack of a robust broadband and wireless infrastructure is as much a problem here as in other parts of the country.

Nevertheless, Pittsburgh has been flooded with awards and money for its efforts.

In February 2013, the MacArthur Foundation awarded the city $500,000 to join Chicago and New York City in creating a “hive learning network” to support nontraditional youth programming.

In April of last year, on the strength of its Kids+Creativity Network, which serves as the connective tissue for more than 200 organizational partners, Pittsburgh became the first city in the country to receive a Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Award, given to groups that “have broken the mold to create significant impact” in public-policy areas such as education and health care.

And in December, local officials announced plans to create a “learning-innovation playbook” to help other cities undertake similar work. The idea for the project came from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Read the whole story at Education Week.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That may be short sighted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Networks?


Hummingbird Robotics Kits. Photo/ Ben Filio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Network’s Beginning

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


Photo: Ben Filio

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

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

Uncovering New Ideas and Ways of Doing Things

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

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

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

Tom Lauwers / Photo: Ben Filio

Tom Lauwers / Photo: Ben Filio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Digital Badging 101

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bumps in the Road

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo/Ben Filio

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

Paving a Way Forward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kathleen Costanza contributed to this story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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