Remake Learning Remake Learning is a network of people, projects, and organizations in the greater Pittsburgh region that are empowering children and youth by creating relevant learning opportunities through the compelling use of technology, media, and the arts. Sat, 12 Dec 2015 04:59:17 +0000 en-US hourly 1 It’s Elementary: Playtime Equals Learning Time for Young Children Mon, 27 Apr 2015 21:24:57 +0000 ...Continue reading »]]> With elementary schools nationwide adapting their curricula to jibe with the Common Core, some parents and teachers argue that the littlest learners should be better prepared for the academic standards they will soon be required to meet. Others counter that increasingly structured schooling makes it even more important for younger kids to have some time to play, explore, and get messy.

Earlier this month, some educators told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that this debate is misguided. They argued that those who pit play against formal education create a false dichotomy—an either/or that does not, or at least should not, exist.

When preschool teachers talk about “play,” they are talking about behavior that spurs neurological and social development, said Roberta Schomburg, early childhood education professor at Carlow University.

“Children are learning about math every day when they play and they’re probably learning about it in a more solid way than if they were manipulating symbols,” she said.

One obvious example is playing with blocks, where kids fit geometric shapes and angles together and experiment with size and quantity. But in all kinds of play, kids are counting, solving problems, and dividing toys among friends.

Psychologist Alison Gopnik has studied how imaginary play helps young children explore real-life situations and cultivate social skills and empathy. A study from her lab at the University of California, Berkeley, also suggests that playing “pretend” often engages kids in scientific thinking.

Most preschools strike a balance where activities are structured, but they are structured so that students have opportunities to explore and discover. Carol Barone-Martin, executive director of early childhood education for Pittsburgh Public Schools, told the Post-Gazette that her curricula are deliberately designed “so children can play, but they can play in a way that develops certain outcomes.”

Other teachers make a conscious distinction between unfettered free time and structured academics but make sure to offer both. When kindergarten became a full-day affair in Bellingham, Wash., the district required all classes to include 60 to 90 minutes of play per day.

Writing in USA Today in 2009, Lisa Guernsey, director of the early education initiative at the New America Foundation, agreed that play and education were not diametrically opposed. “We have to find ways to relieve the pressure on kindergarten without reaching back futilely to the early 20th century,” she wrote, “when expectations were lower and the urban and rural poor were virtually ignored.”

Guernsey suggested that teachers needed more support and training to help blend play with effective learning. She also emphasized the need to make preschool more affordable for working families and to build a “bridge between preschool and kindergarten” to allow the experience to be better integrated for teachers and their students. It is advice that needs to be heeded today.

In Pittsburgh, out-of-school organizations have joined forces to preserve play in the daily lives of our city’s children. Distressed by the decline of free play nationwide, the city, the county, arts and health nonprofits, and foundations formed the Playful Pittsburgh Collaborative to support one another in pressing for more opportunities for play.

Neuroscientists and educators have spoken: play is critical in younger years. But a focus on play does not necessitate the exclusion of academic learning. Instead, play can facilitate learning, whether kids are let loose in a costume box or on a playground, or guided by thoughtful instructors in semistructured settings. Presenting play as the antithesis to academics can only hinder us from creating the best environments for learning.


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Digital Learning Where It’s Least Expected Wed, 22 Apr 2015 05:07:43 +0000 At most hospitals, patients’ leisure time is limited to sleeping, watching TV, and visiting with relatives during prescribed hours. This can be hard on chronically ill children who may be cooped up in small rooms for weeks at a time. But at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt University, those patients have an enriching new option. A graduate student in education, Gokul Krishnan, brings around a metal cart packed with engineering and craft materials, a 3D printer, and a tablet, and encourages young patients to tinker.

The mobile makerspace is not just an artistic diversion. It’s a real-life lesson in design thinking, reports MindShift. The patients are encouraged to identify something that is missing or frustrating in their environment, and tinker with the tools until they solve the problem. A 17-year-old patient named Emily, for example, was getting annoyed by the nurses who would show up in her room unannounced. So, using wire, switches, and tissue paper from the maker cart, she fashioned a functional doorbell.

Hospitals are not the only unlikely locations to become makerspaces. Here in Pittsburgh, the Millvale Community Library hosts a weekly maker meetup for both toddlers and kids, providing circuits, electronics, musical instruments, drawing tools, and sewing supplies. A former electronic repairs shop, the building has a long digital legacy.

The mobility of technology makes for ideal learning tools. A restless patient like Emily may not be able to go to the library, but she can summon its digital equivalent on an e-reader from her hospital bed. Maker materials can be wheeled into libraries, cafes, churches, parks, and any number of accessible community spaces. And we recently wrote about the new app from Storycorps, which enables kids to learn about history and culture from family members and new friends on the go. Thanks to this portability, learning is not confined to the classroom or a specific six-hour chunk of the day.

By capitalizing on the flexibility and adaptability of digital tools, educators and communities are not discounting the value of learning in traditional and formal settings. In fact, some of the most interesting initiatives in the Pittsburgh area are products of collaboration between established educational programs and less conventional spaces featuring different sets of tools.

In the South Fayette School District, campus gardens function as outdoor classrooms and living STEM labs. Part of a program called Grow It to Go, the gardens are settings for hands-on lessons in biodiversity and sustainability. Another Pittsburgh project turns an agricultural bounty into maker tools, bringing the farm to science classes, and students to the farm. Digital Salad participants might spend an afternoon slicing fresh vegetables, then scanning images of them to use in Photoshop collages before they cook the “materials” in a stew.

A hospital, a farm … so where will the next contemporary “classroom” show up? With portable devices and a mobile maker scene, it could be anywhere.



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Maker Manager: Catching Up With Rebecca Grabman Mon, 20 Apr 2015 17:21:31 +0000 In October 2011 the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh opened MAKESHOP — an exhibit space where kids and adults can tinker with tools, a mix of materials, and the latest in digital media. As one of the country’s first museum-based makerspaces, MAKESHOP has become a national model for museums around the country.

Rebecca Grabman has been at MAKESHOP since the beginning, rising in the ranks from summer intern to manager. Grabman grew up in Anchorage, Alaska, and has a master’s degree in entertainment technology from Carnegie Mellon.

What’s new at MAKESHOP?

Right now we’re exploring the theme of “outer space” as a jumping-off point for activities. All month we’re using outer space as our inspiration and as an excuse to explore different materials and methods, asking visitors to help us transform our exhibit with objects and ideas. Currently we’re making planets out of cardboard, wool, rock, whatever we can find!

And later in the month we’ll be collaboratively building a “command center.” The plan is to invite visitors to help us write some simple computer programs in Scratch, and then also build ways to interact with the program using an invention kit called MaKey MaKey and simple circuits. We also discussed adding some fun nondigital “command” elements, like lights, switches, or maps. It’s one of those fun projects that should change and morph depending on what visitors bring to it.

MAKESHOP has been at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh since 2011. What is the shop’s biggest accomplishment so far?

I’m not sure if I can choose a “biggest” accomplishment, because we place so much value in the small steps that impact us every day. Everybody involved in MAKESHOP is constantly pushing themselves, and one another, to learn and try new things. Whether it’s figuring out how to explain a complicated process to a young child, trying something ourselves for the first time, or reading an interesting article about education, every discovery we make pushes us to be better and do better work.

Grabman hanging out inside a circular rug woven on bent yardsticks.

Grabman hanging out inside a circular rug woven on bent yardsticks.

What are you most proud of?

That we’ve become a true embodiment of the museum’s mission: to inspire joy, creativity, and curiosity. When MAKESHOP began there were huge questions that we had no idea how to answer: How would visitors respond to activities? How would we manage the numbers of people? What could we expect young children to be capable of? We are now recognized as a national leader in our field, helping other museums, libraries, schools, and community spaces think about how to integrate making into their communities and learning experiences.

What’s the toughest part your work?

Between running the museum space, teaching classes, brainstorming new ideas, planning after-hours events, and staying connected to the wider conversations about making, MAKESHOP has a lot of things happening all the time. It’s all a blast, but it certainly keeps me busy. For me the toughest part is making sure that we’re keeping track of everything, and that the team has the resources and support they need — it can get pretty complicated when there are over 40 teachers, librarians, and other educators hanging out with us, taking 26 workshops over four days!

When I’m working with visitors or school groups, the toughest part is always trying to navigate the complex relationship between expectations, intentions, and outcomes, because there are always multiple stakeholders involved: a child and parent, a teacher and student, time limits, and a learning objective. Finding the pathways to balance those things can be complicated, but it is also extremely fun and challenging, and always rewarding.

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

Since I’m at the museum on Saturdays, I like taking it slow on Sunday afternoons. I usually get brunch with a friend (it’s a personal goal to eat every waffle in town) before either strolling around Schenley Park, poking around the main branch of the library, or working on one of the many half-finished projects cluttering up my apartment. This Sunday I’m actually thinking about stopping by work on my day off, just to check out our guest maker from the Pittsburgh Glass Center.

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Learning Competencies: Digital Badging with Meaning and Relevance Fri, 17 Apr 2015 14:50:36 +0000 The Remake Learning Network is excited to unveil a shared set of competencies for learning in-school, out-of-school, and on-line. In conjunction with the creation of Pittsburgh City of Learning, a city-wide digital badge and experience discovery platform launching this summer, these competencies will serve as the foundation for dozens of community partners as they create individual knowledge, skill, and disposition badges for their unique programs.

Over the past eight months, more than 100 local subject matter experts, informal and formal educators, youth workers, and program managers were engaged in working groups to develop the 103 competencies, which are organized into 7 centers of programmatic excellence within the Pittsburgh community: Career Readiness, Coding & Gaming, Design & Making, Media Making, Robotics, STEAM, and Early Childhood Education.

In addition to the competencies themselves, we also published detailed information and supporting materials for the methodology we used as a community to reach the results.

We hope that organizations in Pittsburgh and beyond will find these competencies useful building blocks when developing criteria for digital badges that recognize young people’s learning accomplishments both in and out of school.

This work was made possible through the generous support of the Henry L. Hillman Foundation Opportunity Fund and led by the staff of The Sprout Fund.

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Pittsburgh Public Schools to Open STEAM Magnet Program Tue, 14 Apr 2015 23:11:12 +0000 Once at risk of closing, Pittsburgh Woolslair PreK-5 will become a partial STEAM magnet school next year with the aid of nearly $900,000 in foundation grants to support STEAM learning at several schools in the district. The new STEAM programs are part of an ongoing movement in the region’s schools and informal learning spaces to improve access to STEM learning as well as to integrate the A in “art.”

The Pittsburgh Public Schools Board considered closing the small school of about 110 students in 2013 to help narrow the district’s budget deficit. But last September, the board approved a plan to turn the school into a partial STEAM magnet school, meaning kids from all around the city can apply. The school will also stay a neighborhood school, and the STEAM program—which stands for science, technology, engineering, art, and math—will grow one grade level per year.

When the district approved the plan in the fall, funding for the program was still up in the air. On Wednesday, the district announced the plan would be funded with $480,000 in grants from the Grable Foundation and $391,000 from the Fund for Excellence, a consortium of foundations.

Foundation support will also help to develop STEAM curriculum at Lincoln PreK-5 and Schiller 6-8, two other schools in the district. The district is also planning a STEAM program for Perry High School.

“Our current vision for STEAM education is to provide experiences where kids will eventually not just participate in the economy as consumers of things, but have the capacity to really be makers of things,” district STEAM coordinator Shaun Tomaszewski told local radio station WESA.

The district plans to hire two new STEAM teachers who will lead the program at all three schools and collaborate with teachers on projects. The schools will also turn spaces in each of their buildings into STEAM labs with plenty of spaces for hands-on projects.

At the news conference announcing the STEAM programs, students from Schiller showed off levees they’d built in plastic shoeboxes with materials like sand and sponges. Though the details are still developing, teachers throughout the district will be also able to seek mini-grants for innovative STEAM projects with the new funding.

Although the Pittsburgh region has always had long history of industry and engineering, the new shift towards combining art and design sets the programs apart.

The STEAM movement is growing in the Pittsburgh region. The Allegheny Intermediate Unit, one of 29 intermediate units across the state that are part of the public education system, has poured over $2 million into STEAM grants for 150 schools across the region, ranging from robotics to coding and game design. At the C3 Lab at Blackhawk High School, students use 3D printers to design and print parts for broken equipment. Meanwhile, students at Crafton Elementary School have been known to use the STEAM Studio, a dedicated room with technology and equipment, for projects during lunch.

And although the region has always had long history of industry and engineering, the new shift towards combining art and design sets the programs apart and helps prepare kids for an economy that requires divergent and creative thinking.

“Some of the things you’re seeing going on at universities right now, [like at] Carnegie Mellon, are pulling together people who are engineers, who are artists, designers. That’s the kind of thing we see going on out in the world,” Superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools Linda Lane told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in an article about the Woolslair plan last September, before it was finalized. “I really like that kind of blending.”



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Changing School to Fit a Changing World Mon, 13 Apr 2015 19:19:15 +0000 Finland is often lauded for having cracked the education code, producing students who are successful by every definition of the word. But even in educational utopia, leaders know the system needs to adapt to meet modern demands.

Finland has announced that, beginning in August 2016, the country will abandon some of its subject-based schooling in favor of an interdisciplinary “phenomenon”-based approach. Less history and math; more history of math.

“We are often asked: Why improve the system that has been ranked as top quality in the world?” said Irmeli Halinen, head of curriculum development on the Finnish National Board of Education, in a filmed announcement. “The answer is, because the world is changing around the school.”

The new national curriculum is a response to the “challenges of globalization, development of technology, and to the challenges of sustainability,” Halinen said.

It’s an effort to prepare kids for the standards of the 21st-century workforce while creating a “space for joy of learning in schoolwork,” she said.

So what does this all look like in action?

The Independent took us to a Finnish elementary school that already employs the new approach.

“It’s an English lesson, but there is a map of continental Europe on the whiteboard,” the author wrote. “The children must combine weather conditions with the different countries displayed on the board. For instance, today it is sunny in Finland and foggy in Denmark. This means pupils combine the learning of English and geography.”

But in addition to melding traditionally autonomous topics, there’s a new emphasis on student participation and collaboration. The curriculum was developed after heavy input from students, Halinen said.

It’s naïve to think the answer to educational woes in the United States is to simply mimic a system like Finland’s. The United States has different philosophies of education (more focused on individualism, for starters) and a different—much more diverse—student body than much of Europe has. But thoughtful educators and administrators here have long understood the benefits of interdisciplinary learning.

The effort aims to prepare kids for the standards of the 21st-century workforce while creating a “space for joy of learning in schoolwork.”

In March, we wrote about the “artificial line between art and science,” as Loretta Jackson-Hayes, a chemist and professor, described in a Washington Post op-ed. She wrote that her most successful science students are the ones who can communicate their research at conferences or write about it coherently in publications.

Take, for example, the STEAM movement. STEAM education infuses creativity into engineering, and it teaches mathematical thinking through art projects. In Pittsburgh, many educators, in and out of schools, have embraced STEAM.

The Allegheny Intermediate Unit has provided $2.1 million in STEAM grants to schools in western Pennsylvania for projects that meld science and art, including creative tech labs. At the Pine-Richland High School STEAM center, students used 3-D modeling software to design a fully functional electric guitar. At The Labs @ CLP, teen visitors to the Carnegie Library can hang out at the media labs where they have access to creative digital tools and musical instruments.

But it’s not enough. Too many students in the U.S. are bored and disconnected from school. Making the connections across subjects, like in Finland, and making connections between what students learn in the classroom and what goes on outside the classroom are critical. A 2006 study by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation found that 81 percent of those who drop out of school claim that “opportunities for real world learning” would have helped them stay in school. Only approximately one-third of students who dropped out left because they were failing.

Finland may be, well, Finland, but it’s worth watching as a model for learning that re-engages kids and teachers.

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Pittsburgh Students Rise to the Challenge of Addressing World Water Crises Mon, 13 Apr 2015 18:51:30 +0000 In March, students from four Pittsburgh area high schools came together for a two day Water Design Challenge. Hosted at the University of Pittsburgh‘s William Pitt Union and supported by a Hive Grant from The Sprout Fund, students were asked to brainstorm to raise awareness about real world water crises. Emily Stimmel shared this story on the Kidsburgh blog.

The problem: raising awareness about real world water crises. The problem-solvers: 55 students in grades nine through 12 from four local high schools.

In March students from Chartiers Valley, Elizabeth Forward, McKeesport and Mt. Lebanon high schools participated in a 2-day Water Design Challenge at University of Pittsburgh’s William Pitt Union. The activities were designed to inspire students to think as local and global citizens and consider the social and environmental implications of something most of us take for granted—water.

Though the project was multidisciplinary in scope incorporating social studies, world language, science and technology–and drawing faculty and students from all four schools–it was pioneered by Mt. Lebanon High School social studies teacher Tina Raspanti. After reaching out to Veronica Dristas, the assistant director of outreach at Pitt’s Global Studies Center, for help in developing a global studies program geared to high schoolers, she felt inspired.

“She told me to dream big,” Raspanti says. So, with a team of likeminded Mt. Lebanon High School teachers, Raspanti approached The Sprout Fund for a grant from its Hive Fund for Connected Learning and the group immediately got to work setting the project in motion.

With funding, Raspanti and her team were able to cover the costs of food, transportation and overnight accommodations offering an “equal playing field for all school districts.” Because no single school was responsible for footing the bill, students from the four schools had equal access to the Water Design Challenge leading to a more diverse, innovative pool of ideas. “It was great to see how they melded together,” says Raspanti, noting that “think globally, act locally” became the teams’ shared motto.

Students engaged in brainstorming sessions and evaluated their ideas using the concepts of human-centered design thinking championed by the event’s facilitator Pete Maher of LUMA Institute. Ultimately, the judges selected two winners—one presenting a local solution and the other a global one.

Make it Rain, the winner in the category of local solutions, promoted a rain barrel system that offers tax credits to residents who use it to water their lawns, encouraging conservation through financial incentives. In the global category, Women 4 Water created a detailed website describing how far women in developing nations walk to retrieve potable water. The average distance was six kilometers, so the all-female team chose a 6K race as the vehicle for raising awareness of the issue while generating funds to support these women.

Students weren’t instructed to use specific tools or methods for awareness-raising, but they naturally gravitated towards social media with most of the groups setting up simple websites and mock online fundraising campaigns.

They also weren’t asked to recruit the next cohort of participants, but they’ve eagerly taken on the task. Though the pilot project focused on water, the essential element of the Challenge is uniting a diverse group of students to collaboratively solve a problem. With Water Design Challenge as a model for future Challenges, the teens who participated in the pilot project are brainstorming the next topic and spreading the word to their peers. With additional funding, Raspanti hopes to develop the project into an annual event uniting diverse groups of students from schools across the region.

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Storytelling App Is Powerful Learning Tool Wed, 08 Apr 2015 17:11:45 +0000 A 9-year-old boy approaches a man in a small-town Texas park. When they start chatting, the man gets an idea. He pulls out his smartphone, equipped with a new app from StoryCorps, and starts interviewing the boy.

The beginning of the conversation is unmemorable, if amusing. (What was the happiest moment in the boy’s short life? “My first sushi.”) But it takes a poignant turn when the man asks the boy how he’d like to be remembered. I’d like to stop racism, he answers, without hesitation. The middle-aged black man is clearly startled by the white boy’s response. What started out as a casual chat between strangers morphs into an encouraging cross-generational conversation about prejudice, history, and compassion.

The app that prompted this unusual interaction just made its digital debut. But StoryCorps has been active since 2003, facilitating some 50,000 interviews. Founder David Isay had been a radio producer who, while working on an audio documentary about the Stonewall riots, discovered the power that comes with wielding a microphone.

“The microphone gave me the license to go places I otherwise never would have gone and talk to people I might not otherwise have ever spoken to,” Isay told a captive crowd at TED2015. He quickly learned that his sources felt empowered, too. He recalled one exclaiming “I exist!” when he saw his photograph and story published.

“Over and over again, I’d see how the simple act of being interviewed could mean so much to people,” Isay said.

With StoryCorps, Isay set out to give both the interviewer’s power and the interviewee’s platform to regular people, who he knew to hold fascinating narratives and wisdom. Until now, all interviews have been confined to StoryCorps booths, which have permanent locations in three cities and on a trailer that tours the country.

“Over and over again, I’d see how the simple act of being interviewed could mean so much to people.”
Now, thanks to a TED prize, support from the Knight Foundation, and the expertise of Pittsburgh-based MAYA Design, anyone with a smartphone can access a virtual “booth.” On the free app, users are given simple instructions for recording an interview and uploading it to the public online archive and to the Library of Congress. The app works on iOS and Android platforms and allows users to share interview excerpts on social media.

“We’ve found a way to use technology to preserve an experience that is extremely personal, without being obtrusive,” said Greg Gibilisco, MAYA director of visual design, on the firm’s website.

Dozens of stories are already on the site. Many of the interviews mirror those told in the booths: oral histories of elderly relatives and moving conversations between close friends. But some of the participants, like the man in the Texas park, take advantage of the new mobility to strike up spontaneous conversations with people they find intriguing or different. Others tell stories in unconventional settings, like the back of a speeding cab.

Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 3.58.27 PM

Screen Shot/ StoryCorps

Those who work with young people are probably already thinking about the app’s implications for learning.

Pittsburgh’s Hear Me is founded on the premise that storytelling—particularly of the digital variety—empowers and effects change. At Hear Me, a CREATE Lab initiative, teenagers use digital tools to record both personal and political stories. Their voices, often ignored in other settings, are amplified.

With projects like Hear Me and the StoryCorps app, kids might be drawn in by the fun technology or the spotlight, but in the meantime they develop a slew of other skills. Interviewing, of course, requires active listening. Being interviewed requires clear communication. Both roles demand collaboration and confidence.

The online archive is key. Teachers who lead digital storytelling units where student pieces are published have spoken about the effect of an audience.

In a National Writing Project report, educators commented on “the creativity and innovation that emerge when young people face challenges in conveying their interests to a wider audience.”

Back at the Texas park, interviewer and interviewee are wrapping up their session. The boy has segued into considering the dangers and merits of medical marijuana. The man, who had no expectations when he decided to open his new app, has been rendered nearly speechless by the kid’s precociousness.

“I don’t think anyone is going to believe this was unscripted!” he says, laughing on the recording.

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What Would Technology Look Like if Our STEM Workforce Were as Diverse as Our World? Mon, 06 Apr 2015 22:49:25 +0000 If you’re African American and want to text an emoji that looks like you to a friend, until now you’ve been out of luck. But that’s about to change, thanks to the Unicode Consortium (the group responsible for standardizing and developing emojis). It announced last February that users would be able to select from five skin tones for any emoji that looks human. Considering emojis have entered into people’s daily lexicon, and given that several emojis exist for something as simple as a car, it’s about time users have faces and hands that look more like actual technology users throughout the world—faces that are black and brown, as well as white.

The tech industry’s lack of social diversity isn’t breaking news. Major tech companies have announced their numbers and the largest tech giants are nearly 90 percent white and Asian, with a predominantly male leadership. But the lack of diversity shows up in more than company stats—it shows up in the products millions of people use and depend on in their daily lives.

Another example: Apple didn’t include a way to track menstrual cycles in its HealthKit app. Sure, HealthKit will help track your sodium and copper intake, but what if you’re in the half of the population that needs to pay attention to when they are menstruating, the single-most trackable measure that affects multiple aspects of women’s health? You’ll have to download a separate app (which, apparently, may also have been made by a man.)

The quest for emojis (and apps) that are as diverse as technology users.

But technology’s whiteness and maleness isn’t a problem only because the products like emojis or apps often don’t reflect the needs or interests of all their users. It’s also a problem because of what we’re missing. What kind of devices, products, or amazing wondertools of tomorrow don’t we have because only a sliver of society controls the tech world?

“We don’t even know what the world would look like if we gave girls the leverage and the power of technology,” said Reshma Saujani, Girls Who Code founder, in a MAKERS video. Girls Who Code is a program aiming to teach computer science education to 1 million girls by 2020. “Their ideas are so different than if I was teaching a group of 20 boys. And all their ideas are centered around changing the world.”

If we want to find out what the world would look like, we need to open up more opportunities for STEM learning and build skills in technology among the rest of the population early on. As several writers have noted, it’s not simply a “pipeline” issue—there are still problems in hiring practices and company cultures that impede a diverse workforce. For example, Hastings College of the Law Professor Joan Williams’ research has delved into some of the ongoing biases that push women out of the STEM workforce. But STEM in schools is certainly a place to start.

As Catherine Rampell explained in the Washington Post, “Few [schools] teach any tech skills beyond how to consume, rather than create, technology. Which is understandable, to an extent; if you’re a struggling public school, you’re not going to invest resources in computer science when your funding depends on not leaving children behind in math and reading.”

But changing public school curricula is a slow process, which is why out-of-school programs and informal learning spaces may be a critical way to help kids get these kinds of experiences.

Here in Pittsburgh, middle school girls at Assemble’s Girls’ Maker Nights use the easy coding programming language Scratch, work together on monthly maker projects, and meet local STEAM experts.

And last fall, teen mentors in a program called Tech Warriors from the Neighborhood Learning Alliance (NLA) taught elementary schoolers in underserved neighborhoods how to build robots, code, and create animations.

“We’re giving inner city youth exposure to the technology education field and leadership skills in the classroom by having them be role models to younger students,” Cole Hoyer Winfield, program coordinator for the NLA, told NEXT Pittsburgh. “It provides them with opportunities and exposures they wouldn’t otherwise have.”

Providing underrepresented groups the same kinds of opportunities to pursue STEM learning isn’t only fair and just, but the untapped potential and talent will inevitably improve the potential of technology for everyone.

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April Fools’ Day: Laughing at the Earliest in Edtech Wed, 01 Apr 2015 16:10:04 +0000 Looking for the latest in edtech? You’ve come to the right place. We’ve heard word of a new computer game whose goal is to build a “kicking machine.” And another where the player types a letter of her choice and watches a nearly static illustration appear just moments later.

Um . . . April Fools’! Next to the 3-D printers and lifelike simulations of today, these products may sound like jokes. But just a few decades ago, they were at the cutting edge of education technology. In honor of the most humorous of holidays, join Remake Learning on a trip down edtech memory lane.

STICKYBEAR ABC Stickybear ABC, a game released in 1984, conformed to a popular picture book structure: It aimed to teach the alphabet by pairing each letter with an illustration of an item that begins with it. A? Apple. B? Baseball. The machines of the 1980s offered a new level of interactivity that the analog format lacked. To play Stickybear ABC, a young person typed a letter of his or her choice, prompting one of the corresponding pictures to appear on the screen after several seconds of suspense. The illustrations were mildly animated and typically featured the titular character, a cartoon bear who’s still stars in contemporary software.

LOGO In the past few years, increasing numbers of schools and organizations are teaching coding to kids. But programming for the younger set is hardly a 21st-century invention. Back in 1967, Logo entered the scene. In the following several years, the educational programming language gained widespread use in schools. When students entered basic commands, a turtle-shaped icon responded. Players could direct the turtle to design various geometric shapes, hopefully picking up some math skills along the way.

Word Munchers, another early educational game. Photo/Ken Fagar

ROCKY’S BOOTS In Rocky’s Boots, a critically acclaimed game from 1982, the player’s avatar was an orange square. The player/orange square had to design a series of logic circuits. The end product? A “kicking machine,” or a mechanical boot that gave the boot to various objects on a conveyor belt. The logic circuits ensured the boot kicked only the desirable objects. When the player succeeded, an animated raccoon materialized and did a dance.

TYPO ATTACK When teenagers today are tasked with designing video games, they come up with complex narratives and stunning graphics. In 1982, kids had decidedly less to work with, but one 17-year-old managed to create a program on his ATARI Home Computer that earned him a $25,000 prize and was eventually used in schools. In David Buehler’s Typo Attack, users eradicated enemy letters by typing the correct key as they fell down the screen.

LAPTOPS IN SCHOOLS? It’s common these days for schools to instate one-to-one laptop programs, providing take-home devices to all students. In 1990, a class of lucky 10-year-old girls in Melbourne, Australia, pioneered such a program. When the fifth-graders at Methodist Ladies’ College received their laptops, they weren’t allowed to take them home for two weeks. First they had to learn maintenance and basic skills, like entering the date and time. An author who documented the experiment noted that one girl gleefully tricked her machine into thinking the date was different. Once the students were comfortable with the computers, the teachers got to work convincing their parents of the educational value of “using high-tech stuff.” 

In 1982, “The Kids’ Whole Future Catalog” was published. The delightful document was packed with predictions for the 21st century, including prophesies for education. The authors saw teachers inevitably replaced by robots. Of course, we’re far from such a scenario, but the rapid integration of digital tools in learning environments these days certainly raises fascinating questions about the roles of educators and parents in a quickly evolving ecosystem. We know the value of games-based learning (at least when the games look a bit more sophisticated than the programs described here) and equipping kids with STEAM skills and technical expertise. But technologists like Illah Nourbakhsh talk about ensuring digital learning sparks, rather than stifles, interpersonal connection and opportunities for educators.

Our last treasure from the recent past is a 1990 Apple promo video that envisions the classroom of the future. In it, teachers videochat and send each other “cyberlinks” to their lessons. It’s a surprisingly realistic portrait of the kind of fantastic fusion of education and technology we see today.

And one wonders what contemporary gadgets and games will end up on the April Fools’ Day blog post—or brain chip imprint—of 2050.

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Young Learners Need a Neutral Net Mon, 30 Mar 2015 17:51:24 +0000 Many internet users (i.e., people) cheered when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted net neutrality rules in February. But the so-called open internet has its critics, too. As net neutrality faces threats from some internet providers and lawmakers, proponents of equitable education are weighing in on the importance of these protections for young learners.

The new FCC policy prohibits internet service providers (ISPs) from giving preferential treatment to content creators or companies that are willing to pay more for their data to be distributed faster. Likewise, ISPs can’t slow traffic for those who don’t pay. The FCC says ISPs must serve as neutral channels for all information, without regard to who is supplying or receiving it, the nature of the content, or how much data a website uses.

In the education world, we’re well aware of the barriers some communities and kids face in accessing digital content. But regardless of the kinds of devices they have (or don’t have), most teens are connected to the internet in one way or another. When Pew researchers surveyed teens in 2012, they found 95 percent were online. In Slate’s blog Future Tense, Vikki Katz and Michael Levine discussed their study, which revealed the lengths to which low-income parents go to get their kids connected to the web.

But what happens when the internet itself is stratified?

When net neutrality suffered a major blow in a January 2014 court decision, many speculated that companies, when charged to distribute their content, would push the new costs onto consumers. Net neutrality advocates usually use Netflix to illustrate this point. The popular website, which uses massive amounts of bandwidth, would likely be charged for this privilege by ISPs and would likely let consumers pick up most of that tab. But educational sites would be just as vulnerable as major online repositories of TV shows—and they may be less equipped to handle new costs.

Formal and informal learning spaces depend on unfettered access to digital content. In many cases, schools, afterschool programs, or libraries are the only places kids can access the ever-expanding trove of online information. A school librarian made the case for net neutrality in Wired last year. “School, public, and college libraries rely upon the public availability of open, affordable internet access for school homework assignments, distance learning classes, e-government services, licensed databases, job-training videos, medical and scientific research, and many other essential services,” Barbara Stripling wrote.

Threats to digital learning don’t concern only schools. At Remake Learning, we’re fans of connected learning, which encourages young people to bring their personal interests into the classroom and forge connections between their interests at school, home, and online. In addition, many schools are trying flipped classrooms, where students watch lectures at home and do “homework” in class.

Educators shouldn’t have to field obstacles to reach an eager audience of learners

Stripling underscored what the lack of net neutrality would mean for young learners’ creativity and preparation for a modern-day workforce. “The fact is that many of the innovative services we use today were created by entrepreneurs who had a fair chance to compete for web traffic,” she explained. “By enabling Internet Service Providers to limit that access, we are essentially saying that only the privileged can continue to innovate.”

Education is a content-creating field. Net neutrality ensures educational content providers enjoy the same freedoms as their counterparts in other industries do—and that independent educational companies are allowed the same exposure as those with more financial backing.

“It’s not hard to imagine . . . a network where the video for courses from the University of Phoenix or Coursera run quickly, but those from edX and your local community college run at slower speed and lower resolution,” California State University’s Michael Berman told Campus Technology. Katz and Levine pointed to Spanish language education and news websites that would likely be relegated to the “slow lane” of internet traffic without FCC protection.

These educators know net neutrality is an equity issue. Young people deserve equal access to all information, and educators shouldn’t have to field obstacles to reach an eager audience of learners.

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Parenting for Technology Futures Wed, 25 Mar 2015 20:54:59 +0000 Illah Nourbakhsh was in high school when the first Texas Instruments scientific calculator came on the scene. The device, whose predecessor is now commonplace in math classes, was a huge boon to education—and it sparked a new debate on appropriate technology use in the classroom.

A few decades later, the implications of integrating digital technology into education are much broader. Whereas the calculator was simply an efficiency tool, digital technology today has the potential to positively transform social interactions and interdisciplinary learning. Meanwhile, concerns regarding digital privacy and appropriate digital technology use have grown.

Photo/Ben Filio

In his book “Robot Futures,” Nourbakhsh acknowledged the inevitable rise of robotics, and he wrote that society has to act fast to harness the technology’s immense power and use it for social good. The professor of robotics and director of CREATE Lab at Carnegie Mellon University has just published a second book, “Parenting for Technology Futures.” In it, as he did in “Robot Futures,” Nourbakhsh recognizes the advent of digital education as certain and full of opportunities for new kinds of learning. But he advises parents to ask, “How do I give my child the best possible preparation for a post-human future powered by technology?”

Kids, the author warns, are at risk of becoming passive “techno-consumers.” Adults in their lives should “prepare our children so well that they influence the robot future.”

Technology’s rapid rise has created a rift between youth and their adult mentors, Nourbakhsh claims. “The gap has to close,” he told Remake Learning. “The only way our children will be competitive in a hyper-technical future is if parents and teachers work together with children, as a unified team, to create the best possible circumstances for learning and personal empowerment starting right at birth.”

Although “Parenting for Technology Futures” is aimed at parents, the book is a good primer for anyone interested in the best use of technology in both formal and informal education, or in the role adult mentors can play in young learners’ lives. Nourbakhsh reminds readers that children spend only 20 percent of their waking hours at school, so it’s crucial to explore opportunities for learning during nonschool hours.

“You cannot depend on school as a first introduction to the joy of learning and discovery,” he writes.

Throughout the book, Nourbakhsh cautions against blindly embracing what he calls “silo STEM.” Many schools are heavily propping up the STEM disciplines and consequently sacrificing fields that involve more communication and creativity, he explains. As a technologist himself, he does not discredit the value of STEM or ignore our dire shortage of students prepared for careers in the field. Instead, he criticizes the view that each STEM discipline is an autonomous entity most valuable when pursued to the exclusion of other fields.

“The inspiration to bring knowledge from multiple disciplines together to solve any problem confidently will always have value,” Nourbakhsh writes. “STEM has already morphed in many circles into STEAM—this is a healthy move because it incorporates Arts back into the family of core learning sensibilities, where it belongs.”

Nourbakhsh’s accessible book is packed with these kinds of thoughtful musings on the future of technology and learning, as well as with online resources and practical suggestions for those in the thick of it. He praises the “gamification” of education and business, citing the immediate feedback, healthy competition, and social interaction facilitated by games-based learning. He tells parents to let their kids take them on a “digital tour” of the devices and games they use. Kids will feel proud of their technological prowess, and adults will be brought out of the dark.

Having worked with a range of students himself, Nourbakhsh sympathizes with the adults who are simply overwhelmed by the range of digital tools on the market. When picking an educational product, “ignore the business hype and focus on the track record,” he advises. And be conscious of scale; what might be right for an individual at home might not work in the classroom.

Nourbakhsh’s CREATE Lab is a testament to the benefits of hands-on, collaborative digital learning. At CREATE Lab, kids and scientists alike are encouraged to use technology to further pursue their passions and to discover new areas of interest. The aim is to foster community-minded technologists. Whenever possible, the organization makes its creations available to local people and partners. Past projects include the BowGo, an expertly engineered pogo stick that jumps up to 4 feet in the air; Can Pals, a modernized tin-can telephone with which kids can record stories that others can listen and respond to; and Energize Haiti, which brought energy-monitoring software to a hospital and energy-generating equipment to a playground.

Nourbakhsh knows that technology is a powerful and often daunting force. In his books, he lays out clear steps kids and adults can take together to become agents, not victims, of change. When employed wisely, digital tools can be extraordinary catalysts for collaboration and creative growth.

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Bearing Witness: Catching Up With Hear Me’s Jessica Pachuta Mon, 23 Mar 2015 19:32:20 +0000 Jessica Pachuta is project codirector at Hear Me, a youth empowerment and media initiative at Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab. As Director of Hear Me 101, Jessica trains teens in Pittsburgh high schools to create documentaries and bring their messages to decision makers. She spoke with us about what she’s learning from spending so much time hanging out with politically engaged young people through Hear Me.

Remake Learning: What’s new with Hear Me?

Jessica Pachuta: Hear Me just wrapped up its fall/winter audio campaign on school funding. We partnered with the Campaign for Fair Education Funding coalition because they wanted to hear from students in schools across Pennsylvania about the way school funding impacts their educational experiences. The stories are all online. For our current campaign, we are partnering with Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy to ask students to explore the role that hands-on learning outdoors could or should play in their education. Interviews from this campaign will be shared with educators around the region, including the Pittsburgh Public Schools and local charter schools to inform decisions on environmental education initiatives. We also just started working on the Hear Me 101 video documentary project this year with our partners and students at schools in the Mon Valley.

What do you consider Hear Me’s biggest accomplishment so far?

Long term, that’s easy: the Hear Me 101 interns! Each year, we select a student from each of the Hear Me 101 partner schools to work with us for six weeks over the summer. They create action plans for their documentaries and receive training in youth voice strategies, messaging, and connecting their media to audiences. It’s the best part of our summer—hanging out with engaged young people who believe in their voices, then seeing them go back in the fall and take those attitudes and sense of empowerment back to their schools.

How many teens have finished the program so far? What else are they up to?

So far, there have been eight young people who’ve finished the program and they’re going to do big things in Pittsburgh. Just wait. 

The toughest part—and sometimes the most valuable part—is bearing witness to the reality of how many young people just aren’t served by the institutions put in place for them.

Recently, we got together with some really smart people in Pittsburgh to plan a Media Empowerment Student Summit (#MESSpgh). So, in November, some adult allies in Pittsburgh planned a day for high school students to come together to learn and share skills in media making and activism. There were workshops on stop-motion animation, audio production, a history of student activism, and -isms and their effects on us, and there was a panel of youth activists and live performances to end the event. It was a really high-energy day. The most rewarding part for me was seeing students from different parts of Greater Pittsburgh, who probably wouldn’t have the chance to meet otherwise, discussing youth organizing work they’re doing and getting excited about meeting peers who are also passionate about youth-led media initiatives in Pittsburgh.

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

The toughest part—and sometimes the most valuable part—is bearing witness to the reality of how many young people just aren’t served by the institutions put in place for them. Also, when they can’t make sense out of—or feel powerless in—these institutions. It’s very enlightening and humbling to realize that sometimes us adults can’t make sense of these institutions either. Those are the stories that I think are really important to deliver to decision makers—the ones that say, “Please listen to us! Help us!”

How have you connected with other members of the Kids+Creativity Network, and how have the relationships influenced your work?

Our relationship with the K&C network is interesting because everyone is a potential collaborator. The network includes people who are really inspiring, push each other, and share practices, and now it includes youth in the network.

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

If it’s not football season, I’m either volunteering with Women in Film and Media Pittsburgh, doing homework for my MBA program, or on a nice loooooong bike ride on the Great Allegheny Passage.

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What Would Fred Rogers Think of Today’s “Screens”? Fri, 20 Mar 2015 18:54:20 +0000 Today, Fred Rogers would have celebrated his 87th birthday. The world is very different from what it was in 1968, when “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” first aired and thousands of children tuned in to sing along or watch the trolley chug along to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.

In many ways, though, we’re still looking to him for guidance in this frenetic, screen-saturated world. His advice still presents a calm, balanced, and thoughtful voice.

Being a father of two young girls, I have a love-hate relationship with our devices just as many parents do. Steve Jobs famously banned his own iPad from his kids. But in dismissing these apps and devices, are we overlooking a new window for learning and growing?

Fred Rogers was not a fan of television for children. But he also realized that it wasn’t going away, so he asked: What good can we do with it?

And when Fred spoke of technology he said, “No matter how helpful computers are as tools in the classroom (and of course, they can be very helpful tools), they don’t begin to compare in significance to the relationship between the teacher and the child that is human and mutual.”  

We at the Fred Rogers Center take Fred’s approach seriously. We believe the conversation should not just be about screens and screen time, but how we can use them to help our children grow and develop. Media and technology use is a fact of life for families and children, so how do we make the most of our opportunity and use these tools appropriately?

Here are some answers we are developing with the help of parents, educators, and researchers:

  • Media can help young children learn, but only when these tools are used intentionally, with parents and educators sharing the experience and in ways appropriate for each child’s stage of development. For how we interpret Fred’s message as it applies to present-day technologies, please read our position statement with the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
  • Time with adults still matters most. Learning is most likely to occur when children are having warm, meaningful interactions with their adult caregivers. That goes for media, too. It doesn’t mean you can’t sit your child in front of an iPad or “Caillou” while you make dinner, but it does mean being careful not to allow technology consumption to replace human interaction. As my colleague Michael Robb said, our iPhones, computers, tablets, and digital cameras are here to stay. But, relationships still matter most.
  • Don’t insert technology when a real-world experience will do. Preschoolers need tactile experiences: digging in the dirt, experiencing the natural world, and reading physical books. If you can do an activity just as well without technology, you should consider whether you need it at all. Technology should be used to enhance what’s already going on in children’s lives and in their classrooms, not supplant it. Or as Fred said, “a computer can help you learn to spell h-u-g, but it can never help you know the risk or the joy of actually giving or receiving one.”

So how can we achieve this delicate balance where screens can be windows to wonderful experiences, especially when coupled with warm, supportive interactions with adults? We feel we can start right here in Fred’s neighborhood of Pittsburgh, where we are fortunate to be part of a team of researchers, game designers, early education professionals, and many others working together to support early learning with new media for young children. This tight network of colleagues in the region allows us to brainstorm, share innovations, and learn.

One of those innovations, for example, started from a simple question: How can technology improve children’s learning and growing in classrooms? Melissa Butler, a kindergarten teacher at Pittsburgh Allegheny, and Jeremy Boyle, a resident artist with Carnegie Mellon’s CREATE Lab, took the question to heart and developed simple circuit blocks to teach 5-year-olds about noticing details, being precise, and being persistent in a very hands-on way.

The experiment has since grown and branched out to become the Teachers’ Innovation Project—a partnership among the Fred Rogers Center, Carnegie Mellon University, Carlow University, Clarion University, Pittsburgh Public Schools, and The Sprout Fund –in which researchers from our Center and partnering universities are documenting the exemplary teaching practices in the project to further professional development with digital media.

This is but one example. Many more are happening in Pittsburgh, and that is one reason why we are very excited to be a part of the Remake Learning Council. The commission, composed of leaders from the education, government, business, and civic sectors, is committed to helping all kids in our region acquire the knowledge and skills they’ll need to navigate lifelong learning in the digital future. The networks in Pittsburgh allow all of us to dream bigger and find passionate and committed people to support new ideas—ultimately putting the children first and advancing positive change.

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Picturing a New STEM Workforce Wed, 18 Mar 2015 03:40:29 +0000 Close your eyes. Now picture a scientist. Do you see a white man, maybe cloaked in a laboratory coat, with his hair in wild disarray? If so, you’re hardly alone.

In 1957, Margaret Mead and Rhoda Bubendey Métraux had 35,000 high school students write essays describing their perceptions of a scientist. Nearly everyone’s descriptions matched the one above. Then in 1983, David Wade Chambers developed the Draw-a-Scientist Test (DAST), which asked participants to do just that. In the initial study, 5,000 students were tested, and only 28 girls drew a female scientist. In the last three decades, the test has been administered many times to participants of different ages, races, genders, and nationalities. The results are almost always the same.

In reality, science and other STEM fields are not quite as homogenous as they are on DAST paper. The presence of women and people of color is thankfully a bit higher than it typically is in these studies. But not by much. Last year, Google released its demographic data, confirming suspicions about the makeup of its workforce. As of June 2014, Google employees were 70 percent male and 91 percent white or Asian. A US Census Bureau study from 2011 found that although women composed almost one-half of the nation’s workforce, they composed only one-quarter of STEM professionals.

How do prevalent images of scientists—in our minds, on paper, in the media—relate to the reality of STEM fields?

“Inoculating the perception of a scientist is tantamount to fixing the leaky STEM pipeline,” wrote Ainissa Ramirez in Edutopia last month. Her claim is a bold one, and it’s not quite substantiated. Nobody can say for sure whether our stereotypes of scientists are caused by—or help perpetuate—the demographic makeup of STEM. A child asked to draw a particular type of professional will produce an image of the type of person she, consciously or subconsciously, believes belongs in the field.

Some studies suggest exposure to diversity in a field positively affects perception and stereotypes. A DAST study in 2014 involved undergraduate students taking a class on science education methods and graduate students studying science education. The scientists in the graduate students’ drawings were less likely to be white (66 percent versus 95 percent) or male (70 percent versus 90 percent) than those in the undergraduates’ drawings. The graduate students were immersed in the field, and their awareness of female colleagues may have influenced their perceptions.

In 2013, two researchers compared the gender makeup of those enrolled in high school physics (a nonmandatory, higher-level science class) with that of STEM workers from the same communities. They found that “the male advantage in high school physics is significantly smaller or nonexistent in schools situated in communities where more women are employed in STEM professions.” Again, they acknowledged there’s no evidence for causation here, but they wrote, “In communities where a higher percentage of working women are employed in STEM occupations, larger gender stereotypes at the societal level may be subverted by a picture of what is possible that differs from that typically associated with more traditional gender roles.

More role models and other women working in STEM fields might be a powerful “fix” to the imbalance. Research has shown that when people fear they’re living up to stereotypes of them—such as “women aren’t good in math”—it affects their performance. First identified by C. M. Steele and J. Aronson in 1995 in a now famous study, “stereotype threat” causes members of a group to worry that their poor performance will confirm the perceived negative stereotype about their group. This threat can cause stress that undermines performance. Further, consistent exposure to stereotype threat, like that of women in math and science, can lead them to no longer value the subject or choose not to pursue it further. The resulting poorer performance induced by stereotype threat can create a feedback loop that convinces girls that, indeed, they are not smart enough for STEM courses.

In Pittsburgh, many organizations have long worked to combat disparities in STEM by introducing students to role models and pathways into STEM fields. The Carnegie Science Center runs Tour Your Future, a program that introduces girls to female professionals in a range of STEM careers. STARTup SOMETHING, a program through Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Pittsburgh, pairs at-risk youth with mentors at tech companies. In addition, high school students throughout the region join Girls of Steel, a competitive female robotics team that has competed in international tournaments. Hosted and supported by Carnegie Mellon University, the team welcomes applicants of all financial levels from the Greater Pittsburgh area.

Scientists—and engineers, mathematicians, and technologists—look alike, on paper and on TV, as well as in most offices and laboratories. Groups like those in Pittsburgh are working hard to show our future professionals that this doesn’t need to be the case.

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Five Things You Might Not Know About a “Flipped Classroom” Wed, 11 Mar 2015 17:35:02 +0000 In a “flipped classroom,” teachers record the lectures they’d normally give in class and students watch them at home. Then, students use time in class for activities—what in traditional classrooms is called “homework”—and to get one-on-one help from a teacher. The goal is to make better use of classroom time for dynamic, hands-on experiences.

There’s been a lot written about flipping classrooms, but here are a few points that sometimes fly under the radar:

  1. The model has been around for more than a decade.

Most people had never heard of a “flipped classroom” until 2012 or 2013, when the new model received national coverage in the New York Times and on NPR and became a daily topic on education websites. But the origins actually go back to a small town in Colorado in 2004. The district was relatively rural, and high school chemistry teachers Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams struggled because their students, many of whom were high school athletes, did not have enough time for homework in the evenings. Students in the rural district often spent inordinate amounts of time traveling to sports or extracurricular activities.

In 2007, after reading about new technology in a magazine, they decided to start recording their lessons using PowerPoint presentations, audio, and screen captures and asking students to watch them at home. Voila! The flipped classroom was born. (Well, after several years of tweaking and perfecting from there, that is.)

  1. Kids don’t just “watch” a video.

In a recent post at Edutopia, Bergmann and Sams argued the word “watch” is too passive to capture how students interact with flipped classroom lectures—kids “watch” a TV show or movie.

“We want them to interact with the video content,” they wrote. “There is research which states that passive learning (even learning with video) doesn’t help students achieve more.”

For a low-tech solution, they suggested asking kids to pause the video and try a problem on paper. For a higher-tech option, ask them to write responses in a Google form as the video progresses.

  1. You don’t have to flip your whole class.

Yes, usually when people talk about flipped classrooms they’re referring to flipping the whole class. But there are tons of resources for flipping only one lesson or one unit. The Flipped Learning Network also invites teachers to flip one lesson for one day in the fall and provides resources for teachers who are interested in giving a flipped lesson a try.

  1. Teachers don’t necessarily have to record their own videos.

Along with a rise in popularity of the flipped classroom has been a flood of new tools, videos, and prerecorded lectures teachers can substitute for their own recorded lessons. For example, has a feature that lets teachers create a flipped lesson from a TED Talk. Khan Academy’s enormous library of lessons also helped popularize the movement.

  1. Video will never be a replacement for good teaching.

Although there’s been plenty of positive press on the benefits of a flipped classroom, there’s also been a healthy dialogue on the pros and cons.

Lisa Nielsen, educator, author, and blogger, has written repeatedly about the need to question the merits of at-home lectures.

“I believe the most effective way to learn is to do work that’s meaningful, not to sit and watch someone else do something. This is not revolutionary,” she told the School Library Journal in 2013.

“If there’s a video that can help someone understand something, that’s great. I just don’t think that should be the be-all and end-all.”

Nielsen also pointed out that each student watches the same video, leaving little room for discovery or following their own interests.

Plus, not every kid has an internet connection or a device to watch videos on, something Bergmann and Sams have addressed with alternative strategies.

“Where I was teaching, 25 percent of kids didn’t have internet access at home,” Sams told Remake Learning in an interview in 2013, adding that he was typically able to resolve the problem by putting videos on flash drives or DVDs. “We need to provide something for the students. A laptop you can check out. It’s a problem, a hurdle, but it’s usually something that can be resolved. I don’t think it’s a deal breaker.”

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The Artificial Line Between Science and Art Tue, 10 Mar 2015 04:50:17 +0000 Everyone, from oil execs to President Obama, has called for stronger education in STEM. After all, there’s a shortage of people prepared for the tech and engineering jobs crucial for our economy’s well-being.

But those employed in STEM fields are sometimes the strongest advocates for education in the humanities.

“Our culture has drawn an artificial line between art and science,” wrote Loretta Jackson-Hayes in her recent Washington Post op-ed. The chemist and professor issued a call for liberal arts training alongside STEM skill building.

Her viewpoint is shared by many of tech’s trailblazers. Steve Jobs famously said, “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough—it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing.”

The communication skills fostered by a liberal arts education are invaluable in STEM careers, Jackson-Hayes said. She has to be able to clearly articulate her research in journal articles, and she brings her chemistry students to conferences where they must effectively and compellingly describe their work.

Jackson-Hayes quoted David J. Skorton, president of Cornell University: “‘Many of us never received the education in the humanities or social sciences that would allow us to explain to nonscientists what we do and why it is important.’” The lack of communication skills among STEM professionals could breed a vicious cycle. Without interesting or clear writing about the sciences, students may not be inspired to pursue the subjects.

Some graduate institutions in STEM fields are slowly embracing the logic of interdisciplinary learning. In 1987, the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai began guaranteeing admission to high-performing college sophomores studying humanities and social sciences. The students in the experiment, who weren’t required to take premed courses or the MCAT, ended up doing as well as the typical students at the med school. And starting this year, all prospective doctors will take a revamped version of the MCAT with new questions on population health, ethics, and psychology. Whether a student ends up as a heart surgeon or a podiatrist, knowledge in these areas is important for anyone who works with people under sensitive circumstances. A liberal arts education based on questioning, critical thinking, and social awareness helps develop empathetic and compassionate professionals.

Jackson-Hayes, like Jobs, is clearly not dismissing the recent emphasis on STEM education. She’s simply cautioning against promoting it exclusively, or to the detriment of creativity.

We’ve written on the value of turning STEM into STEAM (the “A” stands for “art”). The maker movement is emblematic of this harmony. Maker education teaches technology skills—with a heavy dose of tinkering, experimentation, and creativity. We’re also proponents of design thinking in schools, where students are encouraged to solve complex problems while tuning into the desires and needs of the people who will use them.

In Pittsburgh, many initiatives and schools have long taken an interdisciplinary approach to learning, melding tech and science education with the arts to build critical and systems thinking skills. Hear Me combines tech tools with storytelling, so youth participants can get decision makers to listen to them. At the Labs at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, teens have open and guided access to an array of digital tools and a studio space. The Institute of Play brings game design to the classroom, because dull, standardized STEM lessons don’t cultivate an engaged and innovative citizenry or workforce.

STEM education, whether in elementary schools or graduate institutions, can open its arms to the liberal arts without sacrificing any of the skill building necessary for our future workforce.

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TeacherQuest Case Files: “Engaming” Special Needs Students Thu, 05 Mar 2015 23:11:49 +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.

Students at Elizabeth Forward Middle School near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania are challenging the familiar adage “don’t play with your food.”

TeacherQuester Timmie Kearns teaches Family and Consumer Science, which is the current reference for the Home Economics classes of the 20th century. But Kearns’ class is far from simple cake baking and grocery list planning. In fact, her co-ed class blends technology with games and other hands-on activities that make her students hungry to participate.

Known as a forward-thinking school district, Elizabeth Forward is home to several programs that are pioneering the way students learn. They have a symbiotic relationship with Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center, which frequently playtests in-development games with students primarily in their middle and high schools. Not to mention the Dream Factory, a makerspace that boasts the latest technology and tinkering equipment. As if having a Dream Factory wasn’t enough to give the school “geek-cred,” each of the 2,355 students received their own iPad in the school’s signature bright red color. Elizabeth Forward was the first school district in Pennsylvania to give an iPad to every student.

Given the investments that the school’s administration has made in their students and teachers, it’s no surprise they jumped at the chance to participate in TeacherQuest—an 11-month professional development program that teaches educators how to design games and integrate game-like learning into their classrooms and curriculum. TeacherQuest is a partnership between NYC’s Institute of Play and the Pittsburgh area’s Allegheny Intermediate Unit 3 STEAM initiative. Teachers from all Allegheny County schools were invited to apply. Timmie Kearns and Anne Meals (a language arts teacher) attended on behalf of Elizabeth Forward. Months after beginning, both teachers are rocking game-based learning in their respective classrooms.

At the beginning of Kearns’ nine-week rotation of the 6th grade Family and Consumer Science class, students covered the basics of food preparation like sanitation, food-borne illnesses and kitchen basics. Then they really got cooking. Students made their own Jolly Rancher lollipops, muffins, “goop” granola, snickerdoodles, tortilla chips and apple dip and other tasty treats. Kearns could see that the students had a blast making their own food—but memorizing definitions and food terminology were not so much fun. That’s when she broke out the secret weapon she had been practicing in TeacherQuest…game design.

TQ_EFMS_slideshow5After designing her own games as part of the TeacherQuest program, Kearns was ready to lead her students through the design process. She started by giving them some examples, like game shows and classic card games. Within a week, the students had designed and created their own games aimed at learning the technical terms used in cooking. Broken into teams, the students did their own “game jam,” where they playtested each other’s games. The results included games inspired by Apples to Apples, Musical Chairs, Go Fish, and a classroom favorite, 7-Up. Every student was engaged helping teammates set up their games. An observer wouldn’t have guessed that these students were learning terminology and definitions. It looked more like a summer camp or community fun day.

“This is definitely making learning definitions less boring!” Kearns said as she laughed. “It’s great to see the students really connecting with each other and having memorable experiences while learning.” She went on to talk about her experience making games at the summer intensive portion of the TeacherQuest program. “My biggest obstacle was letting go of being a perfectionist, and realizing that I could make a game and jam on it even if it wasn’t completely flushed out. We learned we could mod a game on the fly. And that was really eye-opening for me. Basically, I had been playing games my whole life, just like my students, and I knew more than I thought I did.”

Kearns breaks down the benefits of integrating gameplay into her curriculum into three ways.

  • The students learned problem solving, since they had to create their own method of learning and work through the rules and structure of the game, then teach it to others.
  • Creating games instills patience in her students. In a time when people expect immediate gratification, this method of self-regulation shows kids that they may have to rework something in order to get it right.
  • Lastly, Kearns saw the kids developing a special camaraderie with each other that you don’t get from learning independently. They had to work together, give each other feedback, and interact in order to be able to learn the material.

Trish Maddas, principal at Elizabeth Forward Middle School, is ecstatic about what she’s seeing in the classrooms, and says the feedback from parents is overwhelmingly positive. “When you come to sewing or cooking class, it tends to not be something students think is really fun right away,” said Maddas. “But now that we’ve integrated gaming, students are just really excited to get to work. Kids go home and tell parents how fun school is, and this program is carrying over into the home and the community.”

Elizabeth Forward is certainly mixing up the pot when it comes to learning, and we can’t wait to see what they sink their teeth into next.


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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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