Remake Learning Remake Learning is a network of people, projects, and organizations in the greater Pittsburgh region that are empowering children and youth by creating relevant learning opportunities through the compelling use of technology, media, and the arts. Mon, 16 May 2016 19:59:50 +0000 en-US hourly 1 For University Makerspaces to Succeed, Incoming Freshman Need a “Maker Mindset” Tue, 24 Nov 2015 17:28:40 +0000 Universities around the country are adding makerspaces to their campuses. At a Crafts Center at Tufts University, undergraduates work on kilns and experiment with printmaking materials. And at a Scenic Shop at Santa Clara University, students construct set pieces and props for the school’s theatre. And in at University of California, Berkeley, engineering students print body parts in a 3D printer to help children with physical disabilities.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



]]> 0
Closing the STEM Gap, From Pittsburgh to D.C. Thu, 19 Nov 2015 23:30:23 +0000 Jahnik Kurukulasuriya spends a lot of time in the lab. At 17, the Pittsburgh Allderdice High School junior has made nucleotide sequences that could help detect cancerous cell lineages.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

]]> 0
Youth Take the Reins at Media Summit Tue, 17 Nov 2015 19:26:17 +0000 Pick up any major news publication this month and you’re bound to see young people front and center. From Connecticut to Missouri to California, teenagers and young adults are speaking out about racism, fear, and injustice in their communities.

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

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

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

MESS participants network with local organizations. Photo/Jessica Pachuta

MESS participants network with local organizations. Photo/Jessica Pachuta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

]]> 0
“Making” Change at Y-Creator Space Thu, 12 Nov 2015 18:19:39 +0000 Last year, a group of kids in Pittsburgh set about making cycling safer—and more stylish. With a sewing machine and a lesson in circuitry, the pre-teens created a shirt that lights up and changes color depending on how fast you ride your bike.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



]]> 0
An Allentown Storefront Shows Why Afterschool Programs Truly Matter Tue, 10 Nov 2015 18:28:10 +0000 On a bright morning in October, the small storefront space that is home to the Allentown Learning and Engagement Center, or ALEC, is quiet. The walls are lined with books, games, and children’s photography and artwork. Come about 3 p.m., though, a gaggle of elementary school kids will pile through the door in a whir of energy. Today, they’ll complete homework, learn a lesson about another country from an ALEC staff member (Ireland is the topic), and snack on peanut butter tortilla roll-ups.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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







]]> 0
What I Have Learned from an Artist Fri, 06 Nov 2015 17:05:54 +0000 When I started as a teacher in 1994 on the Southside of Chicago in what was then the Robert Taylor Homes, I was introduced to a concept of arts-integration. By luck or serendipity, I met one of the best teachers I know (Karla Daye, Chicago Public Schools), and I also met one of my most significant intellectual mentors (Daniel Scheinfeld, of then, Erikson Institute). Back then I thought “arts” was fun. I didn’t know how to be a teacher, but I got to work with a teaching artist who was a dancer and I learned to collaborate to find ways to integrate movement into my teaching of language arts. I got to explore and take risks and learn an artistic process for teaching that I didn’t even know I was learning at the time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

]]> 0
Embodied Learning Moves, Runs, Dances into Pittsburgh Schools Tue, 03 Nov 2015 20:57:51 +0000 This fall, an already robust partnership between SMALLab, the Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), and Pittsburgh area schools is expanding.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

]]> 0
Going to Rome Before Recess Wed, 28 Oct 2015 17:08:58 +0000 For many students, a history lesson on Ancient Rome is largely inaccessible. Understandably so: plenty of kids have seen only the architecture of their own cities, and the sights and sounds described in their textbooks couldn’t feel more distant from their daily lives.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

]]> 0
A Playbook for Building Collaborative Innovation Networks Tue, 27 Oct 2015 18:02:39 +0000 Last night, The Sprout Fund released the first printed edition of the Remake Learning Playbook at the Pittsburgh meeting of the League of Innovative Schools, introducing leaders representing more than 70 school districts from across the U.S. to Pittsburgh's Remake Learning Network.

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

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

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

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

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

In the meantime, you can start exploring at

]]> 0
Tapping, Clicking, and Reading Through the Digital Wild West Mon, 26 Oct 2015 17:34:05 +0000 In their new book, “Tap, Click, Read,” authors Lisa Guernsey and Michael Levine invent “Readialand.” In this mythical place, “human beings are in control of technology, not the other way around.” Families speaking an array of languages harness new tools to support their children’s learning and literacy development. And, importantly, in Readialand, these same adults put devices away when they are distracting. Product developers work alongside educators and families to create materials that foster language development and literacy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

]]> 0
Help Local Schools Build Their Dream Makerspaces Thu, 22 Oct 2015 19:24:30 +0000 A number of Pittsburgh-area schools have grand plans to support hands-on learning on their campuses, and they need your help this week.

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

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

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

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

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

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

]]> 0
6 Resources for Celebrating Digital Citizenship Week Tue, 20 Oct 2015 17:21:57 +0000 When it comes to navigating the world of social media, online games, and web chats, kids need information from a trusted source. This week, Common Sense Media is urging parents and teachers to “have the talk.”

A talk about digital citizenship that is.

They argue that just like explaining the birds and the bees, talking about the “bits and the bytes”of digital citizenship—how to behave safely, responsibly, and ethically in the online world, is a right of passage.

Plus, as they point out on their website, “It’s actually a lot easier than that other talk.” Perhaps.

But many parents and educators feel like newbies in digital spaces. They need resources of their own when helping students navigate online tools and communities.

In honor of Digital Citizenship Week, October 18-24, we decided to revisit some past stories on the issue at Remake Learning and elsewhere. These pieces provide adults with a place to start.

  • Teaching Digital Citizenship. Our post from last year includes helpful examples of how educators and parents are helping teens think critically, and safely, about their engagement with the digital world.
  • Talking to Teen Girls About Social Media. Online activity can affect girls’ body image and confidence. Adults can work to make sure real-life lessons about how to challenge dominant beauty standards and be tolerant of differences carry over to their digital lives.
  • Cybersecurity. A helpful roundup of new programs that districts and teachers are using to equip students with crucial safety skills.

If you have your own thoughts or stories about digital citizenship, join the conversation on Twitter at @remakelearning or with Common Sense Media #HaveTheTalk.

]]> 0
If You Give a Student (a Fraction of) a Cookie . . . Thu, 15 Oct 2015 17:36:18 +0000 As an undergraduate at Columbia University, Eliane Stampfer Wiese thought she might want to become a teacher. The computer science major enrolled in a teacher-training program at Barnard, where she quickly found she was more fascinated by studying how students learn than by teaching them.

“I’d be working with a student trying to explain something and thinking that someone must have looked at the best way to explain this concept,” Wiese said. “Or has someone looked at the best way to explain this concept? I found I was drawn to those questions.”

“I think teachers would probably be surprised that a lot of the reasoning that adults and instructional designers take for granted is actually very difficult for students.”

Wiese has just received a Ph.D. from Carnegie Mellon University, where her research turned up interesting revelations about how young students learn math—and what adults might get wrong.

Math learning looks different than it did when Wiese was growing up in the 1990s. Today, there is a stronger emphasis on reasoning and logic—teaching kids why a solution makes sense rather than having them memorize the process. To prepare kids for 21st century learning, math educators want them to be able to tackle complex problems. Common Core math instruction places more emphasis on the conceptual understanding of mathematics than on procedural memorization.

“But actually creating instruction that does that for students in a way that they can understand is really difficult to do—and also interesting,” Wiese said.

Take fractions, the focus of her doctoral research and a common line of inquiry at CMU. Fraction addition, she said, demands a “kind of reasoning that seems very obvious to adults” but is not so clear-cut to kids.

While the steps to fraction addition are not necessarily logical, the doctoral student thought it should at least be clear to the student when an answer was wildly incorrect. Because you are adding two positive sums when you combine fractions, the resulting quantity should clearly be bigger than each original piece. So as long as students know the size of the fractions and the size of the sum, they should be able to determine whether the solution is even possible, right? Wrong, Wiese found out.

Through a series of studies with Pittsburgh-area public school students, Wiese’s research found that while the concept of adding positive magnitudes might make sense to kids when the equation involves whole numbers, the lesson is not always transferable to fractions. On top of that, our traditional graphical representations of fractions (a brightly colored rectangle divided into four pieces, say) do not necessarily make sense to students.

“I think teachers would probably be surprised that a lot of the reasoning that adults and instructional designers take for granted is actually very difficult for students,” Wiese said. She cautions that her research does not provide conclusive advice to educators, but said it speaks to the power of scaffolding.

Her best results came when she broke the process into smaller steps, starting with the graphical representations and adding numerical symbols only after the kids understood the images.

Wiese is still researching learning, only now she is a postdoc at UC Berkeley. She has mostly left her fractions in Pittsburgh, but continues to study visual representations. This time, she is looking at integrating graphs into science instruction.

Wiese said she will always have fond memories of Pittsburgh. For a doctoral student interested in learning science, she said, Pittsburgh was the place to be. CMU’s multidepartmental approach to learning science, specifically through the Program in Interdisciplinary Education Research, led to a rich cross-pollination of ideas between fields. And high-tech research facilities helped her collect data.

Even across the country, she hopes to continue debunking adult assumptions about learning and making the fundamental concepts accessible to kids.

There may be easier ways to offer visual representations. After all, Wiese said, if you tell a fifth grader you’re going to give him two cookies of a certain size, and instead give him one single cookie that isn’t twice as big, he would know there was something wrong with that picture.




]]> 0
Could a Teenager End Ebola? Tue, 13 Oct 2015 18:25:27 +0000 Throughout 2014, Ebola ravaged West Africa, with many cases going undetected until it was too late. But in a lab a few thousand miles away, a teenager was working to change that.

Olivia Hallisey, a 16-year-old from Connecticut, is the grand prize winner of this year’s Google Science Fair for developing an Ebola detection method that may eliminate many of the problems with the existing approach. The current tools and chemicals require constant refrigeration—often impossible in the regions most affected by the virus; they also take up to 12 hours to produce a diagnosis and cost about $1,000 per patient. Hallisey’s technique uses silk fibroin, which allows for room temperature storage. The diagnosis can take as little as 30 minutes and costs just $25.

“It’s basically a pregnancy test for Ebola,” Hallisey told Fox News. “The hope is to see this project to the end and see it being used to help people.”

She and the other winners were selected from a global pool of contestants ages 13 to 18. (Watch the video of the awards ceremony to meet some of the finalists.)

Last year, the same science contest put a spotlight on Pittsburgh when Mihir Garimella won in the 13 to 15 age category. The Fox Chapel Area High School student built a flying robot that can sense and avoid moving objects. The design was inspired by an invasion of fruit flies in Garimella’s kitchen; the teenager was impressed by the pests’ ability to dart away from his hand.

Google’s version of a science fair has a bit more to offer than the typical fluorescently lit show-and-tell in a campus auditorium. (Namely, the potential to win a $50,000 scholarship or an expedition to the Galápagos Islands aboard a National Geographic ship.) But even without the fanfare and high stakes, young people in Pittsburgh produce impressive inventions and designs every day.

Just look at Girls of Steel Robotics, a team of young women from all over Pittsburgh who build functional robots, which they enter into competitions. Their inventions include Ada, a recycling ’bot, and E.V.E., who can throw Frisbees.

Thanks to the Allegheny Intermediate Unit STEAM grants, public school students throughout the county have the opportunity to build all kinds of gadgets and equipment—or, in the case of Blackhawk High School, to fix them. Much to their teachers’ delight, students there have used a 3D printer to repair a tripod, a paper cutter, and a drill case.

At the Google Science Fair awards ceremony, the host said: “The lesson of the evening is there are a lot of brilliant kids doing a lot of amazing work, and the key is you have to get out there and try something. So for all you watching at home, what will you try in 2016?”

The Google Science Fair website provides a place to start. A nifty tool allows prospective participants to input their interests and ambitions, and up pops a treasure trove of articles and resources to get you started.

]]> 0
Recap of the Creating 21st Century Learning Spaces Workshop at West Liberty University Thu, 08 Oct 2015 19:20:47 +0000 In September, Lou Karas, Director of Center for Arts and Education at West Liberty University, extended an invitation to the Remake Learning Network to attend a workshop on creating 21st century learning spaces. With support from The Benedum Foundation, WLU is working to rethink the design of educational learning environments to improve learning spaces.

The workshop was presented by The Third Teacher+, an educational design consultancy and global architecture firm. The consultancy’s collaborative research experience resulted in a book, The Third Teacher, about the ways in which design directly impacts teaching and learning, including 79 actionable ways to use design to improve learning environments. Workshop attendees were given a design challenge, and Patricia Croft, Executive Director of Children’s Museum of the Ohio Valley, reflected that the group’s “combined knowledge led to some unforeseen, innovative solutions.”

Learning Innovation Strategist Sunanna Chand was inspired by the inclusive, actionable ideas presented at the workshop: “It was interesting to see how Third Teacher takes educators through the process of re-imagining their own spaces, and then gives concrete examples of how schools have implemented significant changes on a small budget while including families and communities in the process.”

Select workshop attendees will receive support from West Liberty University to remake their own classrooms this school year using the techniques they learned.

Ready to take action and remake your learning space? Here are six no and low cost improvements:

  1. Declutter physical space to help with cognitive load
    Kellie Meyer, Principal at Pittsburgh Montessori, suggested an approach to tackling classroom decluttering by “getting down to their [child’s] height, at their eye level, to see from their perspective, what the room looks like.”
  2. Be equipped for different modalities of learning on demand
    Do you have responsive materials and spaces designed to meet the varying needs of  your learners?
  3. Better utilize storage
    Are your everyday learning tools easily access while the occasional tools are stored appropriately?
  4. Consider classroom circulation
    How do students and the educator move around the space? Can this be improved simply by rearranging?
  5. Use color thoughtfully
    Painting classroom walls can make a big difference
  6. Encourage collaborative, creative thinking
    For under $15, you can make a giant whiteboard to serve as creative thinking space

More resources to check out:




Furniture Designers

]]> 0
Pittsburgh Goes to Washington for National STEM Initiative Wed, 07 Oct 2015 17:37:33 +0000 The White House sure has seen a lot of Pittsburgh lately. There was the time Mayor Bill Peduto was invited to the first White House Maker Faire in 2014. Also last year, local superintendents were honored there for their schools’ technology integration efforts. In 2013, a Pittsburgh teenager showed off his research at the White House Science Fair.

But President Obama hasn’t seen the last of the City of Bridges. In November, Pittsburgh will be one of 27 cities to convene at the president’s home to share STEM learning advice and accomplishments. The occasion is a “Community of Practice,” one of the perks of being selected to participate in the $1.8 million STEM Learning Ecosystems Initiative.

The program was started by the STEM Funders Network (SFN), a consortium of 23 philanthropies and corporations that support STEM learning. The concept emerged from an SFN-funded report, which encouraged investments in communities with strong in-school and out-of-school learning ecosystems, said SFN co-chair Gerald Solomon.

In addition to funding, the communities will receive technical assistance like site visits, coaching, and remote support. SFN is also working with the Corporation for National and Community Service to place an AmeriCorps volunteer at each location.

Applicants were required to have several elements in place, including a committed public education leader, an afterschool or out-of-school program, a community organization, and business involvement. Fifty cities applied and SFN could not bring themselves to turn any away.

“All were so interested in doing this that we decided to take all 50 and figure out how to make this work,” Solomon said. “Our ultimate goal is by the year 2020, we want to have up and standing 100 communities around the country that have a true integrative, cross-collaborative approach to STEM education and learning, from preK to higher ed, across formal and informal platforms.”

SFN ultimately divided the 50 communities into two cohorts: the 23 cities whose ecosystems are in a more nascent state, and the 27, including Pittsburgh, that already have strong networks.

“Pittsburgh has the right players, the right passion, and the funders to be able to do the heavy lifting to make this happen,” Solomon said. “They’re in many ways the exemplar of where we see this initiative moving.”

For Solomon and his colleagues, STEM education is a necessary response to a changing world.

“If this country is going to be able to maintain any kind of leadership role in the world,” he said, “we need to have students who can critically think, who can analyze, who can collaborate, who can work together and do the types of didactic and innovative activities that the workforce today needs.”


]]> 0
Leaving the Lab for the Classroom Mon, 05 Oct 2015 17:08:44 +0000 Ten years ago, Edwina Kinchington was holed up in a laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh, researching lung cancer. It was a far cry from where she finds herself these days, in front of a classroom of teenagers at Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy (SciTech)—working a job she deems her “true calling.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more in this series see Teaching Spanish as a Window to the World, Perfecting the Art of Afterschool Science, and For Pioneering Pittsburgh Educator, It’s Full STEAM Ahead.

]]> 0
Manufacturing Day Puts a Modern Twist on Old-Fashioned DIY Fri, 02 Oct 2015 14:50:16 +0000 Until relatively recently, it wasn’t uncommon for someone to build himself a table. Or know how to fix a watch. Now, most of us struggle with—or derive a sense of pride from—successfully assembling an Ikea dresser.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

]]> 0
10 Pittsburgh Area Schools are Kickstarting Making in the Classroom Fri, 02 Oct 2015 13:03:15 +0000 to donate!]]> Making, or hands-on tinkering and learning with old and new technologies, has grown in popularity in schools. To engage students and develop creativity, critical thinking, and persistence, teachers are designing learning experiences with less direct instruction and more open discovery as a way to advance student knowledge of different tools, materials, and processes as they transform their ideas into reality.

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

image courtesy Children's Musem of Pittsburgh / Larry Rippel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

]]> 0
Teaching Spanish as a Window to the World Tue, 29 Sep 2015 04:16:22 +0000 A plate of poisoned cookies, a ghost named Charlie, a mysterious assassin in lunch detention. These are the dramas that unfolded in the telenovelas that City Charter High School students wrote, filmed, and edited last summer in a project called Epic Telenovelas. 

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more in this series see Leaving the Lab for the Classroom, Perfecting the Art of Afterschool Science, and For Pioneering Pittsburgh Educator, It’s Full STEAM Ahead.

]]> 0
Closing Achievement Gaps Where They Begin Wed, 23 Sep 2015 16:54:49 +0000 Last Friday, national experts in early learning met in Washington D.C. for a symposium on closing achievement gaps among young learners.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


]]> 0
New Hands-On Professional Development Models Provide Support Teachers Need Mon, 21 Sep 2015 17:25:33 +0000 Ask any teacher and they will tell you—professional development can be pretty hit or miss. Recent national coverage has focused attention on the “miss,” spotlighting PD that is wasteful, unhelpful, or downright insulting to educators.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

]]> 0
Perfecting the Art of Afterschool Science Fri, 18 Sep 2015 19:09:29 +0000 Venneasha Davis, a sixth grade science and language arts teacher at Woodland Hills Academy in Turtle Creek, started her hectic school year with business as usual—bus duty and new lesson plans. But in a few months, she’s planning a surprise for her students: Aquaponics tanks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more in this series see Leaving the Lab for the Classroom, Teaching Spanish as a Window to the World, and For Pioneering Pittsburgh Educator, It’s Full STEAM Ahead.

]]> 0
For Pioneering Pittsburgh Educator, It’s Full STEAM Ahead Wed, 16 Sep 2015 18:44:00 +0000 Last week marked not only the start of a new school year for Shaun Tomaszewski, but the launch of three Pittsburgh Public Schools refashioned as STEAM academies—which he will oversee as the district’s new STEAM coordinator. In a major shift away from single-subject curricula, teachers at the academies will focus on multi-disciplinary, project-based learning that boosts science, technology, engineering, arts, and math education.

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

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

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

Empathy and attentiveness, in Tomaszewski’s case.

Photo/Shaun Tomaszewski

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more in this series see Leaving the Lab for the Classroom, Teaching Spanish as a Window to the World, and Perfecting the Art of Afterschool Science.

]]> 0
Family to Family: Remaking Family Learning Wed, 16 Sep 2015 13:25:44 +0000 In solidarity with my daughters who are finishing up their school reports describing their summer adventures, I thought I’d share mine. The last week of August, my family and I headed to Long Beach Island (LBI), New Jersey for what turned out to be much more than a day at the beach. Through a program called Passport to LBI we explored the history and ecology of the island: we used a seine, or small net, to catch minnows and crabs in the bay, held baby clams, visited the island museum to see a schoolhouse from 1915, and counted together as we climbed over 200 steps the top of a lighthouse. The best part–it was all free!

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

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

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

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

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

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

]]> 0