Learning by making at Assemble
Learning by making at Assemble

The maker movement is more than just a trend; it is a revival of the heart and soul of the American dream where everyone has the potential to push the boundaries of the imagination and create something that has never been done before.

We Don’t Just Live, We Make

The world we live in today did not happen by accident. Everything around us is a product of someone’s imagination, ingenuity, and inspiration. Makers are curious, creative, ambitious, and innovative. They are simultaneously artist and scientist. They are average people who are passionate and dedicated to reimagining the world around them and for whom the process of making is more important than the final product.

We don’t just live, we make.  This is the mantra of Dale Dougherty, founding editor and publisher of MAKE Magazine and co-founder of the Maker Faire. Dougherty is known as the godfather of the “maker movement,” a modern Do-It-Yourself (DIY) renaissance that embraces science and art, technology and crafting, functionality and whimsy, play and purpose.  He once described the maker movement as a lifestyle that rejects commercial culture and embraces “green” living and self-sufficiency.

From the Fringes to the Spotlight

In recent years the maker movement has migrated from garages and workshops into the mainstream. The concept of making is embraced by museums, K-12 classrooms, universities, community centers, art galleries, and even Fortune 500 companies. Magazines like MAKE, founded by Dougherty in 2005, and WIRED have helped bring the people and projects at the core of the maker movement into the worldwide media spotlight.

Websites like Etsy, Instructables, and Pintrest have made it easier than ever for makers to connect with one another and to build off of one another’s progress. However, it’s not only the internet that has made the maker movement increase in mainstream popularity. The cost and availability of raw materials including technology has gone down considerably in recent years.  Software like AutoDesk, Photoshop, and iMovie have revolutionized the DIY movement and are accessible to almost everyone. Machines like 3D printers—which are the cool new tools among maker circles—can be purchased for about the same cost as an Apple computer. Today, the world’s most advanced technology is just a mere click of a mouse away.

The Local Maker Movement is Changing the Landscape of Education

Pittsburgh has long been at the heart of industrial, technological, and artistic achievement. From Carnegie Mellon University to The Carnegie Museums, UPMC to PPG Industries, the Steel City continues to be a global leader in all fields of science and art.

It is no surprise that Pittsburgh is home to a wealth of world-class programs aimed at cultivating a new generation of makers. Programs that help to foster collaborations between artists, educators, scientists, parents, universities, and other institutions are popping up all over the city to offer children maker experiences. From taking apart old cell phones to sketching a prototype of a new robot to constructing an oversized model of Mars, makers-in-training have no shortage of opportunities for expression both in and out of the classroom.

In the winter of 2011, a repairman entered a kindergarten classroom to fix a broken heater at Pittsburgh Allegheny K-5 located on Pittsburgh’s North Side. One student in the classroom, who was no more than five years old, asked the worker if he was going to use a schematic to fix the heater. Yes, a kindergarten student inquired about a real life schematic.

Children's Innovation Project.

Thanks to the Children’s innovation Project (CIP), the kindergartners at Allegheny know more about schematics, electrical circuitry, and sketching diagrams than most adults. Established in 2012, CIP tends to focus on the youngest makers: three to five-year-olds. In addition to building hands-on and technical know-how, the in-classroom experiences enhance skills in language, art, understanding  concepts, and interpreting information.

“We were really proud when we heard that story,” says Jeremy Boyle, a resident artist at Carnegie Mellon University’s Community, Robotics, Education and Technology Empowerment (CREATE) Lab and co-developer of CIP. Along with Melissa Butler, kindergarten teacher at Allegheny Traditional Academy, Boyle designs interdisciplinary programs that encourage kids to look beyond the surface and discover the basic building blocks that make up the world around us.

“At the beginning of the school year, we asked kids to bring in a small toy for them to take apart,” says Butler. “At first they didn’t want to take it apart, like they were breaking a rule that says you aren’t supposed to see what’s inside. Several months later they could tell you what was making the toys work without having to take them apart.”

Now in its second year, CIP asks kids to break down what they see through tinkering, observational drawing, and creative inquiry. With technology as the anchor, Boyle spends hours allowing the students to discover concepts like cause/effect, which they have rephrased as do/happen.  “Getting the kids to realize that everything is a construct is key to what we’re doing,” says Boyle.  “Melissa and I present making in the context of art to show kids that ingenuity is within their reach.”

Boyle has been working on maker education initiatives with Butler since 2003, when they met at the Mattress Factory art museum. This fall, CIP will expand to first and second grade classrooms at Pittsburgh Traditional Academy, as well as other in-school and out-of-school programs throughout the region.

Collaborations are the Cornerstone of Maker Education

Like the partnership between Boyle and Butler that brought together CMU’s CREATE Lab and the Pittsburgh Public Schools, the MAKESHOP is the outcome of The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh’s collaboration with the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University. MAKESHOP is the first permanent “maker” exhibition in a children’s museum anywhere in the country.

MAKESHOP at The Children's Museum

On any given day, the MAKESHOP is bustling with kids of all ages and their grown-ups. The atmosphere is busy, with creations being made on every available surface, even the floor. Adam Nye, MAKESHOP manager, works closely with research fellow Lisa Brahms, to make the new exhibit a mecca for making and learning.

“Parents are learning right next to their children, and they’re taking an active role in the process,” says Nye. “We have materials that spark every interest, from hammers and nails to sewing machines to pencils and paper.”

As a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Learning and Out of School Environments (UPCLOSE), Brahms knows it’s important to remove any barriers that may prevent families from getting involved in making. “Our goal is to simply encourage kids to tinker with materials and get a basic understanding of the design process,” says Brahms. “If they are interested in some of the foundational concepts, then we hope it will spark their desire to dig deeper. Our staff members guide visitors while they’re here, and expose them to terminology and equipment. In the education world, it’s called scaffolding.”

Scaffolding is a prominent educational model, both in and out of the maker world. It’s a theory that promotes deeper learning in any subject, where teachers tailor lessons to each student’s learning goals. With high student to teacher ratios in schools, many parents are looking outside of the classroom for this type of student-centric learning and they’re finding it among independent maker programs.

Maker Programs Offer Support Outside the Classroom

At Assemble, a community art and technology space in Pittsburgh’s Garfield neighborhood, artist and gallery director Nina Barbuto asks a group of eager kids, “If you could make anything out of electricity, what would you make and why?” One kid said she would build a robot so that she’d have someone to play tennis with. Other kids said they would make lightning fast cars, or robots to clean their rooms, and one said he would build a machine to raise the Titanic.

“I drive my daughter here from Sewickley,” said Shannon Ashmore whose child attended Assemble’s M3 Workshop on electricity. “My husband and I are both architects so making and creativity is important in our family. These workshops are a great support to what our daughter learns in the classroom.”

Kids collaborate with adult mentors at Assemble / Photo: Ben Filio

Programs at Assemble are part art workshop, part science lab, and part learning party. Children are greeted with bowls of goldfish crackers and coolers of juice boxes. There are heaps of recycled materials: a jar of old screws here and a mound of empty egg cartons there. The walls are covered in blank newsprint, so kids can boldly sketch their ideas. It’s a wonderland for creative expression. Participants get several hours of instruction with an artist or professional scientist, and at the end they are asked to “present” what they’ve made.

“We take simple materials and big concepts, then we make some really cool things with them,” says Barbuto, a trained architect, installation artist, and educator. “Assemble is a space for big and small kids to share knowledge and to have a great time doing it. We provide an alternative to the classroom environment where kids gain confidence through making. Our hope is that they take these skills and apply that to all other areas of their lives, including school.”

Kids are Born Makers

The maker movement is about access to materials and information,” says Joe Wos, director of Pittsburgh’s ToonSeum and proud father of a young maker. “The internet provides the ultimate research tool for kids. They don’t have to go to a museum or school to find cool stuff to build with. I give my old phones and computers to my son, who was able to name their components by age 5.”

As an artist, cartoon museum director, and parent, Wos is always looking for new ways to make “geek culture” cool. He frequently allows his son to work alongside him at The ToonSeum, testing new technologies that engage the public in thinking creatively.

“They take a movement and say now how do we teach this? It’s simple,” says Wos. “You don’t! You provide the resources, the tools, and the materials then get the heck out of the way. Sometimes we actually need to step back and realize that maybe we have more to learn from kids in some cases than we have to teach them.”

That’s where places like MAKESHOP and Assemble, along with in-classroom programs like the Children’s Innovation Project become invaluable resources. They provide a safe haven for exploration, an environment where kids can create and learn without reproach.

Children are natural “makers”. From the moment they are born, they are filled with an innate sense of curiosity and wonder. They tinker, hack, play, design, build, explore, tweak, and create. It’s going to take a village, or in this case a city, to nurture the next generation of makers so that they see the world as  theirs to transform.

The Next Generation of Makers was last modified: March 8th, 2013 by The Sprout Fund