Tag Archives: afterschool

Activating Agents of Change

In 2014, President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper (MBK) initiative challenged communities to address the opportunity gap between young men of color and their peers. In Pittsburgh, government officials and community leaders formed the local MBK Committee to respond to the President’s call to action and created a plan to do just that. The result of their efforts was the Pittsburgh-Allegheny County My Brother’s Keeper Playbook, which outlined local steps that could be taken to achieve the six goals for MBK established by the White House.

To put the MBK Playbook into action, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto issued a call-to-action of their own to improve the quality of out-of-school digital learning programs for young men of color in the region.

With support from The Heinz Endowments, this next phase of My Brother’s Keeper in Pittsburgh began in the fall of 2016 when The Sprout Fund commissioned UrbanKind Institute (UKI), a Pittsburgh consultancy, to host a series of community conversations between young men of color and the adult program providers who serve them.

UKI recently released a report summarizing the input provided by youth participants and program providers. The report also details recommendations for program providers, funders, and policymakers working to close the opportunity gap for young people of color in Pittsburgh. In the coming weeks, The Sprout Fund will issue a Request for Proposals offering grants totaling $100,000 to support ideas for implementing the recommendations of the report.

In the meantime, we caught up with UrbanKind executive director Dr. Jamil Bey to learn more about the process.

Jamil Bey/UrbanKind Institute

Jamil Bey/UrbanKind Institute

Remake Learning: What did the young men have to say during the community conversations?

Jamil Bey: In the first phase we just wanted to hear from the young men and have the service providers listen to what they had to say. We asked them what they find worthwhile in the afterschool programs they participate in. Do programs meet their expectations and needs? What don’t the adults who are designing these programs get? They all had a response to that question!

I bet. What did do they see as missing in programming?

They said adults don’t quite understand that the space is more important than the content. They will participate in a program if they’re safe, nurtured, and respected—that’s what drives their participation.

We were dealing with the tech space, asking how programs are using technology and how they prepare students for careers. Those programs hardly ever have adults whom the young men see as supportive of their emotional needs. The people designing these programs are not always the best people to implement them.

Can you say more about who those “best people” are? What would a supportive adult or program look like?

They want mentorship from adults they can relate to, adults who consider their needs as individuals important. Often these young men are coming in with a lot of stressors, and they need a chance to vent or work through something. A supportive program would give them that space and opportunity.

“They will participate in a program if they’re safe, nurtured, and respected—that’s what drives their participation.”

Is there a tension between meeting program goals and what the young men say they need?

Yes. A kid can get a certain number of digital badges, but maybe he ends up in trouble because he isn’t nurtured or supported elsewhere. These young men would say, “Nobody’s ever showed me how to tie a tie or change a car tire.” They need long-term mentors, not adults there for a six-month engagement because of a grant. We need to think more holistically about putting the child as a whole at the center of our quality metrics.

Why is it important to have conversations about education and community change led by young people of color?

Too often, policies and decisions are made without including insight from the people who are most directly impacted. Our process makes sure those voices are included and lifted up. Service providers appreciate this. It’s too easy to become arrogant in your expertise without critically reflecting on how it’s received.

How did you get youth ready to assume these facilitator roles?

We identified 10 participants willing to facilitate conversations with adults in the next phase. They spent six hours in a Saturday facilitation training with us. Then they led the conversations with service providers, asking how they develop programs and whether they include youth input.

We were also interested in activating the next generation of doers in the neighborhood. They’ve now been empowered to call foul. Young people often think they don’t have much power, and think their issues are isolated. They found out there are young men across the county with the same stories as them. Now they have the facilitation and organizing skills to take on those issues.

My Brother’s Keeper was launched by President Obama. As a new administration assumes office, why is it important to continue to have discussions about community change led by young people of color?

I don’t know if we can frame it in the context of the new president because it’s been quite a while that legislators and public education have had a hostile relationship. We haven’t seen any policies that are really going to transform how we prepare young people. The election didn’t make this more meaningful. What’s meaningful is we now have young people questioning their roles and becoming agents of change rather than recipients of change. Our process is a bottom-up approach to reform—really from the bottom, from the young people.

“This is a bottom-up approach to reform—from the young people.”

What are the main barriers that prevent programs from meeting students’ needs?

Often the people who can reach the kids are not the people who have the skills we want to teach young people. Or the people who have the digital skills are not the people who can connect with young people. We need to find a way to bridge that gap. Grant cycles and funding came up a lot in these conversations. We need to be thinking about how we can connect these kids to opportunities in the long-term, over the next two or three years.

I’m excited and hopeful that similar conversations are going on in all of the foundations. Everyone is recognizing these gaps, and we’re asking good, critical questions. It’s not that funding in the out-of-school tech space doesn’t work—it’s how can it work?

Read UKI’s full report from theMy Brother’s Keeper Community & Stakeholder Planning Process: Recommendations to Improve Access and Quality of Out of School Programs.

In February, The Sprout Fund will issue a special funding opportunity offering a total of $100,000 in grants to support ideas for implementing the recommendations of the report.

Subscribe to the MBK Pittsburgh-Allegheny County mailing list to stay informed of the latest updates.


Interest-Driven Learning in the Face of Adversity

Three sociologists in Baltimore spent a decade getting to know young people growing up in the city’s most impoverished communities. Their new book, “Coming of Age in the Other America,” chronicles the hardship in these neighborhoods—and how some adolescents manage to defy the odds.

For many of the book’s subjects, the barriers they bumped up against seemed impenetrable. As young adults, they suffered from unstable housing, economic insecurity, and in some cases trauma or abuse. Communities like the high-rise developments where the youth live, write authors Stefanie DeLuca, Susan Clampet-Lundquist, and Kathryn Edin, have “a legacy of deep racial subjugation, intergenerational poverty, and resource-depleted neighborhoods.” Adversity is institutional. Yet the authors found that the teenagers differed greatly in their abilities to navigate young adulthood, graduate high school, stay healthy, and pursue higher education or a career.

The authors wondered: “What separates young people who stay on track from those who do not?”

Past studies found that personality traits like grit and ability to delay gratification play a large role in determining a child’s destiny. Was “grit” the saving grace here? The authors have their doubts. All the youths they studied exhibited extraordinary resilience and determination. Yet by their teens, many had succumbed to the grinding pressures of poverty. They had lost hope. In other cases, the young people hung onto their dreams only to have serious trouble fulfilling them.

Social forces and systemic obstacles “can shortchange the dreams of even the grittiest and most determined,” the sociologists write.

So what, then, set apart the few who managed to stay hopeful and achieve some of their goals?

The researchers found that the secret was being able to follow a passion and build an identity through it. Some of the teens were obsessed with comic books. Others customized cars or produced music. The authors call those interests “identity projects,” because they gave the youths a sense of pride and purpose.

“The youth who best managed to persevere found a passion through an identity project, which can serve as a virtual bridge between challenging present circumstances and an uncertain, but hoped-for, future,” they write. In some cases, the teens’ interests could be connected directly with lessons at school or job opportunities.

“The youth who best managed to persevere found a passion.”

There is a growing awareness that such “interest driven” learning improves kids’ chances at success. In a video at Edutopia, Constance Steinkuehler, professor of digital media and former White House advisor, talks about the moment when she realized the power of interest-driven learning. She was running an afterschool program in which many high school-aged participants were reading years below grade level. When she gave them books about their interests (video games, in this case), their literacy levels improved dramatically. They were willing to devote the time and effort to comprehending the content.

According to learning scientists like Mimi Ito, the education system needs to do a better job of supporting interest-driven learning.

“Most kids need much more adult scaffolding, support, institutional invitations, and connections in order to connect the interests that they do have to opportunities and trajectories of learning that will really serve them in their adult life,” said Ito during a Connected Learning webinar.

Ito’s point speaks to the value of out-of-school learning programs. Organizations like many in the Remake Learning Network provide space, mentorship, and materials for youth to build on their interests—be it in a gaming club or a community garden. Trained adults can help young people figure out how to turn their existing passions into academic or professional opportunities.

Creative pursuits and the search for identity are part and parcel of any American adolescence, but for low-income students particularly, authors of “Coming of Age in the Other America” find, these experiences can make a huge difference in their ability to transition successfully into adulthood.

As the sociologists said, “Their identity work was not just about discovery, it was about survival.”

Community Corps Brings Digital Education to County Kids

El Círculo Juvenil de Cultura, a bilingual after-school program that teaches Latino kids about their heritage, was looking to add a digital literacy component to its curriculum. The students it serves are part of a population that is less likely to have access to digital literacy education, said Felipe Gómez, co-founder of El Círculo.

Hispanic youth actually use the Internet more than their white peers, according to the Pew Research Center. But language barriers and cash-strapped schools often mean they cannot get the guidance and scaffolding they need from adults to learn from their technology use.

Gómez said many of his students have used computers and have access to cell phones. “But beyond being users, what we’re interested in is giving them some idea of how to create the tech,” he said.

“Beyond being users, what we’re interested in is giving them some idea of how to create the tech.”

Enter the Remake Learning Digital Corps.

Like El Círculo, organizations across the educational spectrum are recognizing the urgency of digital literacy education. But many of them lack the bandwidth, knowledge, or equipment to provide it. The Digital Corps aims to meet some of this need by recruiting, training, and deploying digital learning experts to after-school programs throughout Allegheny County. The program is now wrapping up its fourth series of workshops.

The goal? “It’s not just about jobs or school, though those are predominant and really important factors,” said Digital Corps manager Ani Martinez. “But also just about knowing how the world around them functions, how people communicate.” The Sprout Fund designed the program to train host-site staff, as well as the young participants, in digital literacy.

Digital Corps members, who include local software engineers and technologists, artists, and teenagers, come to their host sites equipped with a variety of digital literacy tools designed for kids: Scratch, Thimble, and Hummingbird Hummingbird to name a few. These programs aim to teach the building blocks of the web, and to demonstrate that the digital tools kids use every day are created by people just like themselves. What each educator does day to day—teaching basic coding, gif-making, robotics—is similar, but they have had to figure out how to adapt the curriculum to work well at sites with differing needs and demographics.

When Gómez first heard about the Digital Corps, he thought he would never find the triple-threat he needed at El Círculo: a tech-savvy Spanish speaker who has worked with kids. When previous El Círculo volunteers got trained as corps members, he ended up with two that fit the bill.

Corps instructor Yolanda Isabel Gordillo, a professional translator who works at El Círculo, worried that the kids would not have the attention spans for the long lessons. Not only did that prove to be false, the students also continued the work off-site on their own.

“It’s fantastic to see how these kids express this knowledge so fast,” Gordillo said. “They say, ‘Oh and I told my friends about this program I’m making and sent them the link.’ ”

And when put together, foreign language skills and tech savvy make a “powerful combination,” she said.

El Círculo, run by Carnegie Mellon University, is fortunate to have plenty of tech equipment. Other Digital Corps sites are not so lucky.

At the Northern Area Boys & Girls Club, the tech tools are less plentiful and more finicky. But staff member Caitlin Zurcher said the participants still get a lot out of the program, sharing computers, playing with the hands-on robotics materials, and setting up accounts on sites they can log into elsewhere.

“The great thing about the training I received at The Sprout Fund is many of the activities were very easy to do with a low budget,” Gordilla said. Her students loved one completely tech-free coding activity, where they pieced together paper puzzle pieces labeled with HTML tags to make a logical string of commands.

The Hazelwood branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, a veteran site now enjoying its third series with Digital Corps members, faced a different challenge: How to fit the sequential lessons into the library’s drop-in programming for teens, where they never know who might show up.

So Corps members worked with the librarians to adapt the digital literacy curriculum to be less structured and function like a weekly “menu of challenges.” Librarian Michael Balkenhol said he still thinks kids get a lot out of the program even in the less-structured environment. “We let anyone that walks into our teen space just jump in and play around a little, and hopefully enjoy themselves and make a point to come back,” he said.

There has been a range of reactions among the youth participants. “Sometimes it’s frustration,” Balkenhol said. “It’s not always easy to just jump into something new.”

Then there are the kids who come to every single session.

For the stretched staff at the library, the Digital Corps members have been a tremendous help. And even when Corps instructors are not around, the students have the basic skills to explore tech tools on their own, whether that means building a website or mashing up YouTube videos.

The program “inspires different ideas, and then you try to help out a teen or kid move forward with whatever they want to accomplish,” Balkenhol said.

The kids’ personal interest is often what drives the success of the Digital Corps program. At the Boys & Girls Club, some of the students were video-game fanatics, so they jumped at the chance to learn to make their own.

“Some of the kids who do it wouldn’t be friends if they didn’t have this video game interest,” Zurcher said. “This forced them to work together. They never hung out here at the club together.”

The organizations serve different populations with different circumstances. But the low-budget, flexible programming has allowed instructors to engage all the participants, and help them shift from tech consumer to tech creator.

Pressin’ Treadles: What Kids Can Learn From a Loom

On any typical day in the MAKESHOP at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, kids and families are woodworking, tinkering with circuits, and crafting cardboard swords and shields. But nestled in the corner of the bustling workshop is the trusty stalwart of the space: the four-harness floor loom.

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

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

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

Photo/Rebecca Grabman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Digital Badges Give Credit Where Credit Is Due

Teens—especially in Pittsburgh—have tons of opportunities to learn outside of school. They can make music with digital tools, experiment with circuitry, and program LED lights. With the help of mentors and others, they expand their horizons and learn new skills, while no doubt benefiting their schoolwork.

Yet most of that out-of-school learning goes undocumented. So how can we track which skills kids pick up when they’re away from the classroom? And once they’ve mastered those skills, how can we get better at helping kids build on them?

Educators and students will explore these questions and more on November 21 at the Pittsburgh Learning Pathways Summit. They will gather with librarians, artists, and researchers to explore innovative concepts, like digital badges and connected learning pathways, as a continued step in connecting in- and out-of-school learning.

A main item on the agenda is digital badges—a new way to document the whole gamut of kids’ learning. Badges are digital credentials that let kids document the skills they’ve learned. Because the badges are virtual, they can convey what the badge holder learned in much more detailed fashion. For example, if you want to find out what a badge like “audio production” really entails, you can click on it and read a description of the skills associated with it or hear the song created at various stages of production. Badges can help present out-of-school learning in ways that make universities and companies pay attention. Simply put, they can give young people credit where credit is due.

Digital badges aren’t just an idea. Massive open online courses (MOOCs), high-tech employers, K–12 programs, and more than 40 universities accept them. Even NASA uses them: “There are common skill sets that NASA and other organizations are seeking,” said Leland Melvin, NASA’s former associate administrator for education. “Badging can be used in a cross-cutting way to help learners, educators, and institutions meet the demands of the future.”

Other examples include:

  • TechShop Pittsburgh, which offered a “Maker Mindset” badge this summer that rewarded kids for learning to think like makers. Earning the badge meant the learner had started approaching problems with an engineer mentality while engaging in the entire making process.
  • The Young Adult Library Services developed a badge system to recognize, improve, and enhance the skills of library staff working with teens.
  • The Providence After School Alliance, which formally launched an open badge system that captures and publicly recognizes student learning in arts, STEM, civics, and other subjects. Students can even use badges to earn elective credits toward graduation from Providence public high schools and can include badges as part of their applications to local colleges.

Badges also help adults who design programs for kids. “I was really excited when I found out that this was happening in Pittsburgh,” said Rachel Shepherd in a ConnectedLearning.tv webinar last summer. Shepherd, the former youth and media program manager at the Steeltown Entertainment Project, explained that badges help her and her colleagues ask themselves what skills they’re ultimately trying to teach.

In a way, adding structure is what badges are all about. Badges can be the breadcrumbs along the pathways of learning, documenting what kids are learning along the way.

Helping STEM Learning Take Root Outside the Classroom

Back in the dark ages—as in, the ’70s and ’80s—a typical afterschool routine might have involved heading home for a snack and an episode of “Scooby Doo.” Today a Pittsburgh teen is more likely to fire up her laptop and engage in a multiplayer game with other online gamers as far away as Tokyo or Dubai, or to construct intricate cities on his iPad using Minecraft.

Boosted by this vital extracurricular learning, those gamers could grow up to be the next Marissa Mayer or Steve Jobs.

But the disparity in access to digital technology leaves many kids in the dust, lagging behind watching reruns of old cartoons. A February 2013 report by the Pew Research Center found that “More than half (54%) [of the 2,462 Advanced Placement and National Writing Project teachers surveyed for the report] say all or almost all of their students have sufficient access to digital tools at school, but only a fifth of these teachers (18%) say all or almost all of their students have access to the digital tools they need at home.”

Enter afterschool programs. They can help bridge that gap, according to a recent issue brief from the Afterschool Alliance, with support from the Noyce Foundation. The brief details how afterschool programs can help contribute to nationwide STEM education goals, especially in high-demand skill areas such as computer programming and engineering.

If you’re imagining a community center where teens play ping-pong and shoot hoops, think again. 

According to the report, “Afterschool STEM programs are proving to be highly effective and they deliver important outcomes. Youth in high-quality afterschool STEM programs show (1) improved attitudes toward STEM fields and careers; (2) increased STEM capacities and skills; and (3) a higher likelihood of graduation and pursuing a STEM career.”

Why is STEM important? Because that’s where the jobs are. According to a 2012 update from the US Department of Commerce, “The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that STEM jobs will continue growing at a fast clip relative to other occupations: 17.0 percent between 2008–2018 (BLS’ most recent projection), compared to just 9.8 percent for non-STEM jobs.”

The most effective afterschool programs offer rigorous STEM learning opportunities and reach marginalized populations. If you’re imagining a community center where teens play ping-pong and shoot hoops, think again. Students in these innovative programs are more likely to be found designing basketball simulators using the latest computer modeling equipment.

The winner of the 2013 Afterschool STEM Impact Awards, for example, enlists middle school students in applied science research projects. Participants in Santa Fe­, New Mexico-based Project GUTS—Growing Up Thinking Scientifically—engage in computational thinking to design and test computer models of real-world issues.

Another program mentioned in the report, Techbridge, reaches girls in underserved communities in Oakland, California, with hands-on programming in technology, engineering, and science. Afterschool program participants might solder a solar nightlight, design a computer animation project, or build a remotely operated vehicle. In August 2013 the program won a $2.7 million grant from the National Science Foundation to expand its afterschool programs to more cities across the country. Programs such as Techbridge do double duty—helping to close the gender gap in STEM fields while addressing income disparity in STEM learning opportunities.

Closer to home, at Crafton Elementary near Pittsburgh—part of the Carlynton School District—afterschool learning takes place in a dedicated STEAM Studio. There, students use high-tech tools such as K’NEX, snap circuits, and iPads to extend classroom projects or explore their own interests.

BotsIQ, another member of the Kids+Creativity Network, engages around 600 students from more than 40 schools in southwestern Pennsylvania in an annual robotics competition. After grappling with a rigorous robotics curriculum, BotsIQ-ers guide 15-pound robots to face off in a gladiator-style competition.

Zoinks. It’s hard to imagine Scooby and his crew tackling anything like that.


Photo / Scott Beale – Laughing Squid

Learning Doesn’t Stop at Three O’Clock

New York City’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio, has proposed a plan that would give every middle schooler in the city access to afterschool programs. And he’s in a hurry. As this article from the Hechinger Report tells it, he wants to launch the new program in September and fund it with the same tax on New York’s wealthiest that would also support universal pre-kindergarten. At a recent press conference, de Blasio called high-quality afterschool learning a “game changer” for children.

At the scale he’s proposing, it could also be a game changer in closing the achievement gap and making New York City a national leader in the movement to give children more time to learn. With increased public funds for afterschool, more low-income students can take part. Typically, less affluent students have less access to afterschool programs, though they gain more by participating.

The evidence backs up de Blasio’s proposal. The Afterschool Alliance cites research showing that afterschool programs keep kids out of trouble between 3 and 6 p.m., the peak hours for juvenile crime and experiments with sex, drugs, and alcohol. Afterschool programs have also been shown to improve school attendance, grades, and even test scores, especially among the students most at risk for failing at school. And de Blasio’s pairing of universal preschool with afterschool programming also has evidence to support it. A 2006 study by Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman indicates following early education with participation in afterschool programs can reduce young people’s chances of starting drug use by 50 percent. (Last April, we took an in-depth look at evaluating afterschool programs in this post.)

In the race to lead the nation’s efforts to give kids more learning time, New York will face stiff competition from Pittsburgh. Our networks are strong and getting stronger. For example, Allegheny Partners for Out of School Time, or APOST, connects more than 650 afterschool providers and helps them build better programs. Funders are taking notice. In December, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation extended another two years of funding to Pittsburgh’s HIVE Learning Network, which aims to expand learning opportunities for young people beyond schools to museums, libraries, afterschool programs, and community centers.

“Learning doesn’t stop at three o’clock,” said Cathy Lewis Long, executive director of the Sprout Fund, which runs HIVE Pittsburgh. “Learning is anywhere, anytime, and it takes all the assets of a community to really contribute to good learning outcomes.” (Listen here for more.)

Some of Pittsburgh’s most exciting afterschool innovations connect kids to digital media and civic engagement.

“I think there are a lot of programs for high-school-aged youth that are really promising,” said Tom Akiva, who studies afterschool learning and authentic youth leadership at the University of Pittsburgh. He cites programs where youth help hire staff, determine program activities, and even make decisions about how to spend money—such as in The Heinz Endowments’ summer youth philanthropy program, where young people research community issues, develop funding guidelines, and award $25,000 in competitive grants. Youth funders also build digital media skills in radio, animation, and video to publicize their work.

Additionally, the new Remake Learning Digital Corps, a partnership between the Sprout Fund and APOST, will match newly trained digital learning experts with afterschool programs in Allegheny County. The initiative aims to lower barriers that prevent the effective use of digital tools in out-of-school programs.

“If we move toward a connected learning model where kids are more integrated into the adult world, greater civic engagement could be one of the outcomes,” Akiva said.

Growing the Innovation Economy, One Young Technologist at a Time

There may be some light at the end of the great recession. At least that’s what urbanists like Bruce Katz think. Katz is one of the economists who’s been cheering on the revolutionary models he sees in cities across America, because as he sees it, the economy of the future rests on innovation:

Like all great revolutions, this one had been ignited by a spark. The Great Recession was and continues to be a shock to the American zeitgeist, a brutal wake-up call that revealed the failure of a growth model that exalted consumption over production, speculation over investment, and waste over sustainability. A new growth model and economic vision is emerging from this rubble, a next economy where we export more and waste less, innovation in what matters, produce and deploy more of what we invent, and build an economy that works for working families.

But how do we make this happen? How do we ensure that our cities are breeding grounds for young inventors? How do we make sure kids will grow up to want to lead us into a future economy—to think big, and move from consumption-based to production-based again?  And what will that look like?

Shimira Williams hit the nail on the head when she told me, “I want my kids to learn to be producers, not just consumers of technology. And I wanted to teach them how to build technology and use it to extend their own interests.”

Williams teaches at a home-based afterschool program called Tek Start on Pittsburgh’s east end. It’s not far from Google’s Pittsburgh outpost, but Williams says it can seem worlds away.

Many of her students are from low-income families, which have struggled a great deal since the economic downturn. They have limited access to technology, and some of her kids, she says, see computers as little more than places on go online to “watch PBS kids.”

“There is a gap in my community,” she says. “People would buy computers with their income tax refund, but didn’t even know how to use them. They didn’t know how to access websites or use the internet. I want to attack the issues early.”

“I want my kids to learn to be producers, not just consumers of technology. And I wanted to teach them how to build technology and use it to extend their own interests.”

And attack she does, helping students see technology as a tool to get information and to create.

Williams has been working with kids ages preschool to 13 since 2006 and in a early care center with young children before that. She grew up in this neighborhood and believes strongly in the power of technology to improve the economy in her community and to improve the lives of the students she works with.

She encourages people in the community to donate computers and sends the extras home with students. She devotes time after school for projects that allow students to experiment with the latest technology in a hands-on way—even if her limited budget means that happens on her own personal smartphone or iPad. At Tek Start students shoot and edit their own videos, take pictures, and design apps. She encourages time for tinkering, and figuring things out, so they can build skills. “I want them to ask, ‘What am I doing to produce new content?’ Being a producer builds self-esteem. Everyone feels better when they make something.” 

But Williams’ students need more than just access. They need help imagining what’s possible.

Often her students don’t know about the global innovations that are taking place right in their backyard. “I see kids using emoticons all the time, I tell them, “Do you realize those are born and bread at CMU on the east side?’ There is innovation right here.”

To rectify that, Williams took a group of students on a tour of Google Pittsburgh.

“I would love kids to know that working here is a possibility.” The tour, she said, took her months to schedule.

This year kids as young as kindergarten in her program have been interviewing local professionals and recording videos. Williams says she wants them to be able to imagine themselves as future scientists or engineers or developers. “Tech makes you feel good about yourself. It’s an economic engine. When you produce and build and create you’re most inclined to build and create and form a business. And that, for my community, is more important than anything.” So far they’ve interviewed a medical examiner, an app developer, and a traffic engineer.

“It’s a global society. We’re not just competing regionally, we’re competing globally. The kid in the other country is actually being a producer [of media] at the age of 4 when our kids are not producing anything ‘til the age of 24.”

Williams is creating her own innovation pipeline by showing her students what’s possible and then helping them find the tools and build the skills to make that vision a reality. Show kids the possibilities and how to make their dreams happen, and you’ll make sure Pittsburgh survives, and the nation continues to grow.