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Guest Post: Steeltown Entertainment celebrates the young talents of Take a Shot Contest

We’ve been exceptionally lucky. In a world filled with disease, inequality, violence, and poverty, we’ve been given the opportunity to hope by working with a generation of young people determined to change everything.

Two years ago, Steeltown Entertainment Project launched the “Take a Shot at Changing the World” Contest, a digital media initiative that asks middle and high school students throughout the region to make short films about their big ideas to change the world, or that tell stories of local events or people that had a global impact.

Since its inception, over 400 students from nearly 60 schools have submitted videos about topics and issues that are meaningful to them, ranging from Jonas Salk and the Polio Vaccine, to Mister Rogers’ and the Pittsburgh neighborhood, to climate change and how to put an end to bullying.

On May 20th, 2012, they gathered at the Heinz History Center for the first ever “Take  a Shot at Changing the World” Film Festival, where they had the chance to see their films featured on the big screen, meet other young filmmakers, and share their experiences making movies. They came proud, bringing in tow parents, siblings, friends, and teachers, and they came eager, all wondering who would leave with over $10,000 in prizes, some of which would go to fund students’ big ideas and change the world.

Some of them had been working for months independently after reading about the contest in the paper, or meeting us at career fairs, while others, like the students at Greater Latrobe High School, or at Falk Laboratory School had teachers who had built this contest into their curricula.  Passionate teachers have been vital to the contest’s success; our greatest challenge has been getting “Take a Shot” into schools. How do you get teachers, who already have so much to do, and have very specific standards to meet, to champion a new project? The key has been to connect with one incredible teacher at each school, someone who is willing to go above and beyond, even more than teachers already do, to encourage their students to take a shot.

One of our favorite aspects of this contest has been the diversity of fields and people involved. Sometimes, it’s a technology teacher who has adopted this into their classroom. Sometimes, a science teacher, or a phys ed teacher, or a librarian. Through this contest, we’ve been reminded that storytelling is a part of every field, crucial to every kind of person.

And the stories the students have told have been inspiring, to say the least. There’s the high school junior who made a film about his father’s muscular dystrophy and his plans to raise awareness and search for a cure. One middle school student composed a rap song and music video about David Lawrence’s contributions to greening Pittsburgh, while a team of students from the Western PA School for the Deaf made a film encouraging the use of rain barrels. A group of ninth-graders proposed a network and helpline composed of teens helping teens to combat depression. Thirteen year-old Maggie Mayer, the winner of the Globechanger’s Prize for Social Action is currently planning her trip to D.C. for the Jefferson Awards annual black-tie dinner alongside guests like General Petraeus and Harry Connick, Jr., where her project “Act as One,” which collects donations as small as one dollar to go towards basic needs for people around the world (vaccines, food, clean water, school books) will be featured. As a result of this contest, she will receive mentorship to get her project started, and her $2500 prize money will go towards getting it off the ground.

We are hopeful for the future not only because students want to change the world, but because when so much of our relation to media today revolves around consumption, they are finding ways to use it to create stories, relate to peers, and inspire others.

And perhaps this is what makes the Take a Shot Contest unique—in a time when the computer is so often a vehicle to avoid human interaction, when we spend entire days alone staring at screens and students tap away at keyboards instead of having conversations, Take A Shot uses digital media as a way to promote cooperation, collaboration, and communication.  And it’s not only forcing students to engage with one another and with their communities, thinking critically about their collective pasts and futures, it has also facilitated partnerships between so many organizations throughout the region and beyond—the Heinz History Center, the Jefferson Awards, the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, the World Affairs Council, Rotary International and local Rotary chapters, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and individual parents and teachers who knew kids with the power to change the world and were just looking for their chance.

Changing the world isn’t easy, and moving forward, we need your help. This could be the start of something big, but only if we all work together to make a difference, if we all work together to ignite an interest (or should we say Spark?) in the hearts of young people—if we can get them early on to use media to raise awareness, inspire and educate others, to care about meaningful social issues, then even when the world seems daunting and depressing and impossible, it is also filled with hope.

Visit www.takeashotcontest.org to  view the 2012 submissions yourself and stay tuned for the next contest!


Written by Rachel Shepherd, Program Manager, Steeltown Entertainment Project

Vote for your favorite Take A Shot! videos

Carl Kurlander, Executive Producer at Steeltown Entertainment Project, recently shared an exciting update with us about the Take a Shot! at Changing the World, a contest that challenges middle and high school students from across Western Pennsylvania to create short videos responding to social issues.

This year, Take a Shot! focused on Pittsburgh Innovations, the environment, and students’ big ideas to change the world. Students from more than 20 schools in the region made over 50 films, and we are just so excited about the quality of the movies this year and how passionate these young people are in changing their world.

We’re giving away $10,000 in prizes, $2,000 of which is determined by online voting.  We are currently in the midst of our online voting period. We encourage everyone to check out these inspiring videos and vote for their favorites.

You can view the videos and vote online at the Take A Shot website. The deadline for voting is May 15, 2012.

The idea behind Take a Shot! was to encourage students to use technology and film as a way to raise awareness about causes important to them, learn about and promote the region, and to  spur social change. It has been so gratifying to see that young people strive to do good and really do want to make a difference in the world.

Contestwinners will be announced at the “Take a Shot at Changing the World” Film Festival on May 20th, 2 PM, at the Heinz History Center, where we will also feature films from all attendees. We’d love to have anyone in the network join us.   RSVP to attend by sending a message to Rachel@steeltown.org.

Children and teens learn by doing in the MakeShop at The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh

It’s nearing lunchtime at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh when Shaylee Fagan, age 5, sits down to sew.

“This right here turns it on,” Chris Davidson, a museum volunteer, tells her.

Davidson points to a small switch on the sewing machine, one of many hands-on tools housed in the museum’s latest permanent exhibit, MakeShop. The new three-room learning space invites children to design and construct objects as part of maker culture, a growing DIY movement for all ages.

“[Maker culture] is best summarized as people wanting to get back to making things with their hands, to inventing, to tinkering,” said Children’s Museum Program Manager Angela Seals, who curated the exhibit. “It has to do with people being divorced from the objects we’ve used for so long. With consumer culture, we have no idea where things come from. This is a backlash to all of that.”

Increasingly, maker principals are being employed in early childhood education as means for imparting 21st-century learning skills, such as creative problem solving, innovation, and media and technology literacy.

Entering the MakeShop, kids are immediately posed one question: “What do you want to make?” They work independently and with staff members to draw loose design plans for items ranging from trucks to kittens to cartoon characters. Then, a variety of stations are made available for woodworking, circuitry, and 3-D modeling.

Shaylee sits in the open shop room, which offers soft materials, like bright fabrics and plastics, for textile making. Her moment in the shop is a quiet one: She has decided to make a small pillow, and today she will use a sewing machine for the first time.

“Ready, go!” Davidson whispers.

Shaylee presses the pedal with her fingers and watches at eye level as the needle thrums up and down.

The exhibit space also hosts lectures and show-how sessions by professional makers, so far including a blacksmith,  wool spinner and origami maker.

The MakeShop Show

Seals is quick to point out that while the MakeShop space is new, a vibrant maker culture has been in the works for years.

“There was a movement like this in the 70s when people went back to making things with their hands. What makes it distinct right now is all the use of new technology,” she said.

Continuing that trend, this winter the Children’s Museum is teaming up with artistic innovators The Schmutz Company to launch The MakeShop Show, a weekly webisode created for and by kids that will bundle all the action of the MakeShop into quirky, colorful video episodes for ages 6 to 10.

Funded by a Sprout Super Spark award, the show will film sporadically in the MakeShop, featuring kids as hosts and makers and ultimately involving them in production. Using a reflection booth, young makers will also be able to independently record their own stories about what they’ve created.

“There’s still a lot of debate about the use of technology in early childhood, but we feel like if we can introduce it as a tool toward creativity and not something they can just sit in front of, that we’re empowering them to be a part of the solution, too,” Seals said.

For viewers at home, two to three episodes a month will be posted online that alternate between segments like craft show-hows, maker interviews, junkyard war challenges and take-apart sessions. Each segment is voted on directly by the kids and can be used as a launching pad for activities at home and in the classroom.

Several early segments of the show have already been posted, including a tutorial for sewing an LED bracelet with conductive thread. However, Seals says audiences should expect the look of the show to improve throughout the pilot season due to new technology and a polished production process.

“We’ve had to learn a lot technically as a production team, and we know the show doesn’t represent exactly what our end goal is right now,” Seals said of the first episode, which recorded its video and sound on a basic Handycam. Using Sprout funding, the team has since invested in higher quality film and production equipment, including a video camera topped with the MakeShop logo—which, when seen in the MakeShop, is an immediate sign that tape is rolling.

“One of the great aspects of the Super Spark funding is that it’s allowing us to get the infrastructure built and to get the equipment we need to do this and set it up in a sustainable way,” Seals said.

To her, it’s okay the team didn’t hit it out of the park right away.

“We tell kids to try again, try again, try again, and we have to model it,” she said. “We know once we set that tone of fun, people follow us there.”

The show team is mentored by kids programming vet Alice Wilder, a former producer of “Blue’s Clues,” and is inspired by the life’s work of long-time museum friend Fred Rogers.