Tag Archives: Art

Art On Its Own

Welcome back to our new STEAM series. For two weeks, we are deconstructing the acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math with posts that explore each subject in a new light. 

A couple years ago, the emphasis on STEM education became a push for STEAM—arts in addition to science, technology, engineering, and math. And rightfully so. Encouraging art along with technical skills empowers kids to create, and fosters the kind of innovative mindset that will help them later in life.

Schools and informal learning centers have embraced STEAM, as evidenced by the makerspaces cropping up in libraries and classrooms. STEAM projects are great opportunities to exercise interdisciplinary muscles and pair seemingly disparate fields and tools. Biology and design, say, or sewing and circuitry.

Meanwhile, however, traditional arts education often falls by the wayside or suffers funding cuts. Programs at low-income schools are most vulnerable. Chicago, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles are among the many school districts where funding for the arts has been slashed. In Los Angeles, restoration of arts programming has just begun after it was cut by 41 percent between 2008 and 2013, although here too the new emphasis is placed on integrating arts into the core academic subjects. The federal Arts in Education program has fought against threats of consolidation and budget cuts each year, finally ending up with a 2016 proposal to preserve it.

The question is: Does the A provide something on its own that may get diluted when it is wedged between S T E and M? The value of making is well documented, but are there also benefits to imagination and open-ended exploration without an emphasis on producing something tangible?

Research has repeatedly revealed the positive effect of arts education on cognitive development, especially when it comes to music class and underserved kids. In one Northwestern study, at-risk children who completed two years of a community music program had a stronger neural mechanism that is linked to reading and language skills.

In a 2012 report by the National Endowment for the Arts, former chairman Rocco Landesman asks “what’s lost” when art is abolished in schools. “The chance for a child to express himself,” he writes. “The chance for the idiosyncratic child who has not yet succeeded elsewhere to shine. A sense of play, of fun, of discovery.”

When schools decide or are forced to drop the arts, afterschool and informal learning networks often pick up some of the slack. In the Remake Learning Network, Pittsburgh’s Mattress Factory pairs contemporary art installations with educational programming. Young artists in the site’s free Teen Art Cooperative get access to mentors and materials, gaining the skills they will need to become practicing artists. The Mattress Factory is one of several local museums and galleries that lead the Avonworth Pittsburgh Galleries Project. With support from the Sprout Fund, the institutions host young Pittsburgh artists who curate their own public exhibits.

Lots of kids yearn for these opportunities to explore and experiment. STEAM projects can fulfill those desires and more. But there is something about the feeling of cold clay spinning in your hands, or performing in front of a packed auditorium, that can’t quite be replaced.

Learning STEAM in Style

Some Pittsburgh youth are truly model students. The participants in TekStart’s Beauty of STEM program are spending the next eight weeks in the studio, sewing, dyeing, and tinkering with technology-enhanced jewelry. When the program ends, they will don their creations and strut down the catwalk.

Other local kids intrigued by fashion can dabble in design by completing the Cities of Learning “Intro to E-Fashion” activity. Participants “learn to make fashion that lights up a room” and earn a digital badge in the Basics of Electronic Circuits along the way.

Fashion design is a natural companion to the maker and STEAM movements. It calls for risk, creativity, and technical precision, and there is plenty of the latter when it comes to e-fashion. Last year, Remake Learning profiled 10-year-old Amya, a budding designer who used basic coding skills to upload a digital portfolio and play around with lighting for a fashion show.

“It’s easier to use the computer to adjust sizing and modify patterns,” she told us.

In Chicago, the Digital Youth Network’s Digital Divas initiative is aimed at immersing girls in STEM through their interest in fashion. The divas learn to make electronic circuits and to program e-textiles, producing electronic jewelry and illuminated shirts. The young women leave the program poised to become the next technological trendsetters.

“This is my design for my bracelet,” says one of the participants in a Digital Youth Network video, holding up a sketch. “The red stands for positive and the purple stands for negative. Both of them together will power my LED light. As you connect the buttons, the LED light will come on.”

Program leaders know that many kids already have a passion for fashion or an eye for style. They may simply need a bit of studio space or direction to figure out how to turn their interests into a more formal endeavor. Once they do, it can be highly empowering. When a kid creates anything, there is a sense of pride that follows, and even more so when it has her personal creative mark on it, or when he can wear it to school the next day.

At the Bronx Academy, a photography teacher demonstrated as much by setting his fashion-forward boys loose on either side of the lens. As models, they struck both playful and prideful poses, expressing themselves through the outfits they assembled and trying on adulthood through ties and bowler hats. As photographers, they confidently gave direction to their peers, and used their technical knowledge to shoot beautiful photos later featured in a spread in the school’s magazine. The students received tutorials in many of the professional opportunities in fashion, conducting editorial interviews and reviewing classic poses in magazine shoots.

Some view fashion design as a mere hobby or frivolous passion. But drop into any of these youth programs and you will quickly see the value of a field that lets young people be their most inventive and expressive. A kid who can wield both a sewing machine and a 3D printer could easily end up on couture’s cutting edge. Plus, with “wearable tech” lagging behind when it comes to stylishness, electronic fashion classes let learners experiment with designing less embarrassing sartorial applications for new technology.

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!?’”


The Value of Arts Education

Settled in the heart of Silicon Valley, Stanford University is best known as a cradle to some of the world’s technology giants including Google and Yahoo. But the its also leading the pack in universities pouring big bucks into arts and culture spaces with a new, $235 million arts district that includes a theatre, gallery, art history building, and an “arts gym” set to open next year.

“I think it’s very important, as the university gains in reputation in fields associated with Silicon Valley, that we send the signal that art matters, even to students who go on to work in the valley or business,” Matthew Tiews, the executive director of arts programs at Stanford, told the New York Times.

That signal that “arts matter,” in STEM or any other discipline, is not one that every education institution has received. Even at some of the other universities the New York Times has profiled, there’s debate regarding how much the new arts and culture buildings really add to the schools’ academics. Changing this line of thinking, at universities and in K–12 schools, is at the core of the national push for stronger STEAM education—or STEM with the inclusion of arts and all the skills they nurture.

Another prestigious school, the Rhode Island Institute of Design (RISD), is a leader in pushing for the connection of the arts and sciences. The school’s STEM to STEAM Initiative works from the belief that arts and design will be just as critical to innovation in this century as science and technology were in the last.

Sculptor and RISD alumni Rebecca Kamen works closely with scientists to develop her pieces. A few years ago, after giving a lecture at the National Institutes of Health, a student introduced her to the drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal, who is often considered the father of modern neuroscience. Kamen was so inspired by his work that she sculpted a piece based on his drawings of the human retina and then traveled to Spain to study the archives of his illustrations.

Kamen told RISD she believes Ramón y Cajal’s breakthroughs wouldn’t have come about without his arts background.

“Artists are universal investigators,” she said. “We look at everything from different angles, rather than going down a straight path. That’s when discovery happens. That’s what wins Nobel prizes.”

Countless examples show how arts influence sciences and vice versa. Still, bridging the two isn’t always easy in a classroom. With schools facing tightening budgets and standardized testing pressures, time spent on music, drama, or painting has too often been pushed to the back burner or cut entirely. In Chicago, for example, a recent survey of 170 public schools found 65 percent don’t offer the two hours of arts education per week as expected by the district.

But proponents of including the A in STEM believe that much more than sculpting or painting is lost when arts are cut. Rather, arts, they say, are another way of instilling problem solving and honing divergent thinking—the very things that lead to forward motion in science, tech, engineering, or math. Whether at a university level or a first-grade classroom, arts don’t always spark scientific discoveries, but they encourage a different way of creative and imaginative thinking like they did for Ramón y Cajal.

In addition to their benefits to scientific thinking, experts like Education Week writer Anne Jolly remind us that the arts are valuable on their own. She asked Dr. Howard Gardner, a developmental psychologist best known for his theory of multiple intelligences, about whether the A really belongs in STEM.

“I don’t have strong views about whether arts should become a part of STEM or be self-standing,” Gardner told her. “What is important is that every human being deserves to learn about the arts and humanities, just as each person should be cognizant of the sciences.”

Whereas universities might be pouring millions of dollars into arts and cultural institutions, kids should be introduced to all the letters in STEAM much earlier—whether at school or in informal learning spaces. From product design to Popsicle stick architecture, an education that prepares kids for the future can’t afford to leave anything out.



Arts Education and Why It Matters Every Bit as Much as Science and Engineering

Thomas Südhof is an unlikely champion for arts education.

He’s a biochemist, a professor of medicine at Stanford, and last year won the Nobel Prize for his work on vesicle trafficking, which for those of you who, like me, are not prize-winning scientists, means how cells communicate with their environments.

But in a recent interview Südhof said he feels training in the arts can be just as important in preparing kids for scientific or technical careers as training in the sciences, “if not better,” he told Ryan Romine at Stanford. “Because the 
arts train a person in discipline, independent action, thinking, and in the need for attention 
to detail without becoming a prisoner of that detail. I absolutely don’t think there is a need 
for earlier math training—there is only a need for training the mind so it becomes fertile
 for future learning.”

As self-described “Chief of Confusion” John Seeley Brown said recently, “Being great at math is not that critical for science, but being great at imagination and curiosity is critical.” Art and music, he argues, are some of the most important things to teach because of their ability to spur imagination.

We spend a lot of time on this blog touting the importance of STEM learning, the need for technical skills in the future workforce, and, well, bragging about the incredible work going on in the Pittsburgh region to advance student learning in STEM subjects.

But we don’t spend nearly enough time talking about the arts, or why all of our students need an interdisciplinary education to be able to engage in systems thinking. Writing at the Atlantic in post titled “STEM Needs a New Letter,” Jessica Lahey argues that though the attention to STEM education is well warranted, “turning STEM into STEAM will make this effort even more worthwhile.” The new “A,” in case you haven’t figured it out, stands for the arts.

Lahey continues: “As Obama stated in 2011, ‘We know what it takes to compete for the jobs and industries of our time. We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world.'”

Perhaps there’s another thing that the arts—and the creative process—can teach us. As any artist knows, ideas don’t just come bounding in on demand like a well-trained dog. Artists learn how to get comfortable with waiting for that elusive “genius” moment to hit while also honing their ability to stay attuned to its possibility.

As Kathleen Costanza wrote here, “Working hard and learning to love the process while receptively preparing for a ‘genius’ is a bit like keeping your eyes peeled [on the sidewalk] for a dime and finding a dollar. It pays to always be looking—and being ready for creativity or luck to hit.”

In Pittsburgh we’ve been working to help kids develop these interdisciplinary skills in STEAM learning since 2009, with leadership from our public schools.

At Elizabeth Forward Middle School’s new Dream Factory, three classrooms that had previously been separated—the art room, the technology education room, and the computer science room—are now working in close collaboration. Students there are programming interactive games, building robots, and deciding whether they want to paint, use 3D printing to create a sculpture, or some combination.

“This is not a gifted program, this is not an afterschool activity” said Todd Keruskin, assistant superintendent of schools. “Every kid is getting this at our school.”

Educators like Sue Mellon have been helping. Her 7th and 8th grade students at Springdale Junior and Senior High/Colfax School in the Allegheny Valley School District are developing a deeper understanding of poetry by playing around with robotics. She’s using hummingbird robotics kits originally designed at at Carnegie Mellon’s CREATE Lab.

“A lot of kids aren’t crazy about poetry,” Mellon said. “But we have to help them engage with it. After spending two weeks analyzing the poem and creating visual imagery and symbolism for their dioramas, they really understand the work and get quite passionate.”

Or the newly expanded STEAM center at Pine-Richland High School in Gibsonia, Pennsylvania, which is designed to get educators to collaborate across disciplines.

“STEM alone will not get us there,” John Maeda, the president of the Rhode Island School of Design wrote in a recent post at Edutopia. “Innovation happens when convergent thinkers, those who march straight ahead toward their goal, combine forces with divergent thinkers—those who professionally wander, who are comfortable being uncomfortable, and who look for what is real.”

Through the Arts, Inspiring Tomorrow’s Innovators

Strickland is president of Manchester Bidwell Corporation and its subsidiaries. He is the author of Make the Impossible Possible, and a MacArthur “genius” grant recipient.

Remake Learning: I was really struck by your story of stumbling on someone making pottery and how that changed your life. What do you think it was that captured your imagination so intensely?

Bill Strickland: With pottery you take something that’s basically lifeless, and in minutes you can create something—a vessel, a jar, a bowl. It’s magical.

And you’ve taken that sense of magic so far. Do you feel that exposing kids to some sort of artistic endeavor is an intrinsically good way to get them engaged with learning?

Absolutely. I think that kids are built for creative activity. Kids learn to run, sing, play, and color. Those are all artistic endeavors. For the first five years of their lives, that’ll almost exclusively be how kids learn. I think it’s how we’re built as humans. Creative activity releases a part of your consciousness that is essential to mental and physical health. And this isn’t a theory. This is real. I got to experience it as a young adult, and it’s the insight that led me to create the Manchester Craftsman Guild.

I had the good fortune to be talking to John Seely Brown the other day, and he was saying that what was happening with STEM was a tragedy. He said there is nothing more important than learning art and music. Why do you think our culture is so resistant to this idea?

It’s considered a secondary experience, and so isn’t allowed to take its rightful place as part of the legitimate discipline of learning—something that can contribute to our overall general welfare. Many people don’t understand what a significant role the arts play in our daily life. You wouldn’t have automobile design if it weren’t for artists.

Right. And I’d imagine what you’re saying goes way beyond people who want to be in the arts as professionals. Rather it’s a way of thinking, right? A way of approaching the world that will serve people no matter what they do professionally.

People are a function of their environments. If you create a beautiful environment, you get beautiful kids. If you create prisons, you get prisoners.

That’s what my program is built on. We have 500 kids a week who come to us after school for exposure to and immersion in the arts. Most of these kids do not have “artistic aptitudes,” whatever that means.  But they have expressed interest. What we’ve learned is it becomes a very powerful incentive for kids to stay in school and go off to professional careers. The thing that gets them to that point is exposure to the arts and also to the whole sociology of developing relationships, building self-confidence, and discovering the ability to achieve something. All those skills come into play when you expose kids to the arts. It’s an intelligence just as important as anything that happens in math.

How did you go from your initial instinctual realization to actually building what you built? How does that actually happen?

When I graduated high school, I wanted to keep my hands in clay. In order to do that, I had to figure out how to get a studio. That coincided with the riots in Pittsburgh, and there was a lot of foundation and government money out there for calming things down. I just happened to be standing there with my idea about building a studio to expose kids in the community to the arts.

And you insisted it wasn’t just a pottery space in some basement somewhere. It had to be a nice environment with world-class equipment and world-class people coming in and out. Can you talk about that?

I think people need beauty. I think it’s important to quality of life. People have a tendency to match their behavior to the environment in which they’re put. If the first thing you do when you walk into school is go through a metal detector, you’re already thinking you’re in jail. People are a function of their environments. If you create a beautiful environment, you get beautiful kids. If you create prisons, you get prisoners.

Have you had any problems at your centers?

We have eight centers we own and operate. Not one of them has a metal detector, and not one of them has had a fight, a drug or alcohol incident, or a police call in years.

How would you describe the nuts and bolts of how learning experiences are developed in your centers?

We have motivated faculty, professionally trained in the craft that they’re teaching. We don’t have gym teachers teaching art. It’s world-class craftsmen and artists teaching. I give them maximum flexibility to design the curriculum. They can change the curriculum on a dime if it’s not meeting the needs of the kids. We’re constantly innovating, constantly updating. I go out of my way to make sure the kids have the best equipment that money can buy and the best faculty. Then you get the best kids and the best outcomes.

What else have you learned over the years?Manchester Craftsmen's Guild

Children deeply need structure. They need goals. They need to be given outcomes and objectives. And more importantly, at the end of the day, they need to feel that somebody cares about them. Many of these kids are coming from environments where there are no parents or only one parent. They’re dealing with welfare, drugs, poverty and violence. We create an environment for them that says, “We care about you. We’re not going away. We’re here for the long term. You’re part of us, now, so let’s go.”

You’ve really been ahead of the curve on some ideas about learning that have now flipped more into the mainstream. Do you like what you’re seeing?

I’m encouraged by what I see, but I’m not convinced yet. I see some signs of life, finally, but we have a lot of catch up to do. The country is behind. We’ve gotten too damn bureaucratic and too preoccupied with magic bullets, which don’t actually exist. My message is, “Look, we’ve got some pretty factual stuff now that tells us we’re on the right path.” Now we’ve got to scale up and take it to the level where we can really begin to make a difference in the direction of the country.

You lead me right to my next question about scalability.

We have eight centers open—San Francisco, Grand Rapids, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Boston, Buffalo, New Haven, and our first rural center, in Brockway, Pennsylvania. They’ve been around now for eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve years. We know the model works, and that I don’t have to be there in person to run them. It’s possible to create local organizations, with local leadership and local funding. So I believe it’s a scalable model. The goal is to build 200 centers around the world.

I feel like people’s conception of what scale means has been changing. That it’s gone from trying to do the exact same thing in different locations to figuring out what’s going to work in a specific location.

That’s how we operate. We’re not McDonald’s. We’re not stamping out hamburgers. What we’re doing is creating a strategy in each community. You base your programs on what the needs are locally. That’s the smart play. It’s the values and the attitude that are scalable. For example, every space has to be beautiful. No used equipment. Motivated faculty. And so on.

I’ve heard you talk about “perseverance,” How does that play out here?

The kids start with us in eighth or ninth grade. They stay with us through high school graduation. That is one of the big reasons our program works. You’ve got to be around for a while in order to get someplace. We have a chance to help the kids develop skills and internalize values. That’s the whole point. It’s not three weeks. It’s not a trip to the museum. It’s a long-term strategy.

People talk a lot about 21st century skills. What do you think?

What the hell is that?

It’s asking what do people need to know moving into the future? I think disposition is better language. So let me put it to you this way: What do you think are the most important dispositions that kids need to have today?

How to think. How to solve problems. I don’t care whether it’s making a pot, taking a picture, or doing math. It isn’t about STEM. It’s about learning. I have kids in the Pittsburgh center on the vocational side who are doing all kinds of STEM—engineering, biochemistry, and biotech. They have no background in science but within twelve months they’re going. Why? Because we’ve taught them how to think and how to have confidence that the problems they’re encountering are solvable. Humans created our problems. Humans can solve them. Give kids confidence, create a predictable environment and encourage them. These are the things that allow people to learn.

For Rural Kids, Technology Opens New Horizons

Only three years ago, a stretch of land off King Coal Highway in Mingo County, West Virginia, was a deserted strip mine. Today, it’s Mingo Central Comprehensive High School, complete with a 3D printer, a 1-to-1 laptop program, interactive whiteboards, and a hands-on pre-engineering program that gives students free college credit from West Virginia University.

As a rural county at the southern tip of the state, Mingo County has relied on grants, and state and local funds to infuse its classrooms with modern technology. (In West Virginia, each county is one school district.) It’s been no easy feat for the county, which has been hit hard by the recession, on top of its small tax base. But, as Mingo County STEM Coordinator Richard Duncan puts it, “Somehow we beat that.”

In Pittsburgh and nationally, educators have seen how integrating meaningful technology into schools and informal learning spaces engages kids, introduces them to career paths, and equips them with critical 21st century skills. But for rural communities like Mingo County, providing students with the same resources comes with a bevy of extra challenges that make access tougher, and at the same time, all the more critical.

A little over half of all schools in West Virginia are rural, according to the Rural School and Community Trust. Many of these rural communities’ economies have revolved around coal since the early 19th century. Mingo County is no exception, and the area’s ties to coal are evident in the mascot of the two-year-old high school—the miner.

But over the last two decades, the downsizing of the coal industry has caused Mingo County and the surrounding Appalachian region to fall on even tougher economic times. As coal jobs drained out of the area, the poverty rate climbed to the point that Mingo County’s schools now participate in a community eligibility option, meaning the poverty rate is high enough for every student to automatically receive free breakfast and lunch. Economic opportunity was elsewhere.

“The young people, we find, when they do find jobs, it’s not here.”  

“The young people, we find, when they do find jobs, it’s not here,” Duncan said.

Duncan, who is an area native, says as coal jobs continue to dwindle, access to new technology and programs gives kids the chance to see the opportunities outside the area in a way they haven’t been able to before.

One of the new programs Mingo County is leveraging is a partnership with Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab. Through a $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the CREATE Lab is expanding its Arts and Bots program into all Mingo County middle schools as well as Springdale Junior-Senior High School in Pennsylvania. Arts and Bots lets students build and program their own robots using a mix of robotic components, a visual programming tool, and traditional craft materials.

“It’s tough to show the kids, ‘Hey, you’re going to use this somewhere,’ when they’ve never seen that job,” Duncan says of making STEM skills seem applicable. “That’s why we’ve been pulling on the CREATE Lab and our other partners, because we want the kids to see what else is going on outside of this area.”

Geographic isolation, over mountains and sometimes even roads in need of repair, makes it harder for rural kids to get exposure to the types of careers Pittsburgh kids might see. But isolation and distance also make it tougher for teachers to be exposed to learning innovations.

One of the main resources for rural teachers is Marshall University’s June Harless Center for Rural Educational Research and Development, which provides a myriad of unique professional development opportunities. It’s also one of the CREATE Lab’s satellite locations, meaning it helps expand the lab’s projects into rural places.

Photo courtesy of Carrie-Meghan Quick-Blanco

“That technology from Pittsburgh is here in the coal fields of West Virginia, thanks to the funding that we’ve gotten so far. Otherwise, teachers would have never had the chance to be exposed to these things,” says Carrie-Meghan Quick-Blanco, a language and international studies specialist and CREATE Lab’s point person at the Harless Center. She recalls an Arts and Bots workshop where a teacher who was intimidated enough by technology that she barely used email ended up building and programming an elaborate robot because the equipment is so hands-on.

The Center for Arts and Education at West Liberty University provides rural teachers support to help them incorporate the arts into different disciplines.  The center also partners with the Mattress Factory and the City Theatre to offer professional development and cover the expenses for field trips to their locations. However, those trips can take hours out of a school day, which is part of the motivation for also placing teaching artists in classrooms.

“I think it’s important to go to the schools and to the teachers as well as them coming to one of our partners or us,” says Lou Karas, director of Center for Arts and Education. “That’s really important when you’re talking about working in smaller, rural communities. You have to go both ways.”

Lynne Schrum, dean of the College of Education and Human Services at West Virginia University (WVU), also sees the importance of ensuring rural educators don’t have to travel hours to connect with high-quality resources. She has  developed a new program at WVU where education students return to their home county to student teach in their last year and submit their coursework electronically.

“It’s really important because some rural areas have trouble getting people to move there to be teachers, or speech pathologists, or counselors, because they don’t have roots there,” Schrum says. “So what we want to do is keep people in their home communities, doing as little up here in Morgantown as necessary, in order to have sustainable jobs and quality educators.”

It’s a prime example of how technology can bridge gaps across geography in a way that was never possible before. And Schrum adds these links are especially crucial for kids living in rural communities. It can open a whole new world for them.

“In a lot of rural West Virginia, people don’t have the possibility of seeing and visiting things, or exploring things in person that people in the city might have,” says Schrum. “But they can do all those things online. They can virtually see and experience things that were never possible before.”

At one workshop a teacher who was intimidated enough by technology that she barely used email ended up building and programming an elaborate robot.

Of course, to virtually see and learn, students need access to high speed internet, another hurdle for many rural families. Only 59 percent of West Virginia households subscribe to broadband service, according to a 2011 report by the Department of Commerce. Comparatively, the national average is 68 percent. Therefore, although every public school in the state is now equipped with broadband internet, digital learning can’t really live up to its potential if students lack high speed internet to continue with homework and projects at home.

“They’re going to an environment that’s digital, but they can’t necessarily extrapolate that if they go home and they don’t have access,” says John Ross, an EdTech consultant, researcher, and author who has lived and worked in rural districts. “It’s not just typing up a Word document, it’s having access to rich media, to simulations, to animations, to pulling down real time data, to communication and collaboration.”

Mike Green, vice president of the West Virginia Board of Education and head of its technology committee, sees expanding high-speed internet access into more rural homes as a top priority in making learning a seamless experience.

“The ultimate goal is to provide sufficient, broadband internet access to our children regardless of whether they’re in a brick-and-mortar school or they’re in their home or local library. The goal is to be able to provide 24-hour learning in the state,” Green says. He added that there are a number of possible long-term approaches to increasing access, including potentially partnering with local service providers or foundations to offer subsidies.

Plus, Schrum says being connected helps students see value in further education.

“I think that sometimes in rural counties, the idea of going to college doesn’t seem viable on multiple levels, emotionally, financially, purposefully,” says Schrum. “But as more and more jobs traditionally in rural areas disappear, like coal mining jobs for example, then we have to prepare those people for new careers that will allow them a full measure of a real quality life.”

Top photo/Jimmy Emerson

Maker Gifts to Inspire Young Designers

Kids don’t need an excuse to make something. That’s why the maker movement is picking up so much such steam; kids are natural tinkerers, and their love of building and creating also carries innumerable learning opportunities.

Even though they don’t need a reason, there’s a time of year when kids’ natural making abilities come out in full force—the holidays. And everyone knows the best gifts are handmade, complete with smudges, crooked edges, and hours of effort. But why not upgrade the typical craft session with all sorts of making this holiday season?

A visit to the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum’s MAKESHOP is a good place to start. As their new video demonstrates, making is an enormous confidence booster for kids. One young maker describes it this way: “That’s just when this ah-ha moment comes, and you look at this diagram and you’re like, ‘Oh! That’s why it’s not working. Let’s fix it.’”

“How many times have you heard a kid say, ‘Gee, I hope I don’t have to play anymore’? Well, it’s the same thing with making. Nobody says, ‘I hope I don’t have to make anymore,’” says Bonnie Dyer, curriculum and instruction coordinator at Allegheny Intermediate Unit, in another MAKESHOP video about the dispositions of makers.

If you’re not lucky enough to live in or visit Pittsburgh, MAKE Magazine has compiled a gift guide to inspire young designers. It suggests giving things like magnets, duct tape, knitting needles, and prisms. They’re presents kids might not expect, but there’s perhaps no better evidence of the affinity kids have for the simple things than the old cliché: You give kids a toy, and they end up playing with the box.

“Whatever gifts you choose, encourage your kids to take their toys and kits apart and use the pieces for other things. Bundle your science kits with books and materials that take the concept introduced in the kit, such as circuits or chemistry, into uncharted territory,” writes Michelle Hlubinka, who compiled MAKE’s guide.

The experiences kids gain from engaging in maker projects are more valuable than the products themselves.

Beyond traditional chemistry sets, consider looking into Invent-Abling kits. Designed by Carnegie Mellon University alum Deren Güler, the kits were developed to be gender neutral, and include projects like “activated origami”—mini paper circuits that light up—and move.

Of course, there are also GoldieBlox STEM kits for girls. The kits’ tagline is “toys for future inventors,” and they were developed to draw more girls into messing around and making things work. The company’s recent advertisement that features three girls creating an awesome Rube Goldberg machine with the discarded parts of tea sets and dolls went completely viral over the last few weeks. In the video, the young inventors sing: “It’s time to change/ We deserve to see a range/ Because our toys all look the same/ And we would like to use our brains!”

At the risk of sounding hokey, there’s a more important gift that comes out of making than projects like birdhouses, terrariums, boats, and circuits. The experiences kids gain from engaging in maker projects are more valuable than the products themselves. They can spark curiosity about the world around us at a time when traditional the classroom curriculum still fails to engage too many children. As education writer Annie Murphy Paul explained recently, “Tinkering is the polar opposite of the test-driven, results-oriented approach of No Child Left Behind: it involves a loose process of trying things out, seeing what happens, reflecting and evaluating, and trying again.”

Sparking a lifelong love of STEM? Now that’s a gift that keeps on giving.


Photo/ Alper Orus