Tag Archives: Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh

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.

Why ‘Connected Learning’ Is Catching On

Young people today grow up fused to their digital worlds. And yes, being a screen zombie has its downsides. But instructors who harness students’ passion for social media can open their minds to a dynamic theory of education called “connected learning.”

At its core, connected learning capitalizes on a young person’s immersion in digital technology and online networks to encourage curiosity, deeper study, and self-education. With good guidance, learners tap into a vibrant network of teachers, like-minded peers, mentors, and role models. Before they know it they are absorbing crucial academic knowledge while engaged in enjoyable discussions, experiments, and accomplishments.

Take Patrick, a teen participant at YOUmedia’s ARTLAB+ program in Washington, D.C. Patrick was always passionate about art, but he saw his creative pursuits as a personal hobby unrelated to his future. His introduction to the digital tools at YOUmedia (a network of connected learning spaces with a presence in Pittsburgh), and his contact with digitally attuned educators who took his work seriously, gave him a fresh career outlook.

“I see myself wanting to create video games or probably doing advertising in marketing for big companies,” Patrick said in a YOUmedia report. “I’ve developed an interest in stop motion and music since I’ve come to ARTLAB+. I already had an interest in games. I just never really found a place to really get into it until I came to ARTLAB+.”

Adult mentors can play a critical role in helping youths connect their natural passions to an academic or professional path.

“So much of learning occurs in the context of relationships,” said psychologist Jean Rhodes on Connected Learning TV. “And when kids are pursuing their interests and going deeper into a topic, having a more advanced thinker [to] help them scaffold that interest can be key to whether they go deeper into it or move away from it.”

In Pittsburgh, our unique network of schools, museums, libraries, and universities offers an ideal staging ground for connected learning. In February 2015, experts here unveiled a model “learning pathway” to help local youngsters advance their interests in media making. Students might begin their journey in a stop-motion animation class at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, then move on to a digital-photo workshop at Pittsburgh Filmmakers. From there, they could head to WYEP’s audio workshop.

It is easy to imagine that pathway for, say, youngsters who have been into robots since childhood, or spend afternoons playing video games, or love to read and be heard.

In a Q&A with Remake Learning in 2014, cultural anthropologist Mimi Ito, one of the originators of the connected learning theory, put it this way: “When you talk to people who are doing things they love in their lives, they can generally point back to a learning experience where other people validated the thing they love and gave them opportunities to be recognized.”

The Key Principles of Connected Learning

  • Interest Powered: Builds and expands on youths’ own interests
  • Peer Supported: Encouraged by peers who also provide help and feedback
  • Academically Oriented: Recognized by teachers and supportive of success in school
  • Production Centered: Involving making, production, or performance for an external audience
  • Shared Purpose: Adults participate alongside youth in a common endeavor in which youth have a say in the goals and structure of the activity
  • Openly Networked: The infrastructure, focused on digital media, that creates easy access to tools and expert guidance needed to pursue interests

With New Learning Labs, Teen Programming at Local Libraries Goes Digital

There’s some good news for libraries—and library patrons. The bleeding appears to have stopped. Library budgets—although not growing—are at least not shrinking any more, after years of tough going.

The recession slashed the budgets of most public libraries in the nation, leaving them struggling to maintain services, including the higher-cost digital services that community residents have come to rely on. E-books, internet connections, and 3D printers are the “World Book” set of years ago—the expensive, scarce resource that libraries provide when families cannot.

For many libraries, those kinds of services have become harder to fund. States cut funding to libraries by more than 37 percent from 2000 to 2010, as a recent Stateline article reports, “forcing libraries to rely more heavily on local funds.” Throughout the nation, local governments shoulder approximately 85 percent of the costs of public libraries. The federal government picks up a small tab, amounting to less than 1 percent of the total budget. But even those funds decreased. In Pennsylvania, federal funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services—which provides leadership through research, policy development, and grant making—declined from $6.31 million in 2010 to $5.49 million in 2014.

However, as Stateline reports, funding cuts appear to have ceased. Budgets are leveling off, if not growing, which is welcome news.

Photo/ Ben Filio

Pittsburgh’s libraries are at the forefront of innovations for kids and families, and teens in particular. The Labs at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh (Labs @ CLP) joins 23 other Learning Labs nationwide to advance hands-on, interest-driven learning for teens, focused on digital media and tools. This fall, with funding from the Cindy and Murry Gerber Foundation, the East Liberty branch will create a space for teens to cultivate their digital and creative skills.

The Learning Labs’ core philosophy is that youth are best engaged when they’re following their passions, collaborating with others, and being makers and doers as well as consumers of technology and information.

The 24 Labs have spent the last few years planning for their launches, building partnerships with other organizations in their respective cities and involving teens in the planning and design processes. In Nashville, Tennessee, for example, teens worked directly with architects planning the Lab space. Other Labs have been piloting programs that build teens’ creativity and problem-solving skills.

Teens in the Learning Lab in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, for example, used geocoding and mapping tools to tell the story of their city’s rebirth following the devastating tornado in 2011. The Learning Lab there is a partnership between the Alabama Museum of Natural History and the Tuscaloosa Public Library. Libraries excel in storytelling, and the museum is a federal and state repository of maps on the campus of the University of Alabama. Combine the two, and you have story mapping. In this case, the teens combined urbex-ing—urban exploration of buildings, often abandoned or decaying—with geospatial tools, coupled with mentors from the university’s geography department, to tell the story of the role of destruction in a city’s renewal.

The result was “another way to look at the history and story of our city,” said Lance Simpson, a teen services librarian at Tuscaloosa Public Library.

In the San Francisco Bay area, the Learning Labs focus on media making and teen voice for social justice. KQED Public Radio, the San Francisco Public Library, California Academy of Sciences, and the Bay Area Video Coalition are all collaborating to help teens tell their stories.

In Kansas City, Missouri, Learning Lab is preparing teens for future jobs in the area as a leading employer, Hallmark, expands into digital storytelling. The partners in the Lab—the Kansas City Public Library and Science City at Union Station—focus on coding, digital storytelling, videography, and other digital tools. The skills will prepare teens to enroll in new digital storytelling degrees at Johnson County Community College and the University of Missouri.

In Pittsburgh, the Learning Lab at East Liberty branch will feature a freestanding music studio and a variety of digital tools and software. It will also offer workshops with practicing artists, technologists, and other experts, said Corey Wittig, the Learning Labs director. During the summer, they’ll be offering a two-week photography course with Pittsburgh Filmmakers Youth Media Program.

During the school year, the Lab at East Liberty offers diverse programming, focusing on a different subject each week, from audio production, to graphic design and printmaking, to photography and videography. Teens’ ideas and interests are what guide much of the programming, explained Wittig. Staff mentors help students build their confidence in skills, such as using a vinyl cutter or a video camera, and more expert teens work on their own projects as well. Other Learning Lab sites in the city focus on gaming or host open jam sessions, among other options.

WESA, Pittsburgh’s local NPR affiliate, visited the East Liberty library branch last month, just a few days after school let out. They found teens engaged in an ancient Egyptian design workshop. Carnegie Library Teen Specialist Andre Costello said workshops like these are helping change our vision for how we think about libraries.

“Before we thought of them as a pantry, whereas now we’re thinking of them more as a kitchen,” he said. “So rather than taking the information home and just using it there, you can actually use the library as a place to create.”

Program Brings Tech Professionals Into Communities to Teach Digital Literacy

Sylvan Hemingway came up with a novel way of introducing kids at Assemble to coding with Scratch. First, he wrote code that reflected a hacked system. Then, he had the students look at the code and figure out what was incorrect. The activity both familiarized them with the kids programming language and gave them confidence to work with it themselves.

With a background in robotics and a firm belief in the importance of STEM education, Hemingway was part of the first cohort of 40 teacher-mentors who took their considerable skills and experience into communities throughout Pittsburgh this spring as part of the first Remake Learning Digital Corps.

“Students are in front of computers all the time, and so many have smartphones,” Hemingway said. “The challenge is in educating and empowerment. We need to help them find confidence in their ability to make things happen with technology. It’s there, it’s accessible for everybody, but who’s going to use it except those who are empowered to do so?”

If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes particularly tech-savvy villagers to train kids in digital technology.

If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes particularly tech-savvy villagers to train kids in digital technology. Run by The Sprout Fund, in partnership with Allegheny Partners for Out-of-School Time (APOST), Digital Corps connects kids with mentors who can guide them through hands-on, technology-focused learning and exploration. The mentors attend training sessions on tech tools such as Scratch, App Inventor, Thimble, and Hummingbird—so they are well prepared to teach.

With the teachers’ guidance, the 400 teens and tweens who were enrolled in the six-week pilot program created animations, designed web pages, and built robots in 11 libraries and after-school spaces throughout the region.

The long-term goals of the program include strengthening kids’ STEM skills and boosting digital literacy in the Pittsburgh region.

But the program has other benefits. “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. Making projects like this with hardware and electronics helps you organize your thinking. It helps you work collaboratively.”

With the ubiquity of smartphones, we might assume everyone is familiar with digital technology. But familiarity doesn’t equal fluency. Eszter Hargittai, sociology professor at Northwestern University, has studied the digital skills of millennials. This young generation may be plugged in—but digitally savvy? Not so much. Her findings “paint a picture not of an army of app-building, HTML-typing twenty-somethings, but of a stratified landscape in which some, mostly privileged, young people use their skills constructively, while others lack even basic Internet knowledge,” writes Megan O’Neil in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Among Digital Corps students, fluency in digital technology also varies greatly. “I’ve worked with sites where students have already mastered Scratch and want to go right into creating games and HTML, and it’s really exciting that we can provide that kind of programming,” Martinez said. “But there are other sites where students don’t know what right-clicking means, and that’s also greatly rewarding, that we can facilitate a program that can basically help with what should be new literacy skills. It’s just as essential as learning to write.”

Digital Corps’ emphasis on STEM learning through digital media and mentorship fit naturally with The Labs @ CLP, the teen learning labs at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. But by locating in library branches without established Labs programs, Digital Corps will enable the library to reach more underserved students.

The type of community connection Digital Corps fosters is often lacking in some lower-income neighborhoods in Pittsburgh that are isolated because of a lack of comprehensive public transportation, explained Corey Wittig, program manager at The Labs @ CLP. “If we keep putting programs in vibrant areas,” Wittig said, “we’re missing the opportunity to reach kids who come every day to the library and are not getting this opportunity.”

“We need to help kids find confidence in their ability to make things happen with technology.”

So far the program has set up bases at the Carrick and Woods Run branches, with plans to expand.

The Carrick branch hosted successful digital media programs before Digital Corps launched, according to Jon Antoszewski, manager of teen services. Last summer, 30 teens pitched in to direct, film, and edit a 20-minute horror movie called “Chairpocalypse!”. Still, there was some hesitation when he pitched the Digital Corps idea to them.

“When you’re tossing around words like ‘web design’ and ‘building robots,’ there’s an intimidation factor,” he said. “But the students ended up having a blast each week and surprising themselves about how much they could get accomplished.”

And the students weren’t the only ones who learned something. Despite the deep background in technology the teacher-mentors brought to Digital Corps, they also faced a learning curve.

A mechanical engineer working in software design, Greg Cala joined Digital Corps as an instructor at the Hilltop Computer Center. He’s accustomed to teaching software skills to adults but says teaching young people required an adjustment, particularly with the broad age range of his group. Among the 20 kids who showed up for his first session were students as young as first grade who had tagged along with older siblings.

The continual shifting caused by kids dropping in and out of the program also made it challenging to continue projects from one week to the next.

One thing was easier with kids, though: It was clear when they were bored. “Adults don’t yell across the room,” Cala said.

This summer the Digital Corps team plans to reflect on what they learned from the launch while expanding the program to 23 sites.

One insight they’ll be sure to carry over, according to Martinez: “We confirmed that snacks are mandatory after a long day of school.”

Libraries Prove to be Adaptable and Vital in the Digital Age

Late in the afternoon, after school is dismissed, some teens in Pittsburgh head over to their public library to make movies, create digital crafts, and produce hip-hop music. And even though they are in the library, no one is telling them to be quiet.

In fact, they are learning these fun skills through The Labs at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, also called The Labs @ CLP, a program where students in grades 6-12 can use sophisticated digital equipment that sparks their creative interests — either on their own time or through many of the program’s workshops.  These “learning labs” are currently located in three Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh locations.

These libraries are among the many around the country that are becoming “bustling community centers” according to a recent New York Times article, “where talking out loud and even eating are perfectly acceptable.”

“I see the program as an opportunity for teens to follow their interests, developing them into true talent,” says Corey Wittig, a Labs mentor and CLP digital learning librarian.

The Labs @ CLP is just one example of the many new programs and resources offered at some of the nation’s 9000 public libraries.

Public libraries do face numerous challenges in today’s digital age, writes Karen Cator,  former director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education and current CEO of Digital Promise. Poor public perception and lack of funding are just two major hurdles.

Yet as Cator also points out, libraries continue to evolve in innovative ways to meet the needs of people of all ages.

“Libraries are so valued by the people who use them,” she writes, “that they simply cannot meet the growing demand for both traditional and new services of all types.”

In Boston, the downtown branch is building a new teen space based on cultural anthropologist Mimi Ito’s work on “homago” — where teenagers can “hang out, mess around and geek out.” Like the school library at Elizabeth Forward High School in the Pittsburgh Region, the new space in Boston will include “lounges, restaurant booths, game rooms and digital labs, as well as software and equipment to record music and create comic books,” according to the Times.

Young people’s demand for library services is strong. A 2013 Pew Research Center report found that 16- to 29-year-olds are just as likely to visit the library as their older counterparts, and are significantly more likely to use technology at the library.

For those familiar with programs like The Labs @ CLP, that’s not a big surprise. Indeed, for kids who don’t have a computer or internet connection at home, the local library is a vital resource.

“Until now I never used Photoshop,” said Gabe Gomez, a Pittsburgh high school student who, along with his friends, made a seven-minute film at The Labs that they hope to turn into a web series. “It’s rare to have access to this sort of thing. I’m trying to learn as much as I can.”

Cleveland Public Library Executive Director and CEO Felton Thomas Jr. is at the forefront of making “libraries the center of learning, where technology is provided that levels the playing field for the disadvantaged,” reports American Libraries Magazine.

In 2012, their library launched TechCentral, an impressive 7,000-square-foot space that holds a computer lab with 90 workstations and a “Tech ToyBox” equipped with iPads, Kindles, and all sorts of fun tech gadgets, as well as a maker space.

To bring attention to the dynamic things libraries are doing with technology, the Young Adult Library Association (YALSA) hosted Teen Tech Week March 9-15. Libraries across the country celebrated the new and inventive ways they are engaging teens. This year’s theme was DIY @ Your Library,” reflecting the new trend of libraries developing maker spaces.

School librarian Buffy Hamilton, aka “The Unquiet Librarian,” tweeted and blogged about the high- and low-tech projects students at Norcross High School in Georgia did for Teen Tech Week, including making friendship bracelets  and creating duct tape art and circuit kits made out of dough.

She also wrote about Teen Tech Week’s grand finale: the school’s media center partnered with the Gwinnett County Public Library to explore 3-D printing.

For Hamilton, seeing kids get excited about these new resources is rewarding.

“To see these teens thinking so intently, experimenting, and learning through trial and error in a relaxed setting was truly a joy and a way for us to grow the kind of culture of learning we want the library to embody,” she wrote.

Photo/ San Mateo County Library

Do Digital Tools Belong in Preschool?

In a preschool classroom in Washington, Pennsylvania, about a half hour south of Pittsburgh, a group of 2-year-old children are taking pictures of a tree using their school’s digital camera. The child holding the camera has been designated the “photographer of the day” by his teacher, Jill Fulton. This particular photo session is part of a year-long project to document how the tree is changing through the seasons.

“We have a VTech toddler friendly camera. So they can’t break it,” Fulton says. “They have full range of it. I get a lot of pictures of trees and grass. They are like little paparazzi.”

Fulton, who is a teacher in the toddler room at Just Us Kids, a care provider that serves children from infancy to age 12, says using the digital camera helps kids explore the natural world around them and observe the changing seasons. But, she says, her students love the toy cameras they have in the play area inside their classroom just as much. The toy cameras also help kids learn about their environment, though in different ways—through imagination and make-believe.

A young photographer at Just us Kids. Photo/Jill Fulton.

Early childhood professionals have long been cautious about introducing digital technologies into early childhood classrooms, fearing that screen media will displace time kids should be spending playing, digging in the dirt, or interacting with peers and adults—the kinds of hands-on engagement that research shows best promotes learning for kids of this age.

But some early childhood educators are starting to feel differently. Educators here in Pittsburgh may be on the cutting edge of using the newest technology with the youngest learners in ways that are developmentally appropriate for 2 t0 5-year-olds.  Educators aren’t simply sticking students alone in front of a screen to play around with the latest apps. Rather, they are, as Fred Rogers once said, “putting the children first,” thinking creatively about how to incorporate today’s technology in ways that match young children’s unique developmental needs.

“If Maria Montessori were alive today, the tools we would see in early childhood classrooms would look very different,” says Michelle Figlar who heads up PAEYC, Pittsburgh’s chapter of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), the leading advocacy group for early childhood educators. “We think that digital tools absolutely fit into that environment in the same way building blocks and water tables and sand tables do.”

Figlar tells educators to always keep their goals front and center and remember not to get blinded by technology’s “bells & whistles.” “Technology is always just a tool to help us get there,” she says.

From 1968 to 2001, Pittsburgh was home to Fred Rogers, who filmed his pioneering TV show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in the city, using the technology of his day to promote learning in the early years. Today, the Fred Rogers Center and NAEYC are helping early childhood professionals imagine new possibilities for their classrooms that include today’s latest interactive technology.

In 2012, the Fred Rogers Center partnered with NAEYC to release a position statement on using technology and interactive media in early childhood programs.

“We believe that when used appropriately, technology and interactive media have tremendous potential to nurture early learning and development,” -Rita Catalano, the Fred Rogers Center.
“We believe that when used appropriately, technology and interactive media have tremendous potential to nurture early learning and development,” says Rita Catalano, executive director of the Fred Rogers Center. The position statement therefore included some important caveats. Namely, it recommends limiting passive screen time (such as TV) for children ages 2–5, and avoiding it entirely for children under age 2. And they warn that if technology is provided without guidance and education, “usage can be inappropriate and/or interfere with learning and development.”

The Rogers Center is drawing on child development research to help professionals and parents define quality media experiences for young children. They see potential in interactive touch screen media, and have compiled examples for how to use technology tools and interactive media in age-appropriate, intentional ways.

Technology, for example, can help add insights to a hands-on experience. PAEYC’s Michelle Figlar says a colleague once described a group of 3-year-olds working in the block corner, building houses modeled on their own. Their teacher used the iPad to show the children pictures of their actual houses using Google map’s street view, zooming out to show the children their street and neighborhood. The experience, she said, was a perfect example of an optimal use of an iPad in an early childhood classroom.

“It brings it to where the children are. It’s intentional. It’s totally integrated. ‘I can see where my house is, what it looks like, and I can show my friends.’ It’s social studies. In this instance, the iPad helped to make a real life experience tangible for the children.”

The Fred Rogers Center is also working to support teachers with professional development programs and their Early Learning Environment (Ele), a web-based support system designed to offer resources and guidance in early literacy and digital media literacy to under-resourced parents, family childcare providers, and early childhood educators.

Jill Fulton is one of hundreds of educators who have attended workshops led by the center this year. She says she’s not a techie in other areas of her life, but the professional development sessions have really helped open her eyes to how to use technology appropriately with 2-year-olds.

For example, Fulton displays photos and video from her classroom each day in a digital frame so parents and children can look at them together at the end of the school day. A similar project, Message from Me, adapts existing technologies like email, digital cameras, and microphones, to enhance parent-child communication about what happens during the school day. Kiosks placed in classrooms enable children ages 3 to 5 to record their daily experiences and send them to their parents. The project is a partnership between the CREATE Lab, the Children’s School of Carnegie Mellon University, and PAEYC.

“The technology is great,” says Figlar. “But the goal of the project—to increase communication among parents, teachers and young children and improve language development—is what’s primary.

Especially in very low-income neighborhoods, where we know from the research that learning vocabulary is very important—that is a beautiful way of using technology.”

Photo/Brian Cohen

Pittsburgh is home to a growing cadre of design professionals, artists, and technologists who are creating partnerships with educators to design better technology for kids.

“It’s always about the children and everyone puts them first,” Figlar says. “They are not just looking to make the next best app they can make money off of. It’s a very reciprocal relationship.”

PAEYC and the Fred Rogers Center are also both working with organizations like Common Sense Media, and with librarians and museum educators in Pittsburgh to make sure that children have developmentally appropriate learning experiences across their community.

A lot of families come to the library to have access to a computer, according to Mary Beth Parks, the coordinator of children’s services at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. So librarians have an important role to play in helping families and educators use computers and other digital tools in ways that promote learning and literacy. At the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh librarians are incorporating iPads into storytime, making developmentally appropriate iPad apps like interactive books and educational games available to children and caregivers.  Parks says this way of using technology is important because it not only “provides access to technology but also models instructional methods and techniques that can be used by the child’s first teacher—their parent or caregiver.”

Similarly, partnerships with the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh are helping to make sure young children in the region have plenty of opportunities to experiment with technology in a hands-on way. The museum’s innovative MAKESHOP is an exhibit space where kids and adults can experiment with physical materials and digital tools. Hands-on play with technology, the museum’s director Jane Werner says, is important to help children begin to grasp at a young age that they can be creators, not just consumers, and that technology is something they can have control over.

The museum hosts classroom visits and two Pittsburgh Public School Head Start classes in the museum itself.

Werner concurs that the partnerships that take place on behalf of children in the region are unique.  “We tend not to get territorial,” she told me last spring. “There’s so much work to be done, we all realize it, and we all work together.” Fred Rogers would be proud.