Tag Archives: Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh

Can All Teachers Be Students?

Today, the role of the teacher is changing. As we rethink how to educate students in our rapidly changing world, teachers in 21st Century classrooms must do much more than transfer information. They must create environments that encourage collaborative, and complex thinking.

Emily Hickman is figuring out how to do just that.

A middle and high school teacher, Hickman has always taken the material she taught seriously. At the same time, she recognized that many of her students were most engaged with the content when it was presented through game-like experiences, such as mock trials.

It was this understanding—and a desire to share best practices with her colleagues—that drew her to TeacherQuest, a professional development program that trains educators to integrate games and game-like learning into their classrooms.

TeacherQuest is among the group of innovative professional development opportunities that have sprung up in Pittsburgh and beyond in recent years, emerging to better prepare teachers like Hickman, working in a new era of education. You won’t find teachers playing board games in all of them. The practices and pedagogies vary, but underlying most is an attempt to replace the dry or insular training experiences of the past with something more meaningful and engaging.

How do you spread and scale up good practices?

These new models are asking important questions. How do you reach diverse audiences and present ideas that are applicable in all learning communities? How do you adapt practices for informal learning settings as well as schools? And how do you spread and scale up good practices beyond the workshop walls?

TeacherQuest, a partnership between the Institute of Play and the Allegheny Intermediate Unit in Pittsburgh, is based on the teaching practice at Quest to Learn, a school in New York City and Chicago with game design and gameplay at the heart of its pedagogy.

Hickman, now the 21st century research and media specialist at Avonworth Middle and High School, participated in the first summer of TeacherQuest in 2014. It was one of the best professional development experiences of her career.

“It bolstered my confidence,” she said. “It was really well-organized, there was a lot of interaction, and we left with a product”(a game she designed for her class). This year, she will lead the program for other educators. 

Zero-ing in on how teachers and students learn

Educators attend a Project Zero conference at Quaker Valley. Photo/Jeff Evancho

Educators attend a Project Zero conference at Quaker Valley. Photo/Jeff Evancho

TeacherQuest and its ilk are partially reactions to ineffective professional development.

“If you come in with your own expectations and put teachers in a classroom and lecture at them, you’re not going to get a lot out of it,” said Hickman, speaking from experience. “It makes zero sense to me. We know better. We know what works for students.”

She means that teachers, like their own students, thrive in settings that are creative and collaborative, where their ideas are heard and respected.

“Research has shown that teachers find some of the most valuable professional development comes from other teachers,” said Rebecca Rufo-Tepper, TeacherQuest program director. So she gives former participants like Hickman teaching roles.

In many of the new programs, teachers participate in the same learning exercises and processes they will later bring to their students.

That’s the case with the programming from Project Zero, a Harvard University research institute that has done some serious thinking about professional development for a long time.

When Jeff Evancho, an art teacher at Quaker Valley Middle School in Sewickley, Penn., went with his colleagues to Cambridge, Mass., for a Project Zero workshop, he had a “truly transformational” experience. They got a primer in the goals of the Project Zero approach: making thinking “visible” by examining and reflecting on learning processes, and developing “cultures of thinking” where the social and environmental conditions promote learning. The rich blend of theory and practice stuck with the educators in attendance.

"Visible thinking" at Project Zero. Photo/Jeff Evancho

“Visible thinking” at Project Zero. Photo/Jeff Evancho

“It was tied into research and rooted in relevance,” said Evancho, now the Project Zero programming specialist at his district. After their trip to Harvard, Evancho and the Quaker Valley staff ended up replicating their experience at home. With support from the Grable Foundation, the district began hosting conferences for educators throughout the region. They were inspired by the work of Jim Reese, a Project Zero scholar who launched a professional development program in Washington, D.C., and advises on organizing satellite Project Zero conferences.

In the workshops, teachers learn how to make their own thinking visible before introducing the concept to students.

Evancho, who oversees the integration of Project Zero concepts into Quaker Valley’s classrooms and afterschool art program, told a recent success story from a 5th grade math class. When the teacher went to review a student’s assignment, she saw that he had deconstructed a math problem using a routine she had introduced to help students learn by making their thinking visible. Of his own volition, the student had taken extra time to map the purposes and the complexities of the math problem, which also helped his teacher understand his thought processes.

“She got to see inside the mind of a young learner,” Evancho said. The approach benefited teacher and student alike.

Translating ideas for diverse settings

At TeacherQuest, participants start off by articulating a learning goal. They might want to help their students learn to collaborate, for example, or strengthen their multiplication skills.

The activity orients the ensuing experience around individual teachers’ needs and student populations. It’s the kind of practice that makes it possible to hold a professional development workshop for participants from diverse districts.

“Our contexts are very different, but engaged learners are very similar,” Evancho said. Project Zero is “not a canned, packaged thing.” It’s a presentation of ideas that can be adapted to different settings.

Other strong professional development programs might be more grounded in specific applications of ideas, but still take care to address underlying concepts that work under different schools’ circumstances.

At the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, participants in the summer Maker Educator Boot Camp attend workshops on maker learning practices. The educators come from schools with wildly different resource levels, so the directors have given thought to “which parts can be adapted and what’s core to a maker experience,” said Rebecca Grabman, MAKESHOP manager.

In many cases what’s “core” are mindsets, not materials.

“What you’re engaging with when you’re doing an activity is not necessarily about hammer and nails,” said Grabman, “but about planning or persistence or collaboration—and those translate well.”

Creating equitable opportunities for professional development

Maker Educator Boot Camp. Photo/Children's Museum of Pittsburgh

Evancho posed the question that all professional development providers should ask: “How do you bring about equity?”

Practices might translate across communities, but only if they reach them. For many programs, it is a challenge to reach beyond familiar faces and scale up.

“Our doors are open but we’re not seeing everyone there,” Evancho said.

Even continuing the conversation among participants after a program ends “can be a real stumbling block,” Hickman said. Some programs develop “communities of practice” with venues, physical or virtual, for educators to bounce ideas and questions off one another. Others, like TeacherQuest, require participants to apply in pairs so they will hold each other accountable and more effectively bring the ideas back to their districts.

Providers say school districts have begun to take the lead on providing professional development opportunities for the whole community, sometimes carving out their niche in the region as the expert on game design or personalized learning. Of course, some are better equipped to do so than others. And the barriers to spread are not unique to the realm of professional development.

“The challenges are the things that plague all schools all the time,” Grabman said. “Time and money are always going to be a problem.”

Groups like the Remake Learning Network aim to reduce resource inequity by connecting a diverse cohort of educators, administrators, librarians, technologists, foundations, and nonprofits who can share practices with each other, formally or informally.

“All of us in Pittsburgh are learning about the power of networks,” Evancho said.

In any community, there are still groups who are likely to be left out of the conversation, or simply miss the memo. But this kind of ecosystem helps ideas get around, as local providers like Grabman and Evancho work to build equitable access to creative teacher training.

A number of innovative professional development opportunities are available in the Pittsburgh area in June and July, including:

Connecting West Virginia to Pittsburgh’s Maker Movement

Since 2011, the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh’s MAKESHOP has been a well-established destination for families to immerse themselves in projects as wide-ranging as circuitry, woodworking, stop-motion animation, and operating looms. Now, thanks to $200,000 in grants from the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation and Chevron, the museum is extending its reach into neighboring West Virginia.

Partnering with the Education Alliance, the museum will help build makerspaces in four West Virginia public schools and three education centers—the Robert C. Byrd Institute in Huntington (a manufacturing institute for adults that partners with Marshall University); the Larry Joe Harless Community Center in Gilbert; and the Heritage Farm Museum and Village in Huntington. Collectively, the new spaces will be called the West Virginia Maker Network.

Although the West Virginia border is only an hour or so from Pittsburgh, the seven new sites span all corners of the state, including rural areas and university towns. And while opportunities for making and hands-on learning are blossoming in Pittsburgh, similar opportunities in rural parts of West Virginia are geographically farther apart and sometimes scarce. In recent years, the state has fallen near the bottom of the country in math and reading scores.

Lisa Brahms, director of learning and research at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, said the region was “ripe for possibility and change,” and that early planning meetings showed a hunger for new educational opportunities.

“We really see West Virginia as part of our region, so it’s exciting to be part of this work,” Brahms said.

“We really see West Virginia as part of our region, so it’s exciting to be part of this work.”

The pieces of equipment that will end up in the new makerspaces—anything from drills and hammers to 3D printers or electronic components—are of little use, however, without educators who can guide the students who are learning in the spaces. That’s why the museum is hosting educators from the new sites for a week-long Maker Boot Camp this September at the museum’s MAKESHOP. The boot camp will serve as a kick-off for the initiative, where educators from each site will begin to conceptualize how they could incorporate making at their own locations. Museum exhibit designers will then meet with teams from each site to help design their new makerspaces to align with their priorities and goals.

Brahms said the diversity of roles that educators play “really runs the gamut,” with attendees including middle school classroom teachers, an assistant principal, and an IT director.

“We love when that happens,” she said. “It’s really great because that means there will be voices from all the different approaches of learning in makerspaces.”

One of the overarching goals of the network is that the new sites one day serve as hubs for making and learning in their own communities, and eventually expand their work within each region.

Or, as James Denova, vice president of the Benedum Foundation, explained in a statement, “The Education Alliance’s partnership will not only help disseminate the Children’s Museum’s best practices, but provide an anchor through which West Virginia can build its own community of practice around making,”

Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh Kickstarts Maker Projects in Local Schools

On any given day, The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh’s MAKESHOP is a flurry of sewing, sawing, and circuitry. But educators here say these experiences need not be relegated to a once or twice a year visit to this special place.

The museum, which already has a robust outreach program, has just announced a new partnership to bring maker projects to 10 Pittsburgh schools through professional development and fundraising support.

Many formal learning institutions are eager to integrate making into their curriculum, but lack the necessary funding, space, or professional development. The Kickstarting Making in Schools project aims to remedy this by helping schools develop, implement, and fundraise for maker projects.

The online fundraising platform Kickstarter is serving as an educational partner on the project. Representatives from the company will train the participating educators on crowd-funding for maker projects. Museum staff will guide the schools in developing feasible projects and redesigning physical spaces on campus if necessary.

Project Manager Teresa DeFlitch said Kickstarting Making is an experiment in scaling the museum’s existing educational outreach programming. “The project is looking for a sustainable model in which we could work with different kinds of schools in the region to integrate making, but to do so in a way that would be financially sustainable,” she said.

The idea was to choose six schools to participate. But 24 applications later, the museum narrowed it down to 10.

In the application, candidate schools were asked to reflect on how they would integrate making into existing curricula, rather than to propose a specific project. Now, more concrete plans are beginning to take shape.

For example, several schools are developing math maker projects, trying to use making as an engagement tool during traditional math lessons. At Ligonier Valley High School, educators are considering how making fits in with the school’s entrepreneurship focus. And the Yeshiva Schools in Pittsburgh plan to weave maker projects into their particular fusion of traditional and religious education.

Next week, educators from the selected schools will convene for the first time at the museum, where they will learn about Kickstarter. All the money for the projects will come from Kickstarter campaigns, which will launch at the start of the academic year and close shortly after the Pittsburgh Maker Faire October 10-11. Any money raised that exceeds the maker project budgets will go to the schools.

Throughout the year the museum’s research division will conduct surveys on the projects’ challenges and successes in order to devise a national model that can help other informal learning institutions host similar projects in communities around the country. Conversations have already begun, DeFlitch said.

“We’re lucky here in the museum in that we can dedicate a significant amount of time to researching making as a learning practice,” she said. “Schools, obviously, do not necessarily have the time or resources to do that. While we’re doing that within the informal setting, we’re able to take what we learn here, and then through these dynamic partnerships with schools, learn how to localize it to the school settings themselves.”

DeFlitch said, in her experience, educators crave support for integrating making into established lessons and settings.

“Schools do want to transform the spaces and they do need the right equipment, but they need the professional development as well,” she said. “That’s the big thing. Not just the advice and the spaces, but the person-to-person relationships.”

Maker Manager: Catching Up With Rebecca Grabman

In October 2011 the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh opened MAKESHOP — an exhibit space where kids and adults can tinker with tools, a mix of materials, and the latest in digital media. As one of the country’s first museum-based makerspaces, MAKESHOP has become a national model for museums around the country.

Rebecca Grabman has been at MAKESHOP since the beginning, rising in the ranks from summer intern to manager. Grabman grew up in Anchorage, Alaska, and has a master’s degree in entertainment technology from Carnegie Mellon.

What’s new at MAKESHOP?

Right now we’re exploring the theme of “outer space” as a jumping-off point for activities. All month we’re using outer space as our inspiration and as an excuse to explore different materials and methods, asking visitors to help us transform our exhibit with objects and ideas. Currently we’re making planets out of cardboard, wool, rock, whatever we can find!

And later in the month we’ll be collaboratively building a “command center.” The plan is to invite visitors to help us write some simple computer programs in Scratch, and then also build ways to interact with the program using an invention kit called MaKey MaKey and simple circuits. We also discussed adding some fun nondigital “command” elements, like lights, switches, or maps. It’s one of those fun projects that should change and morph depending on what visitors bring to it.

MAKESHOP has been at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh since 2011. What is the shop’s biggest accomplishment so far?

I’m not sure if I can choose a “biggest” accomplishment, because we place so much value in the small steps that impact us every day. Everybody involved in MAKESHOP is constantly pushing themselves, and one another, to learn and try new things. Whether it’s figuring out how to explain a complicated process to a young child, trying something ourselves for the first time, or reading an interesting article about education, every discovery we make pushes us to be better and do better work.

Grabman hanging out inside a circular rug woven on bent yardsticks.

Grabman hanging out inside a circular rug woven on bent yardsticks.

What are you most proud of?

That we’ve become a true embodiment of the museum’s mission: to inspire joy, creativity, and curiosity. When MAKESHOP began there were huge questions that we had no idea how to answer: How would visitors respond to activities? How would we manage the numbers of people? What could we expect young children to be capable of? We are now recognized as a national leader in our field, helping other museums, libraries, schools, and community spaces think about how to integrate making into their communities and learning experiences.

What’s the toughest part your work?

Between running the museum space, teaching classes, brainstorming new ideas, planning after-hours events, and staying connected to the wider conversations about making, MAKESHOP has a lot of things happening all the time. It’s all a blast, but it certainly keeps me busy. For me the toughest part is making sure that we’re keeping track of everything, and that the team has the resources and support they need — it can get pretty complicated when there are over 40 teachers, librarians, and other educators hanging out with us, taking 26 workshops over four days!

When I’m working with visitors or school groups, the toughest part is always trying to navigate the complex relationship between expectations, intentions, and outcomes, because there are always multiple stakeholders involved: a child and parent, a teacher and student, time limits, and a learning objective. Finding the pathways to balance those things can be complicated, but it is also extremely fun and challenging, and always rewarding.

What is your favorite thing to do in Pittsburgh on a Sunday afternoon?

Since I’m at the museum on Saturdays, I like taking it slow on Sunday afternoons. I usually get brunch with a friend (it’s a personal goal to eat every waffle in town) before either strolling around Schenley Park, poking around the main branch of the library, or working on one of the many half-finished projects cluttering up my apartment. This Sunday I’m actually thinking about stopping by work on my day off, just to check out our guest maker from the Pittsburgh Glass Center.

Why Makerspaces Give Kids Space to Fail, and Why That’s a Good Thing

My second-grader cries when he needs help with his math homework. He’s good at math. And with ease, he has been able to handle most of the homework that’s come home under the new Common Core math curriculum. But when the answers don’t come easily, he gets upset and doesn’t want to try. The idea that you have to get things wrong a few times, sometimes many times, in order to get to the right answer is not a lesson he’s yet learned.

He’s only eight, but as a parent, I hope he’ll have more opportunities to get the answer wrong, and to have to find his own way, as he grows older.

Experts like Angela Duckworth, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania who studies the importance of “grit,” says these are experiences my son will need in order to develop the kind of higher-order thinking skills necessary in our rapidly changing world. Duckworth defines “grit” as the “tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals.”

Duckworth says she’s seen lots of very smart kids who don’t know how to fail. “They don’t know how to struggle, and they don’t have a lot of practice with it,” she said.

Tom Hoerr, an administrator at the New City School in St. Louis, recently told NPR his goal is to make sure “that no matter how talented [students are], they hit the wall, so they can learn to pick themselves up, hit the wall again and pick themselves up again, and ultimately persevere and succeed.”

Teaching our kids to work hard and to stick with something even when they keep hitting that wall is no easy task, as a parent or as an educator. It’s tough to watch and to resist the urge to make things easier for them.

It’s not making mistakes, but how kids react to the “wall” that matters.

Makerspaces, popping up in schools, libraries, and museums, may be one cool place to teach kids this perseverance. With the unstructured time and materials they offer for kids to work on their own projects, solve problems together, and try things out over and over again, makerspaces can be an exciting laboratory.

The tinkering that’s going on in the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh’s MAKESHOP, for example, allows kids (and adults) to experiment with wood, circuitry, a needle and thread, or old technology that they can take apart and  put back together. Kids get ideas, but things usually don’t go right the first time.

This trial and error (emphasis on the error) is another extension of exploration and experimentation. Kids try things, without the pressure of a grade or a big red mark on their paper. Instead, in this environment, where everyone is working and failing, they’re freer to say, “Oh this didn’t work out, how can I make it work?” It’s not making mistakes, but how kids react to the “wall” that matters. It’s all about turning that initial ding in one’s confidence into a chance to learn. That’s ultimately empowering and it’s special.

Kylie Peppler is an assistant professor of learning sciences at Indiana University, Bloomington, and the head of the Make to Learn Initiative. She’s studying makerspaces, including the one at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, to see what they have to teach us about learning.

“The act of construction externalizes what kids know,” she said in an interview last year, “and allows them to reflect on the designing and action. The externalizing of your ideas is really productive for learning and connecting with other people.”

The Institute of Museum and Library Services recently announced a new partnership with the children’s museum to help build the capacity of other libraries and museums around the country to develop these spaces. Under the new grant, the children’s museum will be working with the North Carolina State University Libraries, Exploratorium, Chicago Public Library, and Maker Education Initiative to provide museum and library professionals with tools and resources, in addition to professional development.

At the New York Hall of Science, one of at least 10 learning labs across the country that allow teens to experiment with technology in a hands-on way, teens use tools ranging from band saws to 3D printers to create solutions for community problems. Recently they saw a problem in their neighborhood in Queens and designed a solution. It’s a common scene in cities: older women pulling their groceries or packages home in a two-wheeled cart. But in Queens, getting home often means taking the el and lugging that cart up to the platform, one step at a time. The teens thought they could design a better cart.

They set to work designing a better wheel—one that pivots for easier ascent. With the guidance of mentors, the teens created a prototype with dowels and tape and cardboard and a wheel of an existing cart, learning valuable skills about trial and error, critical thinking, and collaboration along the way. And who knows—maybe a patent in the future.

Are these types of spaces the key to get kids thinking for themselves? Facing another night of tears and math homework, I sure hope so.


Anchored In: University of Pittsburgh Helps Spur City-Wide Transformation

“Anchor institution” is a buzz phrase in economic development circles these days, especially in cities such as Pittsburgh that are struggling to reinvent themselves. Institutions with established roots have become “powerful players in remaking cities into vibrant livable places,” according to a recent Pop City article.

First coined in 2002 by Harvard business professor Michael Porter, anchor institutions are universities, medical centers, performing arts centers or other large businesses that do what the term implies: they anchor a community, and they anchor in a community.

As such, these institutions generate jobs, purchase goods and services, and with time, foster clusters of spin-offs and other area development. But unlike other businesses, they cannot simply pack up and leave when the going gets tough.

The University of Pittsburgh is an anchor institution—and a notable one at that. Located near downtown in the ethnically diverse, culturally rich Oakland neighborhood, which also has its share of poverty, Pitt is taking an active role in helping the community become a more vibrant and innovative place.

Its efforts are picking up notice. Pitt was featured as “A University of the Community” in a recent article by researchers at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and ranked “Best Neighbor” among public colleges and universities in a 2009 national survey.

“Over the course of recent years, the role that our University has played in this region’s rebirth has been cited with envy by observers from other parts of the country,” Pitt Chancellor Mark Nordenberg said in a release.

So why has Pitt achieved such rock star status?

First off, the university listened and responded to community concerns, and its outreach efforts have led to the creation of much-needed programs and services. Pitt Science Outreach, for example, provides science immersion programs and experiences for kids. Health care networks are fighting obesity and promoting wellness. Housing, neighborhood revitalization programs, and job training services are available to community residents.

The university has also reached beyond the Oakland community to partner with area businesses and institutions, such as The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, that serve city youth and promote education. The university’s Center for Learning in Out-of-School Environments (UPCLOSE) is a partner in the museum’s MAKESHOP. Efforts such as these have contributed to the city’s larger economic growth and urban development, which has made Pittsburgh a more attractive place for new businesses, including Etcetera Edutainment and Schell Games.

It’s this willingness to collaborate that is one of the main hallmarks of Pitt’s (and other anchors’) recent success, according to HUD researchers. And this success has had a ripple effect that has led to an even wider network of innovative opportunities.

The Kids+Creativity Network is a great example. Gregg Behr of the Grable Foundation and Jess Trybus of Etcetera Edutainment wanted to create more opportunities for kids in Pittsburgh. With so many resources and so much brainpower in the city, what would happen, they wondered, if they pulled together some of the top talent in education, arts, entertainment, business, and technology?

Within a very short time, they found out. More than 300 Pittsburgh leaders came together to create unique partnerships to hatch and foster learning opportunities for kids. University of Pittsburgh, The Frank-Ratchye Studio for Creative Inquiry at Carnegie Mellon University, Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, and the Fred Rogers Center are now just a few of the Kids +Creativity Network participants.

In many ways, it is this kind of synergy that represents the ideal of anchor institutions. Anchors are just the start of something bigger. By providing continued support and stability, anchor institutions cultivate clusters of related businesses and brains – all of which attracts more talent and investment, making innovation like that in the Kids+Creativity Network possible.

The key in all of this clustering and anchoring, however, is to recognize the assets already in the place—the long-time neighborhood residents, for example, who have their own roots sunk into the area, as well as an institutional memory that can prove valuable. Far too often, though, long-time residents are seen as “legacy costs,” not assets—an OFF! spray to the creative classes, and something to be “addressed.”

As the HUD report notes, Pitt has created a model for how to effectively incorporate community voices in the process. And as the evidence in Pittsburgh proves, cities can rebuild and innovation can thrive only when everyone takes part.

Photo/ Dylan Morales

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

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.