Tag Archives: Children’s Museum

Modes of making: exploration, engineering, and entrepreneurship

Educators know the power of hands-on learning. Ask any teacher, coach, or mentor what they see when their students engage in hands-on maker activities and chances are they’ll describe how students are activated with interest and curiosity as they put their learning into action through making.

That’s one reason why maker learning has steadily gone from the fringes to the mainstream of teaching practices in classrooms, after school programs, and summer camps. In the Pittsburgh region, Remake Learning has identified more than 170 makerspaces, including more than a hundred in area school districts.

This concentration of maker learning has also produced some insights into the inner workings of maker learning, insights that Remake Learning members are sharing with others working to expand access to maker learning opportunities.

But what is maker learning good for? In addition to the thrill of discovery and spirit of invention inherent in maker activities, there are real learning benefits to hands-on creativity and collaborative problem-solving. Maker learning incorporates a range of competencies related to the creative process, researching, developing, and testing a design, as well as building technical skills with tools, materials, and techniques that prepare learners for future career opportunities.

“Making is about more than creating objects, learning STEM principles, or how to code,” University of Pittsburgh researcher Leanne Bowler wrote in a previous blog post. “It is also about understanding the process, thinking critically about oneself and the role that one’s values and assumptions can have on the objects one makes, and the effect that one’s creations might have on others.”

In other words, maker learning is as much about developing the curiosity to explore new ideas and the confidence to tackle difficult challenges as it is about learning to use tools and materials to make (and re-make) the world around you.

Making connections to the physical world

Many maker learning experiences embrace playful discovery, especially activities and programs for younger children and their families. This form of open, exploratory maker learning is best exemplified by MAKESHOP at The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, a place where kids and their family learn together with teaching artists and maker educators.

“MAKESHOP was one of the first makerspaces designed for family audiences,” says Lisa Brahms, director of learning and research at the Children’s Museum. “We did the prototyping, we made the mistakes that other people can learn from. We’ve had the opportunity to study it and now we can be a model.”

MAKESHOP intentionally mixes high-tech making like 3D printing with more traditional crafts like weaving, sewing, and woodworking. It’s an environment rich enough to attract the attention of Adam Savage, who visited MAKESHOP as part of his national Maker Tour.

But as important as the tools and technologies are, reflections that result from the co-learning that happens among the learner, their family, and the mentors is where the deeper learning occurs.

“One of the biggest things kids can take away from making is seeing the world in a different way,” says MAKESHOP manager Rebecca Grabman. “For a kid who’s never made anything before, making personally empowering to them. It shows them they are able to create the things they want and need in their life.”

For Lisa Brahms, who also part of the original team of researchers and graduate students from the University of Pittsburgh Center for Learning in Out-of-School Environments that collaborated with the Children’s Museum to develop MAKESHOP, maker learning spaces are themselves made to fit their specific context.

“There’s no one right way to do it,” says Brahms. “It’s important for each maker program to think ‘Why making? Why do we want making to be part of what we do? Who are the people that are part of that experience? What is the stuff that we want to make?’”

In cooperation with the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Children’s Museum set out to turn these insights into Making+Learning, a framework to help others set up their own maker learning spaces.

And to help more schools incorporate maker learning into their curriculum, from early childhood to tech-ed, The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, in partnership with Google and Maker Ed, launched the Making Spaces initiative which helped 10 schools develop the resources and know-how necessary to establish spaces for hands-on, project-based maker learning in classrooms and other in-school spaces.

Blurring the lines between making and engineering

For students who catch the maker bug, new interdisciplinary approaches to STEM provide them with opportunities to level-up their skills and make academic progress. Project Lead the Way (PLTW) is a national nonprofit helping schools bring more hands-on learning into the K-12 system.

Several school districts in the Pittsburgh region participate in PLTW, including Chartiers Valley where educators are using PLTW’s engineering pathway for middle and high school students. Using a project-based curriculum that emphasizes design thinking and hands-on making, teachers at Chartiers Valley challenge students to investigate engineering challenges ranging from making more efficient energy systems to improving automated manufacturing production.

“Many students who are considering college might want to re-evaluate that decision and look at training programs or associates degrees,” says Superintendent Brian White. “The students get hands on experience and an appetite to create new things in the world. It really opens up all kinds of doors.”

Throughout the program, students learn the principles of science, technology, engineering, and math, design ways to apply those principles to solve a problem, and use industry-grade technology like 3D modeling software and plasma cutters to turn their designs into real products. A recent student project earned an award from the Smithsonian Institution and filed a patent for a double-bladed windmill they created that doubled its energy production capacity.

“We’ve had students go everywhere after coming out of Project Lead the Way,” adds Jeff Macek, who teaches applied engineering and co-leads PLTW at Chartiers Valley. “Some students have gone on to become aerospace engineers for NASA.”

Making maker entrepreneurs

For some students considering their future in the world of work, becoming a maker entrepreneur gives them the chance to turn their hobby into their livelihood. Startable Pittsburgh is a maker-oriented youth entrepreneurship program borne out of the city’s growing startup community as a way to help young makers make a living through making.

Over the course of an eight-week summer session, teens are coached by other maker entrepreneurs as they develop ideas for a product, create a business plan, and then dive headlong into making that product a reality.

“Teens split their time between Alphalab Gear, a startup accelerator, and TechShop, a makerspace with everything you need to prototype and do small-batch manufacturing,” explains Startable program coordinator Jackie Shimshoni. “At the end, students launch their business at an open market of all their products and pitch their business idea to investors.”

Startable is emblematic of the kinds of self-directed learning that out-of-school learning programs provide to students as a complement to their in-school learning experiences. Youth are given the flexibility and independence to pursue their ideas and develop their skills at their own pace, but also have a supportive network of peers and mentors at the ready.

“I had no idea what I was going to make coming into the program,” says Miranda Miller, Startable alum. “But I had a huge field of mentors and instructors who helped me along the way.”

Through Startable, young people have launched businesses making jewelry, designing and fabricating lighting fixtures, constructing lawn furniture, and producing a local fashion line. While the businesses range in ambition and longevity, they signal a broadening and deepening of Pittsburgh’s startup business community.

“As a region like Pittsburgh develops, inequities can develop with it,” says Shimshoni. “By democratizing maker resources, we’re hoping to get more diverse voices in the engineering and maker fields. We need more minority entrepreneurs, we need more female entrepreneurs,” says Shimshoni. “If Startable can contribute to that in the next five to ten years, I think we will have done our job.”

 

In the final installment, we’ll see how employers are partnering with educators to help students channel their passion for making into careers in manufacturing, production, and entrepreneurship.

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.