Tag Archives: Creativity

Pittsburgh Students Rise to the Challenge of Addressing World Water Crises

In March, students from four Pittsburgh area high schools came together for a two day Water Design Challenge. Hosted at the University of Pittsburgh‘s William Pitt Union and supported by a Hive Grant from The Sprout Fund, students were asked to brainstorm to raise awareness about real world water crises. Emily Stimmel shared this story on the Kidsburgh blog.

The problem: raising awareness about real world water crises. The problem-solvers: 55 students in grades nine through 12 from four local high schools.

In March students from Chartiers Valley, Elizabeth Forward, McKeesport and Mt. Lebanon high schools participated in a 2-day Water Design Challenge at University of Pittsburgh’s William Pitt Union. The activities were designed to inspire students to think as local and global citizens and consider the social and environmental implications of something most of us take for granted—water.

Though the project was multidisciplinary in scope incorporating social studies, world language, science and technology–and drawing faculty and students from all four schools–it was pioneered by Mt. Lebanon High School social studies teacher Tina Raspanti. After reaching out to Veronica Dristas, the assistant director of outreach at Pitt’s Global Studies Center, for help in developing a global studies program geared to high schoolers, she felt inspired.

“She told me to dream big,” Raspanti says. So, with a team of likeminded Mt. Lebanon High School teachers, Raspanti approached The Sprout Fund for a grant from its Hive Fund for Connected Learning and the group immediately got to work setting the project in motion.

With funding, Raspanti and her team were able to cover the costs of food, transportation and overnight accommodations offering an “equal playing field for all school districts.” Because no single school was responsible for footing the bill, students from the four schools had equal access to the Water Design Challenge leading to a more diverse, innovative pool of ideas. “It was great to see how they melded together,” says Raspanti, noting that “think globally, act locally” became the teams’ shared motto.

Students engaged in brainstorming sessions and evaluated their ideas using the concepts of human-centered design thinking championed by the event’s facilitator Pete Maher of LUMA Institute. Ultimately, the judges selected two winners—one presenting a local solution and the other a global one.

Make it Rain, the winner in the category of local solutions, promoted a rain barrel system that offers tax credits to residents who use it to water their lawns, encouraging conservation through financial incentives. In the global category, Women 4 Water created a detailed website describing how far women in developing nations walk to retrieve potable water. The average distance was six kilometers, so the all-female team chose a 6K race as the vehicle for raising awareness of the issue while generating funds to support these women.

Students weren’t instructed to use specific tools or methods for awareness-raising, but they naturally gravitated towards social media with most of the groups setting up simple websites and mock online fundraising campaigns.

They also weren’t asked to recruit the next cohort of participants, but they’ve eagerly taken on the task. Though the pilot project focused on water, the essential element of the Challenge is uniting a diverse group of students to collaboratively solve a problem. With Water Design Challenge as a model for future Challenges, the teens who participated in the pilot project are brainstorming the next topic and spreading the word to their peers. With additional funding, Raspanti hopes to develop the project into an annual event uniting diverse groups of students from schools across the region.

The Value of Arts Education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



The Impact of After-School Arts Programs

We know places that let kids explore arts are vital parts of a learning network. We also know that art is every bit as important as STEM for instilling skills such as problem solving and imagination. But can after-school arts programming do even more? A recent report from the College & University Research Collaborative finds that enrolling more kids in after-school arts classes is associated with a decline in juvenile crime rates.

The researchers analyzed education, crime, and census data from 39 Rhode Island cities for five years. Two of the three statistical models showed that participation in educational after-school activities was associated with lower juvenile crime rates in the same year. In one of the statistical models, a 10 percent increase in participation was associated with a 4 percent decrease in juvenile crime rates.

Higher participation rates in lower-income towns—towns with median incomes less than the area’s median income—was slightly more effective: a 10 percent increase in participation meant a 5.4 percent decrease in juvenile crime.

The report points out that much more research is needed to address remaining questions. For example, do the effects of the programming last? Furthermore, there’s no data on participation rates in after-school programs that are specifically arts-based; therefore, the analysis focuses on broader after-school activities with more in-depth interviews, untangling the effects of arts programming specifically.

Researchers found arts-based programming in many cases had turned around participants’ lives. 
What we do know already, though, is that kids from low-income families have less access to quality after-school programming, even though they’re the ones who need it most. For one thing, heading to a dance program or theater rehearsal is an alternative to spending those after-school hours at home in front of the television or in neighborhoods that may be affected by crime or drug use. Nobel Prize−winning economist James Heckman found in a 2006 study that following early education with after-school programs can cut young people’s chances of starting drugs by one-half. 

As one student who is part of Rhode Island’s Everett: Company, Stage & School explains in the report, “By middle school I slipped into the pattern of behavior typical to the youth surrounding me; I joined a gang and began engaging in risky behaviors. [Then] my best friend and I discovered break dancing, and somehow also found Everett. . . . From preparing for shows . . . across the state to being exposed to places and people I otherwise would never know, these experiences changed the course of my life.”

Beyond keeping kids in safe environments, after-school arts programs give low-income kids similar chances to learn and explore their own interests that their higher-income peers have been receiving at origami camp or during saxophone lessons for years. By the time kids born into poverty reach sixth grade, they will have spent approximately 6,000 fewer hours learning than their wealthier counterparts. (If you do the math that’s approximately five school years.)

Approximately one-half of those missed learning hours come from after-school and extracurricular activities that their higher-income peers have been partaking in since day one. Those hours have a snowball effect, and that achievement gap too often carries on throughout high school and beyond.

Of course, it’s about more than only hours put into learning. The more difficult challenge is filling those hours with quality programming that will make a difference. Through interviews and observations, the Rhode Island researchers found arts-based programming in many cases had turned around participants’ lives. In addition, an emphasis on retention, an evolution of youths’ roles, and family engagement were keys to a program’s success. The researchers also found that programs integrating skill-based training or providing resources to help students graduate, apply to college, or earn scholarships are critical to a program that works.

The Wallace Foundation also investigated what factors draw low-income tweens to after-school art programs. Through hundreds of interviews with students, the report found instructors who are professional artists and programs taking place in dedicated, welcoming spaces are among the most important elements for attracting students. Learning Labs in libraries and museums, such as those in Pittsburgh and 23 other cities, are taking those elements to heart.

The Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild also embraces those elements. Bill Strickland, who founded the guild in 1968 in Pittsburgh, talked with us last winter about the success of his growing urban art centers. He touched on how the arts engage kids in learning in an intrinsic way. In fact, we learn exclusively through creative activities for our first five years of life.

“I think it’s how we’re built as humans. Creative activity releases a part of your consciousness that is essential to mental and physical health,” he said.

Sure, art instills 21st-century skills employers will be looking for down the line, such as imagination or divergent thinking. But kids don’t love paper mache because it teaches them the basics of structural engineering; rather, they’re drawn to it because there’s something fundamentally human about ideas flowing into your hands and creating art.

All kids deserve a chance to tap into that human experience, whether it be through programs in Pittsburgh that teach audio recording,or photography, or ones that encourage art inspired by social change. Strickland explained—and the Rhode Island report noted—that providing kids with a creative outlet in the right space can create enormous potential for learning and for their lives.

“Many of these kids are coming from environments where there are no parents or only one parent. They’re dealing with welfare, drugs, poverty and violence,” Strickland explained. “We create an environment for them that says, ‘We care about you. We’re not going away. We’re here for the long term. You’re part of us, now, so let’s go.’”


STEAM-ing up STEM, in Congress and the Classroom

On May 7, leaders from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) unveiled an online map of STEAM programs as part of a briefing for members of the Congressional STEAM caucus. STEAM stands for science, technology, engineering, art, and math.

The caucus launched about one year ago to “change the vocabulary of education to recognize the benefits of both the arts and sciences—and their intersections—to our country’s future generations.”  The caucus has grown from 11 to 62 members, including 5 from Pennsylvania. STEAM programs are invited  to add themselves to the map, which tracks STEAM-related efforts related to research, education, policy, and industry.

From educators to legislators, increasing numbers of thought leaders are realizing that although new focus on math, science, and technology is important, adding arts to the mix creates important synergy.

As Steven Ross Pomeroy, assistant editor for Real Clear Science, noted in a guest blog for Scientific American, Nobel laureates in the sciences are far more likely to be painters, poets, or musicians than the average scientist.

Astronaut Mae Jemison once debated whether to pursue medical school or a dance career. Though medical school won, she has never lost sight of the connections between science and art. Both are rooted in creativity. “E = mc2 required an intuitive leap, and the analysis came afterwards,” she observed in a 2002 TED talk.

Art, says RISD’s President John Maeda, helps us see things in new ways.

“Our economy is built upon convergent thinkers,” he said, “people that execute things, get them done. But artists and designers are divergent thinkers: they expand the horizon of possibilities.”

Innovation, Maeda says, comes from bringing these two kinds of thinkers together—something that’s going to be crucial in educating the next generation of workers. Employers, increasingly agree. Representatives from Intel, Boeing and Lockheed Martin all spoke in support of STEAM at the May 7 briefing.

STEAM learning, said Congressional STEAM Caucus Cochair Aaron Schock, will help “produce graduates with the skills industry identifies as vital in new hires, including collaboration, trial and error, divergent thinking skills, and dynamic problem solving.”

But bridging the cultural divide between the disciplines remains a challenge in the classroom. Pioneering educator Meghan Reilly Michaud sees the connections constantly and makes them apparent to her art students at Andover High School in Massachusetts. Michaud, a RISD graduate who now serves on the school’s board of trustees, uses design examples to make the link. “Every time you put on an item of clothing, somebody designed it. When you buy toothpaste, somebody designed the box, the tube, even the cap,” she said in a video produced by PBS NOVA Education.

When Andover teachers began writing their school’s strategic plan, Michaud realized many of her colleagues didn’t know what STEAM was or why it was important. At the same time, many teachers were already putting STEAM to work in their classrooms without realizing it. To raise awareness and make those connections more apparent, she and her math department colleagues launched a new project, “Geometry Through the Lens of Art,” in which freshmen studying art, geometry, or both courses take field trips to local museums to discover the connections between geometric concepts and artistic tools such as perspective.

Recently she hosted an engineering roundtable for teachers across multiple disciplines—art, engineering, math, and physics—to develop a coherent sequence of bridge-related experiences for students in their high school years.

Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy takes a similar hands-on, STEAM-oriented approach to unleash its students’ creativity. Whereas time devoted to the arts has been curtailed across the nation, Sci-Tech high schoolers spend more than an hour a day in a music technology class—and middle schoolers spend two hours a day, according to a recent story from WESA 90.5.

“I always feel like I’m just as much a part of the curriculum, of the pulse of the school, as anyone else,” music technology teacher Matt Ferrante told WESA. Elsewhere for example, he said, arts classes can be sacrificed during standardized testing times. “Something like that is never going to happen here.”

Why Silicon Valley Wants Humanities Majors

It’s no secret the traditional humanities in higher education, especially at the graduate level, are struggling. Fewer students are enrolling in humanities classes as undergraduates, and fewer graduates of humanities doctoral programs are finding the jobs they expected.

But slowly, scholars and universities are beginning to break down the longstanding divide between the humanities and STEM disciplines. Digital humanities researchers are mapping the spread of ideas, crowdsourcing digital archives, and making manuscripts accessible to answer timeless questions about what makes us human. Stanford University recently announced it is developing new majors that integrate computer science with humanities disciplines like English and music.

And engineers and entrepreneurs are taking note. When the New York Times asked techpreneur-turned-academic Vivek Wadhwa to write a 2011 opinion piece on where to spend higher education funds—on STEM or on liberal arts programs—they expected him to argue for STEM. But he didn’t.

Wadhwa and a team of researchers surveyed more than 650 CEOs and leading product engineers at more than 500 technology companies. They found that about half had earned a STEM degree at some point in their academic career (bachelor’s, master’s, or Ph.D.). The rest held degrees in a variety fields, including the humanities. “Gaining a degree made a big difference in the sales and employment of the company a founder started,” Wadhwa wrote. “But the field that the degree was in … was not a significant factor.”

Students of the humanities bring skills to the table that engineers don’t—like how to tell a good story. That’s a skill in high demand among tech businesses, as Silicon Valley chronicler Michael Malone discovered when he invited entrepreneur Santosh Jayaram to speak to his writing students. As Malone described it to the Wall Street Journal, he extended the invitation but begged Jayaram not to “dash their hopes” by telling them to leave the humanities.

But Malone, too, was surprised. “English majors are exactly the people I’m looking for,” Jayaram said. He explained that to create a successful tech startup today, you must research “that one undeveloped niche you can capture” and sell the idea to investors, partners, employees, and customers. “And how do you do that? You tell stories.” According to Jayaram, good storytellers are much harder to find than good engineers. “That’s why I want to meet your English majors.”

As Christine Henseler, a leading scholar in the digital humanities movement, wrote, “To write or represent a good story, we have to think about the power of the image, the sound, the word, the logic behind our arguments, the cultural perspectives of our audiences, the faith, or lack thereof, in what we do.” That’s what the humanities teach students.

The classroom discussions and group projects in history, English, and other humanities disciplines also foster social intelligence in a way that traditional STEM disciplines have not always done. “Social intelligence is not what schools specifically train people in, but the highest growth right now and the highest salaries go to people with high social intelligence skills. These are skills better fostered by the humanities,” said Kevin Stolarick, a researcher on the “creative class” who recently spoke at Pittsburgh’s Creative Industries Summit. (For more of his perspective, plus a look at our local creative class and our ability to attract and keep creatives, check out this post.)

The Kids + Creativity Network is helping Pittsburgh-area children and youth develop skills not only in STEM, but in arts and imagination—key building blocks of a humanistic world view. Projects like Crossing Fences, the Literary Arts Boom (The LAB), and Pittsburgh Filmmakers’ Youth Media Program combine the best of the humanities—asking questions, reflecting on stories, and discovering the common elements of the human experience—with cutting-edge technology and communications tools. Thanks to these kinds of experiences, Pittsburgh’s next generation will seize—and likely, create—new pathways to integrate the humanities with STEM.


Photo/ Kaitlin Phillips

Teens and Social Media? “It’s Complicated”

A Nielsen study released last month found 40 percent of young adults use social media in the bathroom. A little odd, perhaps. But when you look at how truly tuned in teens are to social media, is it really that surprising?

It’s not just teens’ attachment to technology that can make adults scratch their heads. There’s a deeper fear—that kids will lose their ability to socialize face-to-face, that they’ll be bullied, or lured by strangers into dangerous situations, or that they’re sexting or… the list of dangers goes on.

danah boyd, for one, thinks those fears are misplaced. And more deeply, the author of the new book, “It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens,” argues that we’re scapegoating digital media for bigger problems—like an overtly sexual society and overly scheduled childhoods.

boyd, who’s a principal researcher at Microsoft Research, spent eight years interviewing hundreds of teens and studying the nuanced ways they use social media. Her findings challenge the gloom-and-doom narratives we’ve all heard before. While still acknowledging the internet’s boundaries and shortcomings, she brings to light the potential of new media to empower teens.

In the book’s opening chapter, boyd makes an important clarification. Teens aren’t actually obsessed with Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. Rather, as she told fellow tech expert Clive Thompson at Wired, “Teens aren’t addicted to social media. They’re addicted to each other.”

“Most teens are not compelled by gadgetry as such—they are compelled by friendship,” boyd writes. “The gadgets are interesting to them primarily as a means to a social end. Furthermore, social interactions may be a distraction from school, but they are often not a distraction from learning. Keeping this basic social dynamic firmly in view makes networked teens suddenly much less worrisome and strange.”

“Educators have an important role to play in helping youth navigate networked publics and the information-rich environments that the internet supports.”

-danah boyd

Teens today want what teens since the stone age have wanted—a place to be themselves and hang out without adults hovering over them. But boyd describes how the last few decades have seen a mix of anti-loitering laws, enforced curfews, a decreasing number of public places, and growing safety worries from parents. Pair all that with the ever-increasing pressure to get into college, and teens have less time than ever to hang out face-to-face, which, boyd claims, is one reason their online lives mean so much to them.

But what teens see and what adults see are often two different things. Parents and teachers, she says, are too quick to blame social media and online worlds as the root cause of the problem. As she sees it, the real problem is bigger. To wit: sexting. We blame digital media for the flood of sexually explicit photos pinging back and forth via texts and Snapchat, but we should really be blaming the conflicting messages society sends about sex—from the Kardashians and twerking to abstinence and virginity pledges.

boyd also thinks that teachers should be more open to interacting with students on social media. She told Emily Bazelon on Slate:

“The moves educators have made away from using social media to talk to kids have been really destructive. Educators should have open-door policies for kids to reach out to them online. A teacher should create a profile that is herself or himself as a teacher, on Facebook or wherever your cohort of kids are. Never go and friend a student on your own, but if a student friends you, accept. And if a student reaches out to you online, respond. If you see something concerning about a student on a social media account, approach him or her in school. Give your password to the principal, so it’s all transparent, and then be present. Unfortunately, I hear a lot of teachers say they shouldn’t talk to kids outside the classroom. You can’t be 24/7, but when that connection is possible, it should be encouraged. And social media is an opportunity for more informal interactions.”

(That one lit up the comments, for a lot of reasons.)

Educators, and adults in general, play another role, boyd says—as online sherpas for teens:

“Educators have an important role to play in helping youth navigate networked publics and the information-rich environments that the internet supports,” boyd writes. “Although youth are always learning as they navigate these systems, adults—including parents, educators, and librarians—can support them further by helping turn their experience into knowledge.”

In the end, the advice boyd sends to parents, educators, and others concerned with technology is “keep calm and carry on”: nix the anxiety and embrace the possibility. “With technology, there is such a tendency for it to be a source of anxiety,” she told Bazelon. “I’d really like us to be in a place where we think of it instead as an opportunity for teenagers.”


Photo/ Personal Democracy

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

Thomas Südhof is an unlikely champion for arts education.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summer is Coming. We Promise.

Summers are a special time for learning. As soon as school is out,  Summer Learning Campaigns start up and droves of young people get busy with all sorts of hands-on learning. And even though summer seems like a long way off with all the cold and slush sticking around, Maker Corps’ return to Pittsburgh is just one extra reason to get excited about summer 2014.

Assemble, the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, and Millvale Community Library are three of the 35 sites in the US set to host Maker Corps members from the Maker Education Initiative this summer. All season, the corps will help kids and their families tinker and build all kinds of things to spark an interest STEM through making.

The Maker Education Initiative is only two years old, but it’s growing quickly, just like the larger maker movement it’s a part of. Makers are an expanding group of people in garages, basements, and maker spaces who love, well, making. They build catapults, bake 20-sided pecan pies, and print sheep on 3D printers.

However, enthusiasm for the maker movement has spread far beyond weekend warriors and Maker Faire attendees. It’s gaining a foothold in education as a way to leverage kids’ natural inclination to tinker and experiment while simultaneously nurturing a passion for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Last summer, we wrote about how the movement has made its way into Pittsburgh classrooms.

But why now? Haven’t kids always messed around and built things out of cardboard? As Gary Stager, author of “Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom,” told me last summer, there’s a simple reason the maker movement is picking up so much steam: the technology people can get easily their hands on now has amplified the possibilities.

“The excitement about these new technologies will reanimate the best traditions of progressive education in classrooms, of learning by doing, of working on meaningful projects, of developing agency and becoming lost in the flow of something you care about,” Stager said.

Part of the goal of Maker Corps is to build the capacity of host sites to do maker programming not only in the summer, but also into the future. 

The Maker Ed Initiative fits in perfectly with that goal. Through its Maker Corps and other various programs, Maker Ed brings making experiences to scale in public learning environments across the country. The White House is even on board; the administration applauded the program in a recent blog post that announced the first-ever White House Maker Faire. In only its second year, the 108 Maker Corps members have already engaged 90,000 youth and their families in creative projects that encourage problem-solving skills. But as much as corps members inspire young makers, they’re also a huge resource for their host sites.

“Part of the goal of Maker Corps is to build the capacity of host sites to do maker programming not only in the summer, but also into the future,” said Lisa Regalla, national program director at the Maker Education Initiative, in a video for makers interested in applying to be corps members. She added that while corps members are working at the host sites, they also help host organizations get in touch with other maker spaces and connect them with local resources.

Pittsburgh’s maker spaces are already pros at connecting. Millvale Community Library’s maker space is actually made possible through the MAKESHOP and the Children’s Museum, and is one of several libraries in the country that’s now a making-friendly spot. According to its website, the library is expanding its space to include a more “vivacious maker space” and a tool lending library. A partnership with Open Floor Maker Space, a collective of skilled craftspeople, is in the works too.

The organizations that are making this tinkering-filled summer possible are coming together on March 5 at SXSW Edu on a panel called “Making and Learning: Put Your Hands Together!” If you’re lucky enough to go, you can see Dustin Stiver from The Sprout Fund, Lisa Brahms from The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, and Paloma Garcia-Lopez from the Maker Education Initiative discuss making for learning and how their organizations are promoting making at the local, regional, and national levels.

The maker movement and Pittsburgh’s learning ecosystem fit well together. Both center on collaboration, resourcefulness, and thinking a bit outside the box.