Tag Archives: Maker

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.

Can the Maker Movement Spark a “Manufacturing Renaissance?”

Supporting the Maker Movement is one way to bring back economic growth, manufacturing ecosystems, and decent blue-collar jobs. So say the Brookings Institution’s Mark Muro and Peter Hirshberg, in “Maker City: A Practical Guide for Reinventing American Cities.”

In a blog post in January, Muro and Hirshberg write:

“The Maker Movement isn’t just about reviving manufacturing in cities (though it is doing that). In addition, the movement is proving that anyone can be a maker and that genuine progress on the nation’s most pressing problems can be made from the bottom up by do-it-yourselfers, entrepreneurs, committed artisans, students, and civic leaders through what our colleague Bruce Katz calls ‘new localism.’”

The authors call on the Trump administration to provide support in the form of tax credits or competitive grants to support local maker activity and to expand the relationships between makers and larger-scale commercial manufacturers. But absent this support, the authors call on local leaders —mayors, community college administrators, local businesses—to take matters into their own hands. They offer tips on how to do just that. Many of these tips, we should point out, are ones leaders in Pittsburgh are already doing.

Their advice includes:

  • Start organically by mapping the local maker community (see this cool map).

Remake Learning is mapping its own network, including many maker opportunities, and we have a playbook for how to start a learning ecosystem.

  • Engage community colleges, universities, and national laboratories.

See our post from earlier this month on how local programs like CodeTN in Tennessee are encouraging local high school students to attend coding programs at community colleges. In Pittsburgh, community colleges are working to better align courses with employer needs and emerging job clusters. “Westmoreland Community College has a whole new facility around advanced manufacturing,” Petra Mitchell, executive director of Catalyst Connection told us back in November.

  • Pull in the private sector

Catalyst Connection, an economic development organization focused on small manufacturers in Pittsburgh, runs ten-week programs that have students solving real-world problems the manufacturers identify. Students visit the company, learn about an issue or problem that has arisen, and then go back to the classroom to come up with a solution.

  • Experiment with new forms of education and training

The Brookings post highlights work going in Pittsburgh to “give kids access to modern production tools as a way to excite involvement.” They point to work in the Elizabeth Forward school district that led to the creation of the Dream Factory there. The Dream Factory, they write, is “a set of integrated classrooms where middle-schoolers learn how to use computers, 3-D printers, and CNC tools to create robots, drones, or whatever else they want. As a result, drop-out rates have fallen drastically at the school.”

We’re proud as a Network to have helped the Maker Movement thrive in our own community, but we still have work to do. As Gregg Behr and Dr. Lynne Schrum, the founding chairs of the Remake Learning Council, write in the introduction to the Remake Learning Playbook:

“We’ve learned a lot since our first breakfast brainstorms. We’ve tried many things, and we’ve made plenty of mistakes. But ultimately, we’ve seen significant progress in our effort to provide all children and youth with the best available opportunities to learn and be creative. We’re confident that all of us, together, can remake learning all across America.”

And now, if Brookings is right, maybe we can help remake manufacturing as well.

Maker Video Challenge Does Double Duty

Part of the appeal of the maker movement is its expansiveness. Electronics, coding, fashion design, audio engineering, filmmaking, woodworking—it’s all on the maker smorgasbord.

A new opportunity from Digital Promise challenges students to check a couple items off of that list at the same time.

The FilmMAKER Challenge asks middle and high school students to “reinvent an everyday product to make it more sustainable, accessible, or beautiful”—and meanwhile make a short documentary video that narrates that process. Students must work in groups with an adult mentor and submit their entries by March 24. Winners will be invited to present their products and films at the Bay Area or New York Maker Faires later in the year.

Digital Promise, a nonprofit that promotes digital learning innovation, doesn’t expect groups to dive right into the challenging project. The organization is also providing support to educators who want to help students enter the contest. A supplementary guide provides educators with a series of activities and assignments they can use to warm students up for the contest. It starts off with a few short exercises encouraging collaboration (including an improv theater game), and builds up to projects that give students experience prototyping, designing, and filmmaking. Together, the activities orient participants to the concept of design thinking.

In a recent article for The Atlantic, an educator tries to get a director at IDEO, a firm that supports educators in using design thinking in their classrooms, to define the term. The director, Neil Stevenson, balks—the tendency to distill design thinking down to a singular definition disregards the nuance and complexity of the idea, he insists.

The contest challenges students to not only design a better product, but to communicate why it is better and how it can help people.

But, he ultimately tells the educator, at the core of design thinking is empathy—understanding the needs of a real audience and designing a thoughtful product that meets them. That’s where the “film” piece of the FilmMAKER challenge comes in.

“Even the best ideas fail to make an impact if they can’t be shared with the world,” says Digital Promise.

The contest challenges students to not only design a better product, but to communicate why it is better and how it can help people. Throughout the process, students have to consider who their target audience is, and how to expand it. The exercise is meant to help students think about how to effect change in the world outside their classrooms.

Educators inside and outside of school settings have integrated design thinking, or human-centered design, into their practice. At Y-Creator Space, an afterschool program at three sites in Pittsburgh, young people complete projects that address community needs or serve another purpose. Past participants have prototyped and built aquaponics systems and light-up shirts for cyclists.

A couple years ago, the University of Pittsburgh and the Sprout Fund joined forces for the two-day Water Design Challenge, which asked high school students to devise an innovative method for raising awareness of water crises. One winning group created a website depicting how far women in various countries have to walk to retrieve drinkable water. Then they hosted a fundraiser race, where participants ran the average water-retrieving distance. Another winning group took a completely different approach, designing a residential rain barrel system that would give tax credits to homeowners who used it.

The FilmMAKER challenge is even more open-ended, demanding that the young designers pursue an interest of their own and exercise their creativity muscles. Will they reinvent a lunchbox or a license plate? Crutches or a coffeemaker? And then can they make the case for their creation?

4 Maker Project Ideas for Your 2017 Classroom

Did anyone else resolve to make more in 2017? At a loss for new ways to encourage your students to tinker, create, and build?

Whether maker education is old hat or brand new, we could all use inspiration as school starts up again and the weather traps everyone inside. We’ve rounded-up some creative projects—from makers near and far—to try in 2017.

  1. Use Digital Technology to Solve Problems

Educators at the Brookwood School in Manchester, Mass. came up with a unique system to make better use of their school’s 3D printer. It’s one that boosts students’ problem-solving skills, stretches the limits of the technology, and provides practical help to the whole school community. Staff submit requests to a “problem bank.” The young designers come up with solutions to their problems.

Some teachers simply request 3D-printed board game pieces to finish incomplete sets. An art teacher asked students to design clips to mount together mirrors for self-portrait-making. The school’s innovation coordinator challenged the students to create a helicopter-like object that could be used to demonstrate flight. The young designers can see the real-world applications of the skills they are learning—and often benefit from the work themselves. It’s easy to imagine a scaled-up version of the problem-bank project, where students connect with neighbors or city officials to learn about and address problems facing their community. 

  1. Teach the Diverse Cultural History of Making

Maker education can empower young people to explore their own cultural identities and learn about their peers’ backgrounds. On the MakerEd blog, neuroscientist Dorothy Jones-Davis writes that making was a daily experience throughout her working-class childhood, and one that connected her to her predecessors. At home, Jones-Davis didn’t often have new toys, but she learned to fix up old bikes and electronics, and sew new clothes. At Native American summer camp, she enjoyed making traditional cornhusk dolls and woven blankets. “At a young age my dad imparted that as countless generations of our people, black and brown, made—everything from quilts, to buildings, to inventions that changed our world—so we continue this honorable tradition,” she writes.

With glaring gaps in the racial and gender makeup in tech world, it’s important to remember that the history of making is a diverse one. Learners who feel like outsiders in the maker movement might be surprised to learn that many classic projects have roots in their own cultures. Take a cue from our local Assemble’s upcoming day camp “Who Made That: African American Scientist Discovery Camp.” Kids ages 8-10 can spend Martin Luther King Jr. Day learning about black inventors—like Garrett Morgan who, 100 years ago, created the first automated traffic signal (the precursor to the traffic light), gas masks, and the ziz-zag sewing machine stitch.

  1. Design ‘Smart’ Clothing

There are some timeless holiday classroom crafts. Decorated shoeboxes for handmade Valentine’s Day cards. Handprint turkeys with feathers glued on sloppily to mark Thanksgiving. What’s the 21st century maker version of celebratory crafting? Stanford’s FabLearn Fellows include some ideas in their “Meaningful Making: Projects and Inspirations for Fab Labs + Makerspaces,” an extensive guide. There’s a technological take on the “ugly Christmas sweater” trend. One of the fellows worked with high school engineering students to create sweaters that not only looked bad, but also lit up, made music, or were edible. The project was the culmination of a semester spent studying conductivity, programming, LEDs, and laser-cutting, and students proudly wore their successes on their sleeves—literally. For younger kids, another fellow recommends 3D-printing monster-shaped candy molds for Halloween.

  1. Build a Telegraph

Passing notes in class is typically frowned upon. Middle school teacher and FabLearn Fellow Heather Allen Pang actually encourages her history students to send messages from one side of the classroom to the other—but they have to build a good old-fashioned telegraph in order to do so. In the FabLearn guide, Pang writes about her own experience learning to build the machine, and gives advice to other educators trying the activity in their classrooms. For makers who are more attached to their modern-day communication technologies, the guide also suggests designing wooden or edible cell phone cases. Those would pair nicely with the emoji pillows a group of middle school students from Environmental Charter School sewed with Assemble.







What’s it take to go from ‘Rec Center’ to ‘Tech Center’?

As the National Week of Making comes to a close, there’s equal measure of excitement and motivation going around. Excitement for the potential of the maker movement to empower a new generation of creative and capable builders, inventors, and tinkerers ready to overcome today’s most pressing challenges and re-energize the economy. Motivation to determine exactly how such a diffuse and decentralized movement can achieve that lofty vision in a way that is accessible and equitable to all.

A few weeks ago, more than 50 educators and municipal leaders from more than a dozen cities across the country met in Washington, DC to take the first steps toward making hands-on, technology-enhanced learning opportunities not just something that a few children experience at occasional events, but something that cities and towns invest in and support as part of the public, municipal infrastructure.

The idea goes like this: many cities maintain community recreation centers in parks, public housing buildings, libraries, or other neighborhood-based sites and with the right mix of human capital and equipment, many of these recreation centers could be activated anew as makerspaces and tech labs—in other words, going from ‘Rec Center’ to ‘Tech Center.’

Andrew Coy

The meeting was convened by Andrew Coy, Senior Advisor for Making at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Andrew’s experience as the former Executive Director of Digital Harbor Foundation, a nonprofit that led a Rec2Tech conversion project in Baltimore, inspired him to explore opportunities to build a model for similar projects communities across the country, especially in under-resourced communities and communities of color.

Participating cities came from across the U.S., from Philadelphia in the East and St. Louis in the Midwest, to New Orleans in the South and Palo Alto in the West. The size of the cities ranged from major metropolitan centers like Chicago and Los Angeles to small towns like Ithaca, NY and Wenatchee, WA.

Pittsburgh’s Remake Learning Network was there, represented by staff from the Heinz Endowments, Pittsburgh City Parks, the Maker’s Place, the Remake Learning Council, and The Sprout Fund. The network is working to deepen the impact of local educators and youth workers to provide more young people with hands-on learning experiences that are engaging to their interests and relevant to their future success. The Rec2Tech model is one of several approaches network members are exploring to expand access and equity.

Models to Consider

Two guest speakers shared insights from their experience working to expand access to innovative learning opportunities in partnership with municipal and community spaces.

Shawn Grimes, Executive Director of Digital Harbor Foundation, recalled the history of risk taking, sweat equity, and practical problem solving that went in to the launch of their Rec2Tech conversion in Baltimore. First opened in 2013, Digital Harbor’s Tech Center emerged from a collaboration between Baltimore City Recreation & Parks, Baltimore City Public Schools, and Digital Harbor. Today, they serve 1,300 youth per year with an average engagement of some 40 hours through year-round progressive programs.

Dr. Nichole Pinkard

Dr. Nichole Pinkard, founder of Digital Youth Network, grounded the discussion in the critical issue of equitable access and the changing meaning of literacy in today’s world.

“If a society’s definition of what it means to be literate is tied to the technological innovations of the time,” said Dr. Pinkard, “Then today’s technologies have created a world where computational thinking and making are becoming essential literacies for all.”

To Dr. Pinkard, the Rec2Tech concept has the potential to answer both the equity question and the literacy question: it embeds technology and talent in the communities that children call home and it exposes them to new modes of thinking and the future rewards they can lead to.

Exploring Critical Issues

During the afternoon session, The Sprout Fund led a facilitated discussion about four critical issues related to municipal makerspaces:

  1. Establishing partnerships and collaborations that can support Rec2Tech conversions
  2. Creating high-quality youth programming that is engaging and relevant
  3. Building work readiness skills relevant to careers in high-demand sectors
  4. Identifying best practices regarding space design and technology

Key findings from this discussion will guide ongoing conversations among the emerging national community of practice about municipal makerspaces. You can read the Key Findings and contribute your own thoughts on Medium.

 A Rec2Tech Framework for Pittsburgh

In Pittsburgh, the Remake Learning Network is committed to expanding equitable access to powerful experiences related to making and digital learning.

As announced during the National Week of Making kick off last Friday, the City of Pittsburgh and The Sprout Fund, together with partners from the Remake Learning Network, are working to develop a community-informed plan for Rec2Tech along with site-specific curriculum and demonstration programming for kids at multiple recreation centers across the city. While these efforts are just getting underway, they signal what is possible when educators, youth-serving nonprofits, and municipal leaders come together to make deep investments in community assets for learning.

The Strengths of Community-Based Makerspaces

If you heard that a makerspace was well-resourced, what would you picture?

Maybe a 3D printer. Probably a soldering iron. Ample table space and crafting materials, at least.

But resources encompass more than pricy gadgets and materials. Embracing a broad definition of resourcefulness can promote equity in the maker movement—and is often a necessity in community makerspaces—found researchers from George Mason University.

As we head into a week of exciting maker events, their work provides insight into including everyone in the ongoing celebration of making.

In their paper “Resourceful and Inclusive: Towards Design Principles for Makerspaces,” Kimberly Sheridan, Abigail Konopasky, Asia Williams, and Grace Wingo share their take-aways from studying makerspaces in underserved, mostly African-American communities. They spent time at Game Design through Mentoring and Collaboration, a weekend and summer program run in partnership with George Mason University in Washington; and at Mt. Elliot Makerspace, an all-ages neighborhood spot in a Detroit church basement. Although serving technically “under-resourced” populations, the leaders and participants at both locations epitomize resourcefulness, the researchers found.

Resources encompass more than pricy gadgets and materials.

Asset-mapping is a common practice at the spaces they studied. A popular approach in some community development circles, asset-mapping involves identifying existing strengths and resources and working from there. It’s a reaction to the common process of determining what a community lacks and starting from scratch to fix the problem.

The GMU researchers found that the people at George Mason and in Detroit were constantly thinking about the skill sets and knowledge that community members already possessed. They leveraged their connections with individuals and organizations outside of the makerspace walls.

In the maker movement, the authors write, resourcefulness is too often “celebrated as an individual and self-contained trait—doing it yourself, making it from scratch, pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps.”

In the sites they studied, by contrast, a community-oriented resourcefulness built vital bonds with the outside world. Though these “third spaces” created comforting refuges from the norms and power structures in the larger community, they also granted participants access to it. Leaders at George Mason combed the surrounding community to recruit tech experts willing to come teach the youth about their professions. The young people got a window into industries they might not otherwise have considered or felt they could access. The Detroit program had a partnership with Earn-a-Bike, where kids learn to repair and customize bicycles, eventually taking the bike and the skill set home with them.

Leaders at both of the sites had an important understanding that participants themselves were resources.

“The common practice of teaching as soon as you learn is used as a strategy for broadening the resource base,” the authors write.

At George Mason, youth took on the role of mentors. The practice had a dual purpose of empowering the young people and spreading their new skills to other participants. In Detroit, a group of girls developed a popular YouTube channel, broadcasting playful fake newscasts. The project was an important creative outlet for the kids, and through its active follower base drew new participants to the maker program.

These researchers are far from the first to catalog successful practices for designing a makerspace and maker program. The quick traction the maker movement has gained across many learning environments raises the question of what works where.

MakerEd’s Youth Makerspace Playbook is an extensive handbook for starting a maker program from scratch. Written for all kinds of making communities, it also advises readers to do something akin to asset-mapping.

First-timers should “see possibilities in all things, especially the resources they already have,” the authors write. “They should view their community of users as their greatest resource and asset.”

Next week, making will be in the spotlight. The National Maker Faire on June 18 and 19 kicks off the Week of Making, a call from the White House for people across the country to tinker, imagine, and build. Case studies on different communities’ takes on making, like those from George Mason, are good reminders that the call can include everyone.

The research shows that a community-oriented take on resourcefulness is a critical coping strategy for makerspaces lacking the bells and whistles of a well-funded fab-lab. It’s also a great approach for any maker program interested in genuinely empowering and engaging it’s participants and taking advantage of the rich world outside its door.




What I Learned from an Old Kickboard and Dental Floss

I was in second grade and had just been given an extraordinary assignment: build a boat.

Each kid had a month to construct a small boat out of any materials they could get their hands on. There were no rules, no instructions—it was the wild, wild West of homework. All we were told was that at the end of the month, there would be a competition. Our teacher was going to drop washers into each boat, one by one, and the boat that held the most washers without sinking would win.

Like most of my classmates, I went completely nuts for this project. I obsessed over building practice boats out of cardboard and milk bottles. I was desperate to get hold of a hot glue gun.

Progressive educators have adopted project-based learning like this in their classrooms for decades—long before the phrase “maker movement” entered the mainstream. Project-based learning encourages kids to investigate real-world problems, design solutions, and collaborate. Projects are often open-ended and there is not just one right answer. As kids learn through every step of the process, they are building the kind of design-thinking skills experts say are more important than ever in a knowledge-based economy.

Though the maker movement is often associated with things like 3D printers and circuits, it is really a fusion of newly accessible technology with old ideas about how we learn best.

“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,” Gary Stager, co-author of “Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom,” writes.

Whether we call it maker learning or project-based learning, deep learning experiences like these happen in the Pittsburgh region every day. There are more than 100 makerspaces in schools throughout southwestern Pennsylvania.

Take math teacher Nick Tutolo’s sixth-graders at the Environmental Charter School in Pittsburgh. Last year, he tasked them with building a small car that would protect an egg when it crashed into a wall. To heighten the challenge, the students had to use algebra to stick to an imaginary budget, even incorporating shipping costs and taxes and immersing themselves in real-life applications of algebraic expressions.

Nick Tutolo’s sixth graders test out their “egg cars.”

They also learned to design their cars on basic 3D modeling software. “Some of the designs that the students were able to produce on a pretty low-end 3D modeling program really surprised me,” Tutolo said.

Students considered every scenario—even figuring out ways to protect the egg if the car flipped. They used sponges, pipe cleaners, bottles, cardboard, and more. One team built a car with no wheels. Tutolo said students were in a constant state of redesign, building and rebuilding, learning from their own mistakes and those of their peers. In the end, only one egg broke completely when it rushed down the hill and hit the wall.

“One of the students who was particularly engaged in the process told me, ‘Mr.Tutolo now you’re going to make me think about this all summer,’ ” Tutolo said.

Those experiences are not only happening in Pittsburgh classrooms. They also take place in dozens of informal learning spaces across the city. In late June, kids at the Children Museum’s MAKESHOP were given the challenge of building forts, making bags out of duct tape, and creating flotation devices in a “survivor” themed Youth MakeNight. Later in July, garden experts will take kids on a hunt for bugs and help them build “bug mansions” using what they learned about bug habitats. And the museum is partnering with Kickstarter to help bring makerspaces to even more area schools.

These projects stick in our memories not simply because they are fun. Getting lost in the challenge of making something work—something you care about—is a learning experience that sticks with kids and, it turns out, adults.

I’m pretty sure my boat—a combination of an old kickboard and dental floss—lost its balance and wobbled, catching water and sinking to the bottom of the tub in last place, ruined. I don’t think it even mattered. All I remember is wanting to go back, try again, and build a boat that actually floated.

Learning STEAM in Style

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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