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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.

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.

Pressin’ Treadles: What Kids Can Learn From a Loom

On any typical day in the MAKESHOP at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, kids and families are woodworking, tinkering with circuits, and crafting cardboard swords and shields. But nestled in the corner of the bustling workshop is the trusty stalwart of the space: the four-harness floor loom.

Rebecca Grabman, MAKESHOP manager, said the loom is an “eternally popular” among all ages. Even adults are amazed to see one outside of a museum.

Meanwhile, a group of older kids have repeatedly come to the workshop for hours to figure out how to manipulate the harnesses to build complex patterns, which feels a bit like solving a puzzle.

And for younger kids, using repetition to weave new shapes is a full-body experience: The loom is much bigger than they are.

Photo/Rebecca Grabman

Donated about four years ago, the loom has four sets of “harnesses” that can be lifted independently, allowing weavers to build all sorts of patterns. As long as the loom is “dressed,” or prepared, any visitor can weave with it after learning three simple steps. Other materials get thrown into the mix, too. For years, visitors have woven long “scarves” with plastic bags, 8-track tape, and a pile of old Dictaphone wire.

Although looms like the one in MAKESHOP have been around for hundreds of years, in many ways the loom perfectly embodies the ideas of the ever-growing maker movement. In case you haven’t heard, the maker movement is an expanding community of DIY aficionados making everything from enormous electric giraffes to no-heat lava lamps. It’s a movement teaching people how to ask questions about how things work and, in turn, become creators—not only consumers.

“For a lot of kids, clothing is a given. Fabric is just something that’s a part of their lives,” Grabman said. “Being able to point out to them that this is directly applicable to the things they’re very familiar with is often kind of mind blowing to kids.”

It’s mind-blowing for adults, too. There’s a reason the show “How It’s Made,” which essentially chronicles how everything from nail clippers to bagpipes is born on an assembly line, is running strong with more than 300 episodes in 14 years. We don’t know how it’s made, and seeing an everyday object put together and packaged is mesmerizing.

When kids get to assemble simple materials with their own hands, like a mechanical bug with flapping wings or a Play-Doh circuit, it can spark a whole new level of imagination and problem solving. In other words, once you see the potential for plain threads to slowly become cloth, it might be easier to imagine how pieces of raw technology might become a robot; an inflatable, solar-powered light; or a pancake 3-D printer.

“It seems so abstract because it’s string, and then it becomes an object and it could become a shirt, a coat, or a couch,” explained Grabman, who has been with MAKESHOP since its prototyping days and calls the loom “beautiful and amazing.”

“It opens up a lot of possibilities because it’s so simple but slowly becomes more complex.”

Grabman said after working with the loom, staff members and parents often point out the different threads in kids’ own blue jeans. They teach them how all fabric they’re wearing is woven differently, and they show them the seams, hems, or different fibers in their T-shirts.

“Usually they’re like ‘Whoa, I had no idea,’” she said. “Sometimes they react like it’s some kind of conspiracy—like, ‘Who put this in my world!?’”

 

A Very Maker Holiday (Some Assembly Required)

As any young maker knows, the urge to make something can happen anytime, anywhere.

But the holidays are an especially inspiring time for sparking the itch to make. From gifts to cookies to decorations, it’s the season that naturally lends itself to busting out the craft bin, getting hands dirty, and letting imaginations run wild.

This season, why not give the gift of more hands-on making experiences and upgrade the holiday season into an all-out maker extravaganza?

Pittsburgh’s an easy place to find inspiration. For one, the many makerspaces scattered throughout the city are fully set with every tool you’d ever need. This week, the MAKESHOP at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh is offering the chance to make capes and crowns or press the treadles on a traditional loom.

And this Friday night, Assemble is hosting Teen + Tween Maker Night: Game Night Edition. At this the free event, 11- to 17-year-olds can 3-D print their own dice, laser cut puzzle pieces, and design their own game with support from Assemble staff.

But chances for making extend far beyond these dedicated spaces. The Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse is packed with reused materials and is a boon for teachers and makers alike. Foam, old plates, spindles, yarn—you name it, the center probably has it, and a trip is bound to inspire making. (One maker recently built a menorah using an old slab of wood and corks.)

If you don’t live in Pittsburgh (or if you do but still want to couple making experiences with some gifts), MAKE Magazine has compiled its epic gift guide once again. Hackable drones? Check. Robots made from toothbrushes? Check. The list is full of things that could be anything after a bit of creative making. After all, a squishy circuit is only a squishy circuit until a maker turns it into a crab with glowing eyes.

In addition, writer Ruth Suehle, writer at the site GeekMom, has some great ideas for maker gifts. Who knew you could get electric conductive paint for only $10?

The Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood announced its TOADY award last week—short for Toys Oppressive and Destructive to Young Children—which recognizes what the organization considers the worst toy of the year. This year, an app that lets babies and toddlers use an iPad and a TV simultaneously took the top prize. A prebranded, dollhouse-like mall and a wearable fitness tracker for young kids were among the runners-up.

Gifts and experiences that instill a love for making are the antitheses of toys like these that come with prescribed purpose. (And if you look down any toy aisle, there’s a lot of them.) Whether it’s an entry-level 3-D printer or roll of duct tape and a handful of straws, with the right encouragement, kids don’t need a lot to tap into their inner maker—which, in the end, is a lifelong gift.

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.

 

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.