Tag Archives: media

Report Finds Class Divide in Educational Media Use

In January, the Joan Ganz Cooney Center released a report on young children’s media diets. The survey of more than 1,500 parents of children ages 2-10 asked a bevy of questions about educational media use. Much of the ensuing news coverage focused on the sheer volume of media use, and how little of it overall parents deemed helpful, especially when it came to science and math content.

But I found something else to be more interesting: the study shows a serious class divide on educational media use. That made me wonder, could it be that high-income parents are letting their presumptions about “screens” cloud their judgment?

The report finds that it is high-income parents who are limiting media time for their kids. Lower-income families are using more educational games. Their kids spend more time with educational digital content than kids from high-income families. (In the examples that follow, for brevity’s sake, I compare the lowest and highest income categories only, but the pattern holds across the income spectrum. And all the differences are statistically significant.)

For example,

  • Overall, 43 percent of low-income kids (whose parents earn $25,000 or less annually) use some form of educational media daily versus 25 percent of high-income kids (whose parents earn $100,000 and above).
  • Lower-income kids also spend a higher share of total screen time on educational materials than high-income children—57 percent versus 40 percent.
  • These gaps hold regardless of the type of media—whether television, mobile phones, computer games, or other video games. For example, despite having less access to mobile devices, 12 percent of low-income children are daily users of educational content on mobile devices, compared with 5 percent of high-income children.

And before one thinks it’s because low-income families aren’t as discerning as consumers, there were few notable difference in their assessment of quality—they too know that their kids aren’t learning much from Sponge Bob.

Perhaps it’s a hangover of a snobbish view of television among people who are more educated (and have a higher income). Or it could be a slightly more subtle version of equating bad parenting with TV—and now video games, apps, and other media. Or maybe it’s the common reflexive assumption that screen time is bad; the most common reason cited for not using educational media is the desire to limit screen time.

Pundits (a.k.a. elite parents) too often take a simplistic and uninformed view of digital media—in all forms—and its role in kids’ lives today. They forget that for every Sponge Bob or first-person shooter video game there’s a Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood or SimCityEdu or other “transformational” game. The New America Foundation’s Lisa Guernsey writes in Smithsonian Magazine that parents and pundits need to be careful to not treat screens as a “monolithic entity” that is “doing something ‘toxic’ to children’s developing brains.” Screen media, she points out, comes in many forms these days, many of them interactive.

These same pundits are also too quick to point fingers at low-income parents. As the Cooney Center report suggests, low-income parents aren’t just plopping their children in front of a television, as so many seem to think; in fact, grandparents in these families frequently watch alongside children. They’re also seeking out educational media for their children and using it to help prepare their children for school.

If we can get beyond the false assumptions, parents might be able to demand more, and better, educational media. Right now for media developers, the incentives are elsewhere, Jesse Schell, CEO of Schell Games and professor at Carnegie-Mellon University, told Games Industry International.

And making a good game that is transformational for the user is hard work. Schell (an accomplished juggler) says this about making games that are both fun and educational:

“Teaching is really hard. Making an entertaining game is really hard. And now we’re proposing that we’re going to do both of them simultaneously. It’s like doing stunt riding on a motorcycle and juggling, and now I’m going to do them at the same time.”

Sure, some skepticism is warranted—there’s a lot of content masquerading as “educational.” But not all of it is bunk. As parents learn more about what constitutes quality, and understand that the context of use matters, they may both buy more games and put more pressure on developers to create good, educational content, including content that brings families together, rather than isolating each family member on a separate screen in the living room.

And maybe, too, they’ll realize that lower-income families are a key market.


How Today’s Digital Media Helps Kids Find and Tell Their Stories

Where most people would have only seen complicated dots and data, Roxanna Ayala and Uriel Gonzalez saw a story. For a project during their junior year of high school in Los Angeles, the two were given access to GIS maps of their city. The maps were filled with enormous amounts of data about things like population density, per capita expenditures, and income.

Working off what they’d learned from reading Jonathan Kozol’s “Savage Inequalities,” a book about the wide gap between schools across the socioeconomic spectrum, Ayala and her team plotted every single school in the Los Angeles metropolitan area and compared them to data from schools in Beverly Hills and Malibu. The students aimed to visually explain to their peers and community members how income inequality and segregation were affecting their schools.

“Even though Brown v. Board of Education desegregated schools, our schools still continue to be segregated,” Ayala explained in a recent Connected Learning webinar. The webinar was part of a series exploring storytelling and digital-age civics. It included a panel of young people from across the country who are using media to tell stories in unique ways.

“It’s pretty hard to explain to freshmen, ‘You’re being segregated.’ It’s something so complicated. But when they saw it on a map, they saw it was real. They were like, ‘Yeah, I get it,’” Gonzalez said. “We basically told stories through maps. And that was really empowering.”

Good stories connect us to the lives of strangers and help us understand ourselves at the same time. Today, the internet has amplified the power of stories because of the way it allows them to be recorded, shown, and shared with a wide audience.

For kids, this means there’s a platform where they can share their voices and unique perspectives. But while some aspects of storytelling come naturally, using new media often requires learning new skills and practicing—a lot. When kids learn how to create media, not just consume it, a world of opportunities opens up for them to share what matters in their lives.

“Storytelling is a core skill for contemporary activism. The ability to translate deep social concerns into compelling narratives which helps the public reframe their understanding of those issues,” said Henry Jenkins, the principal investigator at the Media Activism and Participatory Politics Project, in a video introducing the webinar series.

And these compelling narratives don’t just come from adults. The Hear Me project, an initiative of Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab, has recorded thousands of kids’ stories about topics ranging from bullying to immigration to violence in schools. The audio files are then loaded onto 24 mini stations located in public places around Pittsburgh. There, anyone can listen via a “tin can,” which actually contains digital audio, so listeners can push a button and hold it to an ear to hear the stories young people have to tell.

The project works two ways; kids are empowered by making their voices public, and society gets a look into the lives of Pittsburgh kids. “A society where kids are valued will create kids who value themselves and, in turn, value and better society,” the Hear Me website explains.

Hear Me has done amazing work recording kids’ stories and has received national attention for it. But another project, called This Day in Pittsburgh History, is also teaching teens how to be bona-fide producers of media. This Day in Pittsburgh History is a documentary filmmaking project at Cornell High School.  Each school day, students create minute-long segments that delve into historical events. For example, on January 14, 1953, Pittsburgh’s mayor David Lawrence campaigned for 12 percent of all TV channels to be entirely devoted to education. Who knew?

The students research, write, collect photos and videos, and then record their own voices for the mini-docs, which are broadcast during the school’s daily televised morning announcements. They also trek around the city to museums and meet with history experts. While they’re not telling stories from their own lives, the student filmmakers are gaining crucial media-making skills.

For kids and teens, getting excited about producing their own content is the first step in speaking up in the world. Twenty-one year old Youth Radio project associate Derek Williams perhaps summed it up best in the Connected Learning webinar: “When youth get involved, we’re change makers.”

Can Screens Help Young Kids Learn?

They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. That’s certainly the case for kids and babies who, just like their parents, are using smartphones and tablets more than ever.

A new Common Sense Media study found 38 percent of toddlers under 2 have used a mobile device. That number is up from 10 percent in 2011, when Common Sense conducted the first national survey of parents of children birth to age 8.

It’s worth noting that kids aren’t necessarily plugged in more than they were before. The total average time kids are using screen media actually dropped 21 minutes, leaving the average amount of screen time a little under two hours. While TV is still the predominant way kids consume media, the use of mobile devices is on the rise. The average time kids spend using mobile devices tripled to 15 minutes per day.

There are a lot of reasons for the shifts, the most obvious being access. The study found 75 percent of kids age 8 and under have a mobile device in their home, compared to 52 percent in 2011. The digital divide persists; 63 percent of higher-income families own a tablet, compared with 20 percent of lower-income families. But that’s up from just 2 percent two years ago. Plus, when lower-income kids do have access to a mobile device, there’s almost no gap in how often they use educational content.

Another reason for the jump among our youngest techies? Mobile devices and the apps on them are becoming more intuitive. (For a clear illustration of that fact, just watch this baby try to use a magazine like an iPad.)

“iPhones and tablets are game changers, because they’re so easy to use. While there was some floor on how young you could go with computers and video games, a young child who can touch a picture can open an app, or swipe the screen,” Vicky Rideout, the author of the report, told the New York Times.

Are all these screens okay for kids? According new guidelines released by the American Academy of Pediatrics, it depends on how they’re using them. Some things haven’t changed; the AAP still says no screen media for youngsters under two and discourages screens in kids’ bedrooms.

However, the guidelines did become more nuanced. New to the guidelines is the idea of a healthy “media diet,” one with limited but purposeful screen time. Content that’s interactive, social or educational is preferable over passive media, where kids just sit and watch. “The amount of time spent with screens is one issue, and content is another,” the AAP wrote in a statement about its new guidelines.

As NPR points out, Skype or FaceTime are some of those activities that are screen-based, interactive, and social. Plus, they have potential to show young kids the links between their onscreen experiences and their offline lives, something that’s crucial for learning.

Even with the new guidelines, managing toddlers’ media worlds is still uncharted territory. Pittsburgh is home to a number of leading organizations that are providing guidance for parents, educators and media makers in using technology in ways that are developmentally appropriate for young kids.

Fred Rogers revolutionized educational TV programming for kids, so it’s only fitting that the Fred Rogers Center has the same goal for the 21st century media. The center is providing national leadership on this issue. In 2012, the center partnered with NAEYC to release a position statement on using technology and interactive media in early childhood programs. The center’s Early Learning Environment (Ele) is an online support system that provides resources and guidance for digital media literacy to parents, family childcare providers, and educators.

To help close the digital divide among Pittsburgh kids, Baby Promise is connecting underserved families with hand-held technology through home visits and summer day camps. The curriculum is balanced out with swim classes, yoga, and healthy meals.

Lastly, a prime example of using media in an active, multilayered way is Message from Me, a project from CREATE Lab, the Children’s School of Carnegie Mellon University, and the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children. Using email, digital cameras and microphones in kiosks set up in classrooms, kids 3 to 5 record their daily school experiences and then send them to their parents.

“The technology is great. But the goal of the project—to increase communication among parents, teachers and young children and improve language development—is what’s primary,” Michelle Figlar, who heads up PAEYC, told Remake Learning in October.

Figlar’s sentiment echos that of the AAP and other media experts. Technology for young kids is best when it’s used for the things we know have helped kids learn even before the existence of screens—communicating, and engaging with the world around them.


Photo / Brad Flickinger

Using Media to Listen to Youth

Ever heard the phrase, “Conversation is key?” Probably. As journalist and author Melinda Blau wrote for Shareable, “Conversation is the basic unit of human sharing.” This is especially resonant when it comes to engaging youth.

Thinking back to when I was a child, my most influential relationships were with those adults who would take the time to talk with me, find out my interests, and share stories or resources to help me explore them. This level of engaging with youth takes a certain amount of time and commitment, but turns out it’s well worth it. The stories that surface are ones that can surprise and enlighten—as the folks behind the Hear Me initiative, a nonprofit group in Pittsburgh, have found.

The program aims to make sure young people’s voices are included in public dialogue about how to improve their communities. Hear Me works with kids, from all ages and backgrounds, through schools, after-school programs, and community organizations. The goal of the program is to make kids feel heard on issues of “regional and global significance.” The four main topics they discuss are education, health and wellness, community, and environment. The program allows kids to voice their thoughts in a variety of mediums. They share their stories through writing, audio, video, and artwork. The program then blends these responses through “digital storytelling.” It should be noted that the site specifically states that they “don’t do cute,” meaning that they take kids’ thoughts seriously.

Hear Me organizers and participants then take the responses and share them with the world through their website, which has become an online library housing thousands of students’ stories.

It’s not just to collect kids’ stories but to get them out there and let kids know people want to hear what they have to say.

“It’s not just to collect kids’ stories but to get them out there and let kids know people want to hear what they have to say,” Heide Waldbaum, Hear Me’s former director, told PopCity Media. “It’s giving the kids in our region the opportunity to voice things that are important to them in their lives, in their schools and in their communities so they have the opportunity to create positive change.”

The project started at Carnegie Mellon’s CREATE Lab, a space designed to foster youth’s technological fluency. But the initiative has evolved to work on region-wide issue based campaigns that collect stories based on a specific theme and tied to a strategic action plan.

Their latest partnership is with the Southwestern Pennsylvania Food Security Partnership to raise awareness about food insecurity and to increase participation in school breakfast programs. The program gathered student stories about food security and nutrition from kids around the region. The stories are collected online and shared through social media. The Southwestern PA Food Security Partnership is also sharing the stories with school administrators so they can use it to improve outreach and programming.

The organization’s website is an amazing collection of children’s aspirations and thoughts about the world around them. Now, anybody can read about how eight-year-old Kamir dreams of becoming a chemist, scientist, and a scholar, or how one teenager, Sophie, is coping with the drug abuse rampant in her community. It has even provided a space for nine-year-old Lyric to share endearing illustrations of breakfast foods with peers.

Young learners can visit the site, comment on Lyric’s drawing, for example, and then post their own. In fact, many of the titles reference other stories on the site, creating an ongoing conversation that crosses mediums.

Organizations with similar missions around the country, like Oakland’s Youth Radio and Chicago’s Free Spirit Media, also believe it’s crucial to provide young people a platform for participating in a larger dialogue about issues that affect their communities. Like Hear Me, these organizations also provide mentoring and crucial training in media literacy production that kids will use later on their lives.

The project changed its approach to include more mentoring after realizing that students needed adult support in order to make meaning out of their own stories, according to a great piece on the project at Slate this week. They noticed that students and educators “valued having us, or a third party who has legitimacy and skills to work with kids in the way that we do, visit and bring technology, programming, and ideas to them,” directors told Slate’s Lisa Guernsey.

As Digital Youth Network founder Nichole Pinkard pointed out in a recent interview, even media-savvy children still need development and coaching to create what Pinkard calls more “intentional” content.

“Seven years ago, you wouldn’t assume that someone could make a video on the internet,” she said. Pinkard explained that this once-intensive activity is now something youth can do anywhere and at any time with a smartphone or flip camera. “The challenge is that just because they can do these things with low-level tools, they might think they’re better than they are. A kid can create a video quickly on the phone but that doesn’t mean they’re editing or really creating a story structure around the video. You have to be able to help kids see that just because they can do something technically, it doesn’t necessarily mean they truly understood what they’re doing in any kind of intentional sense.”

This kind of purposeful storytelling is something that Hear Me hopes to foster, providing outreach and mentorship to help children make meaningful connections about their world and the way they describe it. You can help by sponsoring a “kiosk,” or by registering with the site in order to help a child you know to upload stories of his or her own.

The Labs: Geeking Out @ the Library

New Chapter, the newsletter of The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, takes readers inside The Labs @ CLP to see how teens are using the library in revolutionary new ways. Read on:

Armed with a movie camera and tripod, Morgan Wable-Keene hurries to stage his next shot before the mid-day sun casts a shadow on CLP – Main’s Portal Entry. He consults with Labs Mentor Molly Dickerson and teen actor Gabe Gomez on the lighting before finally calling “action!”

Morgan, a sophomore at the Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy, already has a full résumé – director, film editor, composer, producer and screen writer. He describes his latest afterschool project, a seven-minute film he developed as part of The Labs @ CLP’s Scary Story Movie Challenge, as “the X-Files, with time travel instead of aliens.” His goal is to expand his vision into a series of web episodes. Pittsburgh teens like Morgan and Gabe now have their own space to learn and create – on their own or with a Labs mentor.

The Labs @ CLP gives teens free access to digital equipment and software so that they can experiment in photography, graphic design, digital crafts, music production and stop-motion animation.

Libraries and other public institutions have an important role to play in providing opportunities for all young people to have access to sophisticated digital media.

The Labs use non-traditional means to fulfill traditional goals of education, specifically in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

“Until now I never used Photoshop,” said Gabe, a junior at Central Catholic, between film takes. “It’s rare to have access to this sort of thing. I’m trying to learn as much as I can.”

Morgan agrees, “For the most part teens don’t have access to this type of equipment because of the cost. Thanks to The Labs I can compose music in GarageBand [software that allows users to create music or podcasts]. And since I was here learning it before it was ‘cool,’ I can help others when they get stuck.”

Read the whole story and see more photos at New Chapter online.

Recap of FredForward 2012

The Fred Rogers Center at Saint Vincent College hosted the 2012 FredForward conference this past week from Sunday, June 3rd to Tuesday, June 5th. The biennial conference brings together leading figures in the world of early childhood media production and scholarship for three days of discussions, presentations, and networking to help advance the field of children’s media and carry forward the legacy of Fred Rogers.

With an attendance of approximately 150 people, FredForward draws a concentrated mix of influential thinkers, speakers, and media makers from around the world. Several Spark Network members were among those presenting on panels and in speaking sessions throughout the conference.

Voices of Children

An ongoing feature of the conference, Voices of Children speakers remixed the advice of Fred Rogers to “Think of the Children First.” By using new tools and technologies, scholars like Dr. Alice Wilder advocate the maxim to “Listen to the Children.”

To see this ethos in action, Jessica Kaminsky and Jessica Pachuta from the CREATE Lab at Carnegie Mellon presented Hear Me, a project that uses media and technology to create opportunities for children to be heard, acknowledged and understood, giving them the power to inspire social change.

Framework for Quality

A major focus of the 2012 conference was the recently released “Building a Framework for Quality in Digital Media for Young Children” statement by the Fred Rogers Center. Discussions ranged from defining the meaning of quality for different audiences, the need for multilingual content, to policy recommendations to improve the technological infrastructure of early learning environments.

In the Curation and Crowdsourcing panel, Drew Davidson from the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University shared the stage with Shira Lee Katz from Common Sense Media, Emily Kirkpatrick from the National Center for Family Literarcy, and GeekDad Daniel Donahoo, who Skyped in from Australia.

Moderated by Rob Lippincott from PBS Learning Media, the panel examined how quality can be evaluated and advanced in an era of mass participation in and production of new media.

For his part, Drew provided conference-goers with an overview of workingexamples.org, a collaborative project with James Paul Gee that proposes to create a digital space where people can show examples of how their ideas, theories, claims, or hypotheses work in terms that people beyond their own disciplines or domains can understand, assess, and appreciate. Drew offered Working Examples as a means for early childhood practitioners and children’s media producers to test ideas and provide critical feedback in order to illuminate failures and successes.

Play to Learns

Throughout the conference on Monday, attendees had the opportunity to interact with several examples of new media and digital technology programs for children in the Play-to-Learn showcase. Among the participants were several Spark network projects including Apps4Kids from Playpower, Popchilla’s World from Interbots, ZooBeats from WYEP and Electric Owl Studios, Hello Robo! from the Carnegie Science Center, and Message from Me from the CREATE Lab.

Play-to-Learn exhibits illustrated the principles of the Fred Rogers Center Framework for Quality in action and gave attendees a glimpse of how members of the Spark Network are using technology and media to provide children with remarkable opportunities to learn and be creative.

For more details on the conference, visit the FredForward website and read the conference’s Twitter backchannel using the hashtag #FredForward.




Guest Post: Steeltown Entertainment celebrates the young talents of Take a Shot Contest

We’ve been exceptionally lucky. In a world filled with disease, inequality, violence, and poverty, we’ve been given the opportunity to hope by working with a generation of young people determined to change everything.

Two years ago, Steeltown Entertainment Project launched the “Take a Shot at Changing the World” Contest, a digital media initiative that asks middle and high school students throughout the region to make short films about their big ideas to change the world, or that tell stories of local events or people that had a global impact.

Since its inception, over 400 students from nearly 60 schools have submitted videos about topics and issues that are meaningful to them, ranging from Jonas Salk and the Polio Vaccine, to Mister Rogers’ and the Pittsburgh neighborhood, to climate change and how to put an end to bullying.

On May 20th, 2012, they gathered at the Heinz History Center for the first ever “Take  a Shot at Changing the World” Film Festival, where they had the chance to see their films featured on the big screen, meet other young filmmakers, and share their experiences making movies. They came proud, bringing in tow parents, siblings, friends, and teachers, and they came eager, all wondering who would leave with over $10,000 in prizes, some of which would go to fund students’ big ideas and change the world.

Some of them had been working for months independently after reading about the contest in the paper, or meeting us at career fairs, while others, like the students at Greater Latrobe High School, or at Falk Laboratory School had teachers who had built this contest into their curricula.  Passionate teachers have been vital to the contest’s success; our greatest challenge has been getting “Take a Shot” into schools. How do you get teachers, who already have so much to do, and have very specific standards to meet, to champion a new project? The key has been to connect with one incredible teacher at each school, someone who is willing to go above and beyond, even more than teachers already do, to encourage their students to take a shot.

One of our favorite aspects of this contest has been the diversity of fields and people involved. Sometimes, it’s a technology teacher who has adopted this into their classroom. Sometimes, a science teacher, or a phys ed teacher, or a librarian. Through this contest, we’ve been reminded that storytelling is a part of every field, crucial to every kind of person.

And the stories the students have told have been inspiring, to say the least. There’s the high school junior who made a film about his father’s muscular dystrophy and his plans to raise awareness and search for a cure. One middle school student composed a rap song and music video about David Lawrence’s contributions to greening Pittsburgh, while a team of students from the Western PA School for the Deaf made a film encouraging the use of rain barrels. A group of ninth-graders proposed a network and helpline composed of teens helping teens to combat depression. Thirteen year-old Maggie Mayer, the winner of the Globechanger’s Prize for Social Action is currently planning her trip to D.C. for the Jefferson Awards annual black-tie dinner alongside guests like General Petraeus and Harry Connick, Jr., where her project “Act as One,” which collects donations as small as one dollar to go towards basic needs for people around the world (vaccines, food, clean water, school books) will be featured. As a result of this contest, she will receive mentorship to get her project started, and her $2500 prize money will go towards getting it off the ground.

We are hopeful for the future not only because students want to change the world, but because when so much of our relation to media today revolves around consumption, they are finding ways to use it to create stories, relate to peers, and inspire others.

And perhaps this is what makes the Take a Shot Contest unique—in a time when the computer is so often a vehicle to avoid human interaction, when we spend entire days alone staring at screens and students tap away at keyboards instead of having conversations, Take A Shot uses digital media as a way to promote cooperation, collaboration, and communication.  And it’s not only forcing students to engage with one another and with their communities, thinking critically about their collective pasts and futures, it has also facilitated partnerships between so many organizations throughout the region and beyond—the Heinz History Center, the Jefferson Awards, the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, the World Affairs Council, Rotary International and local Rotary chapters, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and individual parents and teachers who knew kids with the power to change the world and were just looking for their chance.

Changing the world isn’t easy, and moving forward, we need your help. This could be the start of something big, but only if we all work together to make a difference, if we all work together to ignite an interest (or should we say Spark?) in the hearts of young people—if we can get them early on to use media to raise awareness, inspire and educate others, to care about meaningful social issues, then even when the world seems daunting and depressing and impossible, it is also filled with hope.

Visit www.takeashotcontest.org to  view the 2012 submissions yourself and stay tuned for the next contest!


Written by Rachel Shepherd, Program Manager, Steeltown Entertainment Project

International Spy School based in Pittsburgh gives middle school girls a head start in STEM

A group of young girls huddle around a sheet of paper speckled with a dark set of fingerprints.  Magnifying glasses in hand, they study the shapes and patterns of a clue. Across the room, another group uses iPhones to scan QR codes, receiving messages from senior agents at an off-site satellite base.  No, these girls are not being enlisted by the FBI to crack an international case…at least not yet, anyway. Solving mysteries using cutting-edge technology is all in a day’s work at Click! Spy School, an initiative of the Girls, Math & Science Program (GMSP), based at Carnegie Science Center.

Click! engages middle school girls ages 10–14 to become “agents-in-training” as they explore  science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Through summer camps, after school programs, condensed activity sessions, and online experiences, Click! allows girls to assume the identity of a “secret agent” on a covert mission to investigate a global crisis. Combining immersive storylines with practical applications, Click! fosters tactile-based inquiry, real-world problem solving skills, and career exploration in STEM. The Spy School provides critical informal science learning opportunities outside of the classroom, with a strong commitment to helping girls see themselves as future STEM professionals.

“There’s a lot of creativity with the Click! program, but it’s important for the story to be grounded in actual science,” says scientist-in-residence Sandlin Seguin. “It’s a big deal for these young girls to hear a scientist tell them you’re really good at this—you should be a scientist or yes, this is how I solve problems at work. Seeing them behave like scientists really validates what GMSP is doing through Click!

Conceived in 2005 by the University of Pittsburgh’s Learning Research and Development Center (LRDC) in collaboration with Carnegie Mellon School of Design, Click! Spy School focuses on three distinct areas of STEM—biomedical science, environmental protection, and expressive technology. In 2006, the Girls, Math & Science Partnership found a home at Carnegie Science Center.

“The Science Center is a hub for world-renowned education initiatives in STEM,” says John Radzilowicz, director of science at the Science Center. “With the Buhl Digital Planetarium, USS Requin, Rangos Omnimax Theater, and hundreds of hands-on exhibits, our campus is a center where young people can have experiences that inspire them for the rest of their lives. Click! is one of the programs of our Chevron Center for STEM Education and Career Development, which convenes industry leaders, educators, parents, and students to focus efforts to advance science literacy and cultivate the next generation workforce in STEM careers.”

In 2010, a Digital Media and Learning grant from the MacArthur Foundation allowed GMSP to translate the immersive Click! experience into a web-based interactive program to address the gender gap in online gaming. A virtual Click! Spy School was created, complete with female senior agents who mentor and communicate to “agents-in-training,” a chat function, and individual profiles. The online Spy School begins with solving an environmental crisis in Africa using digital “mini-games.” Using accessible and cost-effective online technology, the virtual Spy Camp removes the geographical barriers and allows girls from all walks of life to participate.

Using the city as a setting for adventure

On a typical day at a Click! camp, “junior agents” may be kayaking along the Ohio River, figuring out a whodunit at a local art museum like the Mattress Factory, writing a top-secret computer language, discovering sports science at Heinz Field, or touring a multinational corporation like Delmonte Foods. By venturing into their own backyard, Click! girls are able to connect international issues—like water quality, food shortages, and urban planning—to those that are happening in Pittsburgh.

“Agents-in-training” complete missions using core science methods while incorporating modern technology like iPhones, programming, mobile apps, gigapan imaging, and video conferencing. By the end of a Click! experience, girls have skills in fingerprint analysis, GPS location, water testing, collecting information, DNA testing, computer programming, calculating carbon footprints, and more. All programs are aimed at giving girls confidence in their ability to understand real-life applications of STEM, interpret information, collect and analyze data, construct explanations, design solutions, and obtain and communicate information.

“The girls get to become an international STEM professional, they even design a costume for their ‘passport photo’ and are asked to speak in character,” says Heather Mallak, Manager of Emerging technology  for Girls, Math & Science Partnership, who focuses on the play, design, and web-based aspects of the program. “A mission may involve building circuitry skills through an online game and then physically disassembling and rewiring an electronic. Mixing things up really keeps them interested.”

Since the program’s inception, Click! has reached more than 600 girls through onsite visits to the Science Center, partnerships with public and private schools, Girl Scout activities, community outreach, and afterschool programs.

Click! enlists all-star STEM “Senior Agents”

The Girls, Math & Science Partnership is led by Mallak; Nina Barbuto, trained architect and director of Assemble—a creative art space for children; scientist-in-residence Sandlin Seguin, PhD; and Zachary Koopmans, a mathematics Carnegie Mellon University grad and current engineering student at the University of Pittsburgh.

“There’s a lot of creativity with the Click! program, but it’s important for the story to be grounded in actual science,” says scientist-in-residence Sandlin Seguin. “It’s a big deal for these young girls to hear a scientist tell them you’re really good at this—you should be a scientist or yes, this is how I solve problems at work. Seeing them behave like scientists really validates what GMSP is doing through Click!

Partnerships like that with Seguin are instrumental to Click!’s success. A network of local and national female STEM professionals from esteemed companies and universities that regularly contribute to the Click! curriculum, guest counsel, serve as professional mentors, and act as cameo roles in the camps’ narrative.

Putting the emphasis on girl power, now and in the future

By now, it is no secret that girls rock. But, recent studies show that girls are not as likely to see themselves as STEM professionals as their male counterparts. In the Pittsburgh region alone, according to a 2003 study of career barriers for women and minorities commissioned by The Heinz Endowments, only 9% of women pursue science and technology degrees compared to 26% of men.  This local study reflects national trends, and further demonstrates the need for programs, like Click!, that get girls involved with STEM at a young age.  Early intervention is the first step in ensuring that women are proportionally represented in the workforce of the future.

Over the next decade, the U.S. Department of Labor says 7 of the 10 projected fastest growing occupations are in STEM fields. STEM professionals are expected to earn 26% more over their lifetime than those who work in non-STEM careers. While women still face obstacles in the workplace, arming young girls with the tools they need to succeed in male-dominated professions is one of the main objectives of the Girls, Math & Science Partnership.

GMSP and Carnegie Science Center aim to break down the barriers of education: income, race, socioeconomic status, and geography. In the near future, Click! programs will be offered to the next generation of innovators in England, India,  in a Pittsburgh neighborhood library…and everywhere in between. Satellite base camps are popping up all over the world, and “agents-in-training” are everywhere.

So, the next time you encounter a middle-school girl, see her as a leader, a scientist, a visionary. Because she just may be a secret agent, on a mission to change the world one covert assignment at a time.