Tag Archives: Montour

New EdTech Fund Forges Vital Ties Between Developers and Teachers

Nesra Yannier is a fifth-year PhD candidate in human-computer interaction at Carnegie Mellon University whose background includes computer science, design, art, and education. She drew on these skills in creating NoRILLA, a classroom technology that teaches kids the basic physics of balance. Her prototype includes an app, a projector, some building blocks, and an electronic table that shakes. When students use it, an animated gorilla challenges them to build towers on the platform and predict which will fall first when an “earthquake” shakes the table.

Playtesting NoRILLA at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.

Normally, edtech developers like Yannier would be on their own when trying to connect with teachers and students to test their concepts in real-world settings. But Yannier is part of a Sprout Fund initiative called the Ed-Tech Refinery, which is supporting efforts by ambitious young visionaries to partner up with educators at schools, libraries, and museums in the Pittsburgh region.

Starting this month, Yannier will be working with first, second, and third graders and their teachers at Montour Elementary School to further test NoRILLA and make the product as useful as possible in the classroom.

Mac Howison, senior program officer for catalytic funding at the Sprout Fund, said the Ed-Tech Refinery is rooted in the idea that a city should leverage all its assets to support its education “ecosystem”—schools, libraries, museums, afterschool settings, and the private sector. And though there is a growing edtech cluster in Pittsburgh, it’s not easy for fledgling companies to get the time and money they need to conduct robust testing with educators. As a recent Digital Promise report found, less than half of technology directors interviewed said they were satisfied with the length of time it takes to bring technology to kids. By providing grants to educators who work with ed tech companies, the Refinery makes those connections easier.

By strengthening ties between teachers and techies, the Sprout Fund hopes to bolster education technology in Pittsburgh. Ideally, Howison says, startups will use the partnerships to make products that, once successful, will fuel job creation in the region.

Widespread adoption is certainly Yannier’s goal. For now, though, she has been running tests at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. She found kids learned faster when they saw the blocks tumble onto the table rather than simply collapse on a computer screen. Through her partnership with Montour, Yannier is eliciting feedback from educators about how best to use the platform.

 “A lot of technology gets built but doesn’t get implemented because developers don’t listen to what teachers want.”

“A lot of technology gets built but doesn’t get implemented because developers don’t listen to what teachers want,” she said. “I really want to get the perspective of teachers to make it more usable for them and easier for them to adopt.”

Since August, Montour School District has worked with CMU’s LearnLab to open an educational research center at the district high school. Teachers at Montour have been working with researchers to learn more about technology-enhanced education. Justin Aglio, director of innovation at Montour School District, said so far when teachers work with researchers who are also trying to learn, “it’s a safe way to take risks.”

“We really stress ‘how do children learn best?’ ” Aglio said. “Pittsburgh has amazing resources, so how do we capitalize on these resources to make the lives of our teachers easier and help our students learn?”

The Sprout Fund is accepting applications for a new round of Ed-Tech Refinery partnerships through the beginning of March. Yannier will continue working with teachers throughout the semester.

“I think we are both excited to see our students think like scientists,” Aglio said of the partnership with Yannier. “That’s our biggest goal—to help students experience hands-on learning and having students think critically.”

Summer is Coming. We Promise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can Summer Learning Programs Help Close the Achievement Gap?

Spearheaded by the city of Chicago and the MacArthur Foundation, the Chicago Summer of Learning initiative is bringing together 146 organizations to offer students a pretty mind-boggling array of programs and activities. Like Pittsburgh’s Hive Days of Summer, it aims to make Chicago a place where learning doesn’t take a break over the summer. Instead, it’s more creative and stronger than ever.

At Chicago’s STEAM Studio, kids got to design their own jewelry with the help of a professional jewelry designer. Which would be cool enough by itself, but then they printed their designs using a 3D printer.

Since the beginning of July, youth at the University of Chicago’s Game Changer Design Lab have been playing “The Source,” a STEM-based alternate reality game. One part of the game involved students cracking codes and puzzles to simulate halting the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

The Digital Youth Network’s Webmaker program is teaching the basics of web design. It guides students through making their own site about Chicago. Kids and teens have volunteered at the zoo, made films about underwater creatures, and grown herbs. The list goes on and on.

More than keeping busy with hands-on learning, Chicago’s Summer of Learning is incorporating another experimental tool that lets kids document what they pick up—Mozilla’s Open Badges. The virtual badges are issued by organizations and collected by participants to show colleges or even future employers eclectic skills.

The badges may give students a way to show what they’ve learned, but the summer programs play another, larger, role as well. These programs help combat the dreaded “summer slide.” Experts estimate students lose up about two months of material taught during the year if learning is put on hold over the summer.

But this loss doesn’t impact everyone evenly. Children from low-income families are more likely be affected by summer learning loss and to feel those effects long-term. While middle- and low-income kids make similar strides during the year, during the summer, middle-income kids continue to gain while lower-income kids lose ground. Part of the gap is due to lower-income kids having less access to books and technology at home, but life experiences play an important role as well. Some kids may be fortunate enough to head to summer camp, travel, or take fun classes, but lower-income kids are less likely to have those resources, exacerbating the achievement gap once school is back in session.

“Life experiences other than reading can lead to advantages in reading comprehension,” said Daniel T. Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and an expert in cognition in the Washington Post.

An article about Chicago Summer of Learning over at the Catalyst further explains why the stakes are so high for providing summer learning opportunities for students from all income levels.

“For lower-income students, equity is an issue that stretches beyond technology. Poorer students often don’t get much academic enrichment during the summer break and, experts estimate, can lose two to three months of learning in reading over a summer,” Peggy Espada, director of professional development for the National Summer Learning Association, told the Catalyst.

Espada said instead of the traditional model, where kids who don’t do well get sent to summer classes to focus on academics, summer learning should focus on enrichment. “Summer learning should be about fun,” she said, “with a lot of hands-on, project-based activities.”

Pittsburgh’s NPR station did a story that exemplifies this kind of summer learning. It highlighted a group of teenage boys who learned to finger knit through Allegheny Youth Development, an organization that works with at-risk boys. The boys explain how knitting works as a stress reliever for them, and how they’re looking forward to their work being installed on the Andy Warhol Bridge as part of the Knit the Bridge yarn-bombing project. (The Knit the Bridge installation went up last weekend.)

Knitting probably wouldn’t have found its way into the packed school curriculum. But it’s the kind of skill programs like Chicago Summer Learning and Hive Days of Summer are hoping to impart as they rethink summer learning. It turns out the three, vast open months provide invaluable time for the activities that can’t be squeezed into the school year.

How Technology Is Changing Summer Camp

Created by Maker Media and Google and launched last week, Maker Camp is a six-week, completely online program that guides teens through an array of DIY projects, experiments, and virtual hangouts.

Part of the burgeoning maker movement, the camp is the latest push to encourage kids to delve into STEM and summertime learning willingly, often without even realizing it. The camp kick-started with a soda-bottle boat. The first week’s agenda was a balloon-propelled toy car and a bike-powered phone charger. The camp is part of the growing excitement behind the idea of technology as a gateway to hands-on, self-directed learning.

Each of the six weeks has a theme, and video tutorials take kids through the step-by-step process of creating something new that they can share on live, daily Google+ hangouts. As CNN points out, libraries around the country are also taking part in the camp, providing campers with a public, safe spot to participate in DIY endeavors.

Camp-What-A-Wonder, is similar to Maker Camp but for younger campers. The camp is part of Wonderopolis, a site designed by the National Center for Family Literacy to connect the learning kids do in school, at home, and in their community. Camp-What-A-Wonder also has a weekly theme but suggests activities kids can do with family members such as scavenger hunts and creating stories, which kids can email or upload to the site. Like Maker Camp, it aims to motivate kids to be curious about the world around them and keep learning throughout summer.

Hive Days of Summer also shares the goal of keeping kids busy with “making and connecting” while they’re out of the classroom. If you haven’t heard of it already, Hive Days of Summer is now up and running in the Pittsburgh region, partnering with more than 20 organizations to provide 100 summer learning opportunities for teens.

These camps are just one way the maker movement and technology can help educators and students take learning into their own hands in the off-months. By putting the tools in learners’ hands that allow them to tinker with science, a whole new world of creative learning opens up.

But kids still need a place to unplug. And thankfully traditional summer camps are still providing a place to do just that, as NPR reported. More and more traditional summer camps have banned campers from using electronics altogether to encourage kids to connect with the outdoors and interact face-to-face with other campers.

Instead of making bike-powered phone chargers, kids at places like Camp Sloane in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts stay busy mountain biking, sailing, and fishing.

But there’s something tech-centric camps and the traditional summer recreation spots like Camp Sloane have in common. Both allow kids to learn by trial and error, to get messy and immerse themselves in a project they’re excited about. In the mountains, that might mean building a fire or pitching a tent, while online, camp might focus on programming your own robot. Kids need room for both.

School’s Out, But Learning Is In

The Hive Days of Summer are in full swing in the Pittsburgh region. The program gets local teens involved in summer projects that focus on “making and connecting”, and most importantly, learning about everything from printmaking to radio communications to urban agriculture.

If you missed our coverage of the summer-long youth engagement program, Pittsburgh’s Hive Network is partnering with local libraries, museums, and youth organizations dedicated to channeling teens’ energy and enthusiasm during their time out of school. Together they’ve created the Hive Days of Summer, a city-wide campaign with more than 20 organizations partnering to deliver more than 100 summer learning opportunities for tweens and teens now through August.

“Hive Pittsburgh is creating connected learning opportunities that demonstrate the impact digital tools, design thinking, and real world experiences can have on the way young people learn and socialize,” said Cathy Lewis Long, executive director of The Sprout Fund. “Summer is the perfect time to engage teens outside of the classroom and create experiences in community libraries, museums, art venues, and other spaces to help them foster the creative and technology skills needed to thrive in our digital economy.”

The updated calendar features at least three events per week. Some last a few hours while others are week-long commitments or more. We’ve scanned through the calendar and highlighted a few of favorites, like the four-day camp for students interested in experimental photography.

At the Irma Freeman Center for Imagination, students can print their own photographic paper in sepia and blue cyanotype, or make large photomontages and collages. They will learn about the darkroom photo process, create their own handmade prints, and become familiar with nondigital special effects like multiple exposures and solarization.

For students more interested in digital tools and technology, the Hive Days of Summer includes a camp for that as well. MobileQuest CoLab is a weeklong game design and technology camp for sixth and seventh grade students Carnegie Mellon University. The camp will provide space for students to play and design their own mobile games.

At the East Liberty branch of the Carnegie Library, students can take a comic book workshop to learn the sequential art of creating a comic book, a skill that involves both visual communications and creative writing techniques.

For students more interested in music production, the library is also hosting a free music workshop, where students can learn the basics of beat-making and recording from DJs at Hip-Hop on L.O.C.K., a local organization that mentors youth through music arts and education.

And for those teens interested in making art and building things from scratch, there are other mixed media workshops including an interactive art experience that pairs students with educators and working artists from the Mattress Factory Museum to create “art that appeals to all the senses.” “Get ready to get your hands dirty and to think about art in a whole new way,” programmers warn. Sounds fun to us!

Students can work together to build a metal sculpture from found materials at the Salvage Art Workshop at the historic Carrie Furnaces to be installed on-site in the Carrie Deer Salvage Art Garden.

In addition to the Hive summer programming, there are many options available through a handful of public schools and other local nonprofit organizations dedicated to making this summer one of making, learning, and connecting. As Pittsburgh’s National Public Radio reporter Larkin Page-Jacobs noted, summer learning opportunities abound for the area’s youth. “Whether students are editing video, harvesting tomatoes ,or focusing on math and reading, the Pittsburgh region is packed with all kinds of learning experiences that will make the summer worth remembering,” Page-Jacobs said. We think so too.

Smart Partnerships Help Underfunded Schools Offer Year-Round Learning Opportunities

We’ve written a lot about summer learning and ways to circumvent the summer slide, which has been shown to disproportionately affect low-income students. However, as school districts begin to overhaul their summer school programs and to think about learning as a process that happens year-round—not just for 185 days—they should turn to community partnerships to strengthen their efforts and sidestep common hurdles.

“A strong body of research tells us that summer learning loss significantly affects a student’s success,” said Gary Huggins, CEO of the National Summer Learning Association. “Districts need to start thinking about the whole year for a student, and that summer is part of what we do and part of what we address—not just a luxury if the district has extra money,” he said.

Yet far too often school districts face significant hurdles when designing and running meaningful summer programs. Costs, staffing, and coordination are just a few.

Cost is one of the first things teachers and school administrations think of when the topic of summer programming arises. As a recent study from RAND finds, cost is the main barrier to implementing summer learning programs for lower-income districts, and many districts have discontinued such programs in response to budget cuts.

Funding, however, is not the only variable.

The RAND report explains that ongoing challenges to maintaining a summer learning program include a lack of air conditioning or other building constraints, and low or uncertain enrollment, not to mention a lack of unified vision for the summer program. The report is based on interviews with city and district representatives, summer learning staff, and external partners from five urban districts’ full-day summer programs for disadvantaged elementary students.

Jennifer Sloan McCombs, one of the authors of the RAND report, talked about the findings and summer learning programs in a recent interview with Education Week writer Nora Fleming. “The challenge [districts face] is making seamless connections between academics and enrichment,” she added. “It takes a lot of planning; it doesn’t happen by magic.”

More specifically, the report demonstrated that partnerships between districts and community-based organizations—like collaborations between schools, universities, and businesses in Pittsburgh—add benefits and lower costs. Educators in Pittsburgh know firsthand that magic doesn’t happen without smart planning, and the Kids+Creativity Network is designed to help solve that problem. The Network is an organizing body that helps forge partnerships across many of the youth-serving organizations in the city, and ensures that those partnerships don’t wither for lack of strategic stewardship.

Partnerships can also bring needed resources and more coordinated options for kids to continue learning. In Pittsburgh, for example, the city’s Hive Network is working with local libraries, museums, and other organizations dedicated to channeling young people’s energy and enthusiasm during their time out of school to host the Hive Days of Summer. “When schools close their doors for summer, Hive Pittsburgh will be there to ensure the continuity of learning,” said organizers.

Some of the Hive Days of Summer events include workshops on printmaking and music production, while others rely on a specific partnership. For example, for one of these collaborations, Digital Salad, a chef, a farmer, and an artist joined forces. The project combines art making, technology, and farm education to produce “interactive and edible” learning experiences for classrooms, community spaces, and neighborhoods.

Events vary in time, price, and commitment too. Students have the option of attending free open studio workshops or something more specialized, like a week-long camp for young girls interested in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) led by successful female professionals in those fields.

Partnerships like these can be a model for others hoping to expand learning opportunities to children year-round. As McCombs said, “One of the keys is not to tack on artificial academic activities to enrichment, but provide authentic opportunities that integrate both,” a process that is currently underway in Pittsburgh, and in other cities across the country.

In a sign that people are taking these kinds of partnerships and summer learning seriously, the Wallace Foundation committed $50 million to study summer schooling in Pittsburgh, Jacksonville, FL, and several other cities, according to a recent story in the New York Times.

And RAND researchers have launched a high-quality study with 5,700 students entering fourth grade this fall. They’ll track their standardized test performance for at least two years, as well as “soft skills” like their ability to work in teams or persist on tasks. The study will compare the summer school students with those who applied but did not get spots.