Tag Archives: Out of School / Informal Learning

Preparing For the Future Together

One week last May, more than 30,000 people gathered throughout Pittsburgh to celebrate learning. Participants in the first annual Remake Learning Days could choose from hundreds of events hosted by our diverse Network members—who also marked the occasion by committing more than $25 million to learning innovation.

Apparently word got out.

Remake Learning Days got a shout-out in January in a World Economic Forum white paper on the future of education and work. The paper highlights the event as a model of an educational system that loops in families and other community members.

“An effective multistakeholder approach to education ecosystem governance should look beyond government, education providers and businesses, to include teachers, parents and students,” the paper says.

That “all aboard” approach to learning is the only way to develop an education system that allows all kids to meet their own potential and the demands of a changing workforce, according to the World Economic Forum (WEF). Networks like Remake Learning can overcome obstacles like parental skepticism or misalignment between the school system and the workforce by bringing everyone into the conversation and fostering unlikely partnerships.

“What are the key features of a future-ready education ecosystem?”

This “multistakeholder consultation and leadership” is just one of the items on the agenda laid out by WEF in the white paper, “Realizing Human Potential in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.”

Twice a year, WEF convenes members of the business, public, and academic sectors to develop a global agenda for the future of education, gender, and work. In fall 2016, the group focused in part on answering the question, “What are the key features of a future-ready education ecosystem?”

Around the world, education systems and educator training models have “remained largely static and under-invested in for decades,” says the paper. The same is not true for the economic landscape. Most kids starting school today are likely to end up with jobs that don’t even exist yet, and might not get adequate preparation even for those that do, notes WEF.

Despite the tremendous diversity that exists among education systems, the forum aims to establish a general shared agenda for curricula, programming, and pedagogy. All curricula should focus on linguistic, mathematical, and technological literacy, WEF says, to better prepare students for the workforce. So too should educators promote interdisciplinary learning, “global citizenship” values like empathy, and the kind of noncognitive skills like collaboration and project management that will help students in future employment.

Many kids starting school today will end up with jobs that don’t yet exist.

The most effective pedagogies are those that do not focus heavily on content, but also teach students “how to learn,” the paper notes. Hands-on lessons with reflection exercises built in allow students to engage in self-directed learning through adulthood, and to better weather whatever changes and obstacles they encounter.

WEF also encourages more access to—and less stigma around—technical vocational training, which can prepare those who are not necessarily college-bound for success in growing fields. All students’ experiences with education should include direct exposure to the workplace, whether through technical training, internships, or site visits, says the paper.

The next time WEF members gather, they could have an even clearer sense of the kinds of employment training students might benefit from. Those in education and business will continue to keep tabs on exactly which fields are growing and what technology is expanding. In 10 years, the activities at Remake Learning Days could look a lot different from this year’s, which include documenting biodiversity using a smartphone app and coding a robot with LEGO software.

“Skills such as coding may themselves soon become redundant due to advances in machine learning,” says the WEF paper.

But that’s precisely why networks and other education ecosystems are so critical to preparing children for the future. Networks like Remake’s help build the important foundations and skills that can survive economic and technological change by keeping everyone in the conversation and continually adapting.

Activating Agents of Change

In 2014, President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper (MBK) initiative challenged communities to address the opportunity gap between young men of color and their peers. In Pittsburgh, government officials and community leaders formed the local MBK Committee to respond to the President’s call to action and created a plan to do just that. The result of their efforts was the Pittsburgh-Allegheny County My Brother’s Keeper Playbook, which outlined local steps that could be taken to achieve the six goals for MBK established by the White House.

To put the MBK Playbook into action, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto issued a call-to-action of their own to improve the quality of out-of-school digital learning programs for young men of color in the region.

With support from The Heinz Endowments, this next phase of My Brother’s Keeper in Pittsburgh began in the fall of 2016 when The Sprout Fund commissioned UrbanKind Institute (UKI), a Pittsburgh consultancy, to host a series of community conversations between young men of color and the adult program providers who serve them.

UKI recently released a report summarizing the input provided by youth participants and program providers. The report also details recommendations for program providers, funders, and policymakers working to close the opportunity gap for young people of color in Pittsburgh. In the coming weeks, The Sprout Fund will issue a Request for Proposals offering grants totaling $100,000 to support ideas for implementing the recommendations of the report.

In the meantime, we caught up with UrbanKind executive director Dr. Jamil Bey to learn more about the process.

Jamil Bey/UrbanKind Institute

Jamil Bey/UrbanKind Institute

Remake Learning: What did the young men have to say during the community conversations?

Jamil Bey: In the first phase we just wanted to hear from the young men and have the service providers listen to what they had to say. We asked them what they find worthwhile in the afterschool programs they participate in. Do programs meet their expectations and needs? What don’t the adults who are designing these programs get? They all had a response to that question!

I bet. What did do they see as missing in programming?

They said adults don’t quite understand that the space is more important than the content. They will participate in a program if they’re safe, nurtured, and respected—that’s what drives their participation.

We were dealing with the tech space, asking how programs are using technology and how they prepare students for careers. Those programs hardly ever have adults whom the young men see as supportive of their emotional needs. The people designing these programs are not always the best people to implement them.

Can you say more about who those “best people” are? What would a supportive adult or program look like?

They want mentorship from adults they can relate to, adults who consider their needs as individuals important. Often these young men are coming in with a lot of stressors, and they need a chance to vent or work through something. A supportive program would give them that space and opportunity.

“They will participate in a program if they’re safe, nurtured, and respected—that’s what drives their participation.”

Is there a tension between meeting program goals and what the young men say they need?

Yes. A kid can get a certain number of digital badges, but maybe he ends up in trouble because he isn’t nurtured or supported elsewhere. These young men would say, “Nobody’s ever showed me how to tie a tie or change a car tire.” They need long-term mentors, not adults there for a six-month engagement because of a grant. We need to think more holistically about putting the child as a whole at the center of our quality metrics.

Why is it important to have conversations about education and community change led by young people of color?

Too often, policies and decisions are made without including insight from the people who are most directly impacted. Our process makes sure those voices are included and lifted up. Service providers appreciate this. It’s too easy to become arrogant in your expertise without critically reflecting on how it’s received.

How did you get youth ready to assume these facilitator roles?

We identified 10 participants willing to facilitate conversations with adults in the next phase. They spent six hours in a Saturday facilitation training with us. Then they led the conversations with service providers, asking how they develop programs and whether they include youth input.

We were also interested in activating the next generation of doers in the neighborhood. They’ve now been empowered to call foul. Young people often think they don’t have much power, and think their issues are isolated. They found out there are young men across the county with the same stories as them. Now they have the facilitation and organizing skills to take on those issues.

My Brother’s Keeper was launched by President Obama. As a new administration assumes office, why is it important to continue to have discussions about community change led by young people of color?

I don’t know if we can frame it in the context of the new president because it’s been quite a while that legislators and public education have had a hostile relationship. We haven’t seen any policies that are really going to transform how we prepare young people. The election didn’t make this more meaningful. What’s meaningful is we now have young people questioning their roles and becoming agents of change rather than recipients of change. Our process is a bottom-up approach to reform—really from the bottom, from the young people.

“This is a bottom-up approach to reform—from the young people.”

What are the main barriers that prevent programs from meeting students’ needs?

Often the people who can reach the kids are not the people who have the skills we want to teach young people. Or the people who have the digital skills are not the people who can connect with young people. We need to find a way to bridge that gap. Grant cycles and funding came up a lot in these conversations. We need to be thinking about how we can connect these kids to opportunities in the long-term, over the next two or three years.

I’m excited and hopeful that similar conversations are going on in all of the foundations. Everyone is recognizing these gaps, and we’re asking good, critical questions. It’s not that funding in the out-of-school tech space doesn’t work—it’s how can it work?

Read UKI’s full report from theMy Brother’s Keeper Community & Stakeholder Planning Process: Recommendations to Improve Access and Quality of Out of School Programs.

In February, The Sprout Fund will issue a special funding opportunity offering a total of $100,000 in grants to support ideas for implementing the recommendations of the report.

Subscribe to the MBK Pittsburgh-Allegheny County mailing list to stay informed of the latest updates.


Can a Laundromat Become a Classroom?

For many kids, going to the grocery store means trailing listlessly behind harried parents. If they’re lucky, maybe they’ll get to ride in the cart or successfully persuade Mom to buy ice cream.

A few years ago, a Temple University undergraduate student wondered whether the mundane activity could be turned into a learning experience. She launched a study in a supermarket in a low-income neighborhood, placing conversation prompts throughout the space. At the front of the store, she and her research partners put up a sign declaring: “Talking to your child helps their language growth!” In the dairy section, a picture of a cow said: “I am a cow who gives you milk. What else comes from a cow?”

The researchers observed adult-child interactions in the store, tallying how often the customers engaged in various behaviors, like pointing to an object, asking a question, or taking turns in a conversation. The study found that families shopping in the store were almost four times more likely to converse when the new educational décor was up.

Grocery stores are prime places for learning—whether about budgeting or nutrition—but it takes deliberate design to take advantage of the opportunities. A recent article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review proposes that thoughtful efforts could convert any number of public spaces into classrooms of sorts. The article was written by developmental psychologists Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, who worked on the grocery store study and created Urban Thinkscape, a new project exploring learning embedded in cities.

Urban Thinkscape is working closely with residents in West Philadelphia to determine which spaces in their community could become learning sites. One idea: building puzzles and measuring sticks into bus stop benches, so kids are stimulated while waiting. The researchers are also looking at opportunities in “trapped spaces” like laundromats or hospital waiting rooms. They might take a cue from a barbershop in Ypsilanti, Michigan, where kids get $2 off a haircut if they read a book aloud to the barber.

Kids only spend about 20 percent of their waking hours at school.

Some scholars talk about “anywhere, anytime learning,” the idea that education should—and often does—happen organically outside traditional institutions like schools. Students spend about 20 percent of their waking hours at school, so it would be a missed opportunity to neglect the rest. It is up to adults to make sure communities are best set up to encourage young people to explore, learn, and create, whether on their own or with peers and adult mentors.

“This is not a new agenda,” notes cultural anthropologist Mizuko Ito, a pioneering proponent of “anywhere, anytime learning,” in the Harvard Family Research Project newsletter. John Dewey, she writes, believed that education needed to be seamlessly integrated into daily life. In the 21st century, technology has made that integration both more pressing and more possible—and increasing inequality has made the task all the more urgent.

As the SSIR authors mention, children from higher-income families are more likely to have the chance to augment their school education. Their parents can afford after-school enrichment activities, and have more time to read to them.

By injecting innovative learning opportunities into the spaces we all move through daily—grocery stores, bus stops, parks—all kids can learn anywhere and anytime. And busy families of all sorts can accomplish tasks while engaging their kids in a puzzle or a conversation. In the Temple University supermarket study, the increase in the amount of conversation in the low-income grocery store brought it up to the average amount of discussion that happens among families in higher-income supermarkets, according to researchers.

Plus, if the kids are absorbed in an educational conversation, they might forget to ask for that ice cream.

Learning Pathways: A Walkthrough

The digital age brings a seemingly endless number of options for today’s learners. But it’s also easy to get lost. Enter learning pathways.


What are learning pathways?

Learning Pathways are the routes learners take to discover new ideas, pursue their interests, and develop their skills. These routes involve experiences in school, out of school, and online. School systems, for example, are pedagogical pathways that build on each prior stage of learning. Other pathways are less formal, and can be a road to discovery based on personal interests.

Previously on this site, we’ve dug into the concept of networks and the umbrella of learning innovation. In a sense, pathways are the intersection of these ideas. Access to a network of mentors and innovative education opportunities enables learners to follow a pathway of experiences, building on their interests and developing skills along the way.

Why pathways, why now?

Pathways are important now because the Internet, social networks, and our changing economy have unleashed a seemingly endless number of options for exploring and learning. But in that vastness lies the problem. It’s easy to get lost.

Learning pathways help students draw connections and adapt.
Pathways are the map on a road trip; they guide you from point A to B, but along the way they also reveal the side roads, historical sights, and other detours that add richness to the journey. Without the map, a traveler may have missed those opportunities, or worse, gotten completely lost.

The time to build deliberate pathways is now, says John Seely Brown and co-author Douglas Thomas in their book, “A New Culture of Learning.” In a rapidly changing world, adaptability and the ability to see connections are critical. Students must understand how skills and knowledge build on each other and how to find entry points to new opportunities. They must be able to steer a new course, adapt, and adjust. Learning pathways help imprint that understanding.

But the map alone is not enough.

A family can stop at the historical site on the map, but then what? They need a guide to make sense of what they’re seeing. It’s the park ranger or historical interpreter who adds new insights and maybe sparks a latent interest. In learning pathways, guides are posted along the way to help learners not only see how to get from home to their destination, but to see how the points along the way connect to make the journey more meaningful.

“When kids are pursuing their interests and going deeper into a topic, having a more advanced thinker help them scaffold that interest can be key to whether they go deeper into it or move away from it,” said psychologist Jean Rhodes on Connected Learning TV. Connected Learning, an emerging theory in education, posits that personal passions, strong mentorship, peer relationships, and technology are the key ingredients in a learning pathway.


Pathways help learners connect in- and out-of-school experiences and pursue their interests. Photo/Ben Filio

Where did the idea for pathways come from?

The idea of pathways has been around a long time. But it was in video games where some scholars had an aha moment.

In video games, players advance—level up—only when they master a level. The game is designed to urge the gamer on to the brink of frustration, but not so overwhelming that they give up.

“Good games offer players a set of challenging problems and then let them solve these problems …,” wrote learning scientist James Paul Gee. “Then the game throws a new class of problem at the players, requiring them to rethink their now taken-for-granted mastery, learn something new, and integrate this new learning with their old mastery. In turn, this new mastery is consolidated through repetition (with variation), only to be challenged again.”

Pathways work similarly. Pathways nudge learners to level up, but with more room for discovery and detours along the way.

“The game throws a new class of problem at the players, requiring them to rethink their now taken-for-granted mastery, learn something new, and integrate this new learning with their old mastery.” – James Paul Gee

What’s an example of a pathway in action?

A California school district partners with an afterschool program and the state’s student poll worker program. Teenage participants take an online civics course that includes a unit on app development. After learning about electoral politics and history, they code and create a mobile app that lets their peers find their polling places and look up candidates’ positions on issues relevant to youth. Completion of this task unlocks the real opportunity to work at the polls on Election Day. The pathway leads students from interest and education in politics to practical skill development and real-world opportunities.

Pathways can nudge learners to “level up.”

The Aspen Institute on Learning and the Internet recommended pathways like these in its 2014 report analyzing the needs of 21st century students.

Are pathways linear only, from Point A to Point B?

Learning is not linear and nor are pathways. Becoming part of a robotics club might actually reveal to a young person that robotics is really not their thing. But while designing posters for robotics competitions, they might realize they are interested in graphic design.  

As Kris D. Gutiérrez, professor of literacy and learning sciences at the University of Colorado, Boulder, cautioned in a webinar hosted by the Connected Learning Alliance, learning is rarely smooth and uncomplicated, and learning pathways should allow for “this wonderful messiness and complication with learning.” 

Youth working in nature

Photo/Ben Filio

Who is working on this idea around the country? 

Some digital learning platforms are incorporating concepts similar to pathways into their systems so that learners can connect the dots between learning experiences. LRNG is one such platform that lets educators create learning “playlists” that lay out a specific sequence of activities that a teen can complete to develop their skills while exploring their interests. Activities on these playlists can be face-to-face or completed online.

Learning is not linear and neither are pathways.
Some organizations are applying playlists and pathways to out-of-school learning, guiding kids as they pursue their interests while accumulating expertise and experience. In Chicago, for example, the Cities of Learning program first engaged youth in learning pathways during their summer of 2013. An online platform created by the Digital Youth Network presented young people with 25 playlists and more than 1,000 summer learning opportunities—from scriptwriting to coding.

Once a participant completed an activity, he or she earned a digital badge, which celebrated and documented new skills (think digitized Boy Scout badge). Then that student could “level up” and unlock a more challenging opportunity in the same field. In one such sequence, the Lights! Camera! Action! Playlist, kids received instructions on how to conduct interviews, brainstorm stories, and shoot and edit videos. In some cases, young people can earn the chance for mentorship from a professional upon completion of a playlist.

What about in Pittsburgh? What else is next?

In Pittsburgh, we have been mapping what learning pathways look like across the city and working to define and develop them since 2014. Starting in the 2016-2017 school year, Remake Learning Network members will pilot six learning pathways that connect complementary programming across multiple organizations. These six pathways are built from programs and organizations in the city, but connecting them more intentionally helps young people follow their interests and hone their skills.

Among them is a “Young Conservationist” pathway run by a consortium of Pittsburgh ecology nonprofits including Student Conservation Association, GTECH Strategies, Venture Outdoors, and the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. High school-aged students participating in the pathway receive immersive education in ecological stewardship, with opportunities to learn online, do conservation work in their communities, and work as outdoor trip leaders. As they advance along the Pathway they encounter learning experiences that expose them to the variety of disciplines and job opportunities in urban ecology. Students who complete the most rigorous branch of the pathway will earn a Conservation Leader badge that unlocks the opportunity to participate on an SCA National Crew doing conservation work in a National Forest.

With funding support provided by The Sprout Fund, each pathway will provide hundreds of youth from Pittsburgh and Allegheny County with access to Connected Learning opportunities and chances to earn badges when they level up their skills.

Educators, technologists, and community leaders throughout the Pittsburgh area are constantly thinking about how to link up the countless local learning opportunities in order to connect kids to success in and out of school. Whether through networking at the Pittsburgh Learning Pathways Summit, aggregating opportunities on platforms like LRNG, or building bonds informally, the idea is to turn the city into a network of pathways for all the local learners.

Family to Family: Remaking Family Learning

In solidarity with my daughters who are finishing up their school reports describing their summer adventures, I thought I’d share mine. The last week of August, my family and I headed to Long Beach Island (LBI), New Jersey for what turned out to be much more than a day at the beach. Through a program called Passport to LBI we explored the history and ecology of the island: we used a seine, or small net, to catch minnows and crabs in the bay, held baby clams, visited the island museum to see a schoolhouse from 1915, and counted together as we climbed over 200 steps the top of a lighthouse. The best part–it was all free!

As we drove back home, my daughters were clamoring to learn more. They were curious about the world in new and exciting ways. My oldest daughter, inspired by the schoolhouse, wanted to jump back into reading the Little House on the Prairie books. My youngest daughter started using vocabulary and descriptive language we’d never heard from her before. Their newly-gained background knowledge was immense. This got me thinking – why should these activities only be available to me and my family? Why just on vacation? Why not everyone, everywhere, all the time?

In fact, there are a number of initiatives across the country coming together to create cities of learning where children, youth, and families have access to experiences just like the one my family had. These initiatives are designed particularly for children and families of low-income households, who often have unequal access to outside-of-school learning opportunities compared to children from households of higher-income status. In  Pittsburgh, as well as in Chicago, Dallas, and Washington, DC, networks of schools, museums, libraries, afterschool programs, community centers, higher-education institutions, the private sector, and the philanthropic community have joined together to create learning opportunities for families and children throughout the year. These initiatives include strong digital media and technology components to provide learners opportunities to think about, pursue, and develop their interests. Students earn badges for participating in activities, which they can track, accumulate, and share with their families and teachers.

What’s exciting about this work–especially what’s going on in Pittsburgh–is that it promotes family engagement in new and emerging ways. These initiatives ensure that all families have access to programing, along with the knowledge and encouragement they need to help learners pursue their interests. The programs make clear, transparent, and coordinated connections among different learning opportunities so that families can easily navigate them. They create pathways so that experiences from summer learning can be explored both in and out of school throughout the entire year.

Most importantly, these initiatives bring about equity. We know that learners spend only 20% of their yearly waking hours in schools, leaving 80% of their time to learn outside of school. By making out-of-school learning available to all, these initiatives help reduce opportunity gaps that are detrimental to children’s and youths’ academic outcomes. In Chicago, for instance, the majority of students who participate in city-wide learning activitiesfrican-American or Latino and are from low-income households.

So, what did I learn this summer? That a trip to the beach, or anywhere, has the potential to be so much more.

Margaret Caspe is a Senior Research Analyst at Harvard Family Research Project, where she has been working in various capacities since 2000. Her research focuses on how families, early childhood programs, schools and communities support children’s learning.

This Summer, Pittsburgh Becomes a Citywide Campus for Learning

Pittsburgh schools closed their doors last Monday, but the city got a running start on summer opportunities the weekend before. At the Cities of Learning (COL) launch party, on the sunny lawn at the Carnegie Library, local kids and teens learned about their dizzying array of options for discovery and exploration.

Sound familiar? It isn’t Pittsburgh’s first conversion into a living campus, but it is the largest. After a trial run last summer, and armed with a new grant from the MacArthur Foundation, the Sprout Fund tweaked and expanded COL to ready the initiative for 2015.

Whether a budding filmmaker or an amateur bike mechanic, a Pittsburgh child or teen will find a slew of (mostly free) activities in the Cities of Learning roster that will help build on his or her passions. The more than 40 participating organizations help youth develop expertise in their interest areas, figure out links to academic and professional pathways, and document their accomplishments with digital badges.

http://www.pghcityoflearning.comPittsburgh, which joins Chicago, Dallas, and Washington, D.C., in the national initiative, was an ideal candidate for COL.

“There are many things happening in summertime but they can seem kind of fragmented, disconnected,” said Sprout Fund Executive Director Cathy Lewis Long. “It definitely takes a network approach to begin to gather and collect and lift up the incredible opportunities.”

The organizers capitalized on Pittsburgh’s existing network of formal and informal institutions and educators to present a cohesive “campus.” This year, the community is further integrated, with Pittsburgh Public Schools serving as a major COL partner. The schools’ Summer Dreamers Academy is participating, awarding badges to students.

“We’re interested in creating a more connected environment between their formal school life and things they’re doing outside of school,” said Dustin Stiver, Sprout program officer. “So the Summer Dreamers opportunity was a great chance to sort of test the notion of badges in a school environment but also during the summer.”

Over the past year, Sprout convened a diverse group of educators to determine the core competencies important to the community, and to create badges and curricula to reflect them.

“One of the things we learned from last year is it’s important to provide educators with the proper support to implement this kind of initiative,” Stiver said. “It was a starting point for educators to think about their badge design very critically.”

Badges are meant to acknowledge that learning happens throughout the summer—at libraries and museums, in parks—but might go unrecognized, Long said. Whether they have learned to laser-etch a light switch cover, tend to a lawn, or plan and budget a trip, kids now have a standardized means of demonstrating their accomplishments—to future employers, for example.

The activities and partner organizations are all searchable on the new Pittsburgh COL website.

“To borrow an analogy from [Sprout program associate] Tim Cook, it’s like taking all the brochures and pamphlets off the coffee shop shelf and putting them all online where parents and students and others can find the things they’re interested in,” Stiver said.

Head over to the site now, where participants can sign up, build a profile, and start navigating the City of Learning right away.

Digital Learning Where It’s Least Expected

At most hospitals, patients’ leisure time is limited to sleeping, watching TV, and visiting with relatives during prescribed hours. This can be hard on chronically ill children who may be cooped up in small rooms for weeks at a time. But at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt University, those patients have an enriching new option. A graduate student in education, Gokul Krishnan, brings around a metal cart packed with engineering and craft materials, a 3D printer, and a tablet, and encourages young patients to tinker.

The mobile makerspace is not just an artistic diversion. It’s a real-life lesson in design thinking, reports MindShift. The patients are encouraged to identify something that is missing or frustrating in their environment, and tinker with the tools until they solve the problem. A 17-year-old patient named Emily, for example, was getting annoyed by the nurses who would show up in her room unannounced. So, using wire, switches, and tissue paper from the maker cart, she fashioned a functional doorbell.

Hospitals are not the only unlikely locations to become makerspaces. Here in Pittsburgh, the Millvale Community Library hosts a weekly maker meetup for both toddlers and kids, providing circuits, electronics, musical instruments, drawing tools, and sewing supplies. A former electronic repairs shop, the building has a long digital legacy.

The mobility of technology makes for ideal learning tools. A restless patient like Emily may not be able to go to the library, but she can summon its digital equivalent on an e-reader from her hospital bed. Maker materials can be wheeled into libraries, cafes, churches, parks, and any number of accessible community spaces. And we recently wrote about the new app from Storycorps, which enables kids to learn about history and culture from family members and new friends on the go. Thanks to this portability, learning is not confined to the classroom or a specific six-hour chunk of the day.

By capitalizing on the flexibility and adaptability of digital tools, educators and communities are not discounting the value of learning in traditional and formal settings. In fact, some of the most interesting initiatives in the Pittsburgh area are products of collaboration between established educational programs and less conventional spaces featuring different sets of tools.

In the South Fayette School District, campus gardens function as outdoor classrooms and living STEM labs. Part of a program called Grow It to Go, the gardens are settings for hands-on lessons in biodiversity and sustainability. Another Pittsburgh project turns an agricultural bounty into maker tools, bringing the farm to science classes, and students to the farm. Digital Salad participants might spend an afternoon slicing fresh vegetables, then scanning images of them to use in Photoshop collages before they cook the “materials” in a stew.

A hospital, a farm … so where will the next contemporary “classroom” show up? With portable devices and a mobile maker scene, it could be anywhere.



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.