Tag Archives: Pittsburgh

Modes of making: exploration, engineering, and entrepreneurship

Educators know the power of hands-on learning. Ask any teacher, coach, or mentor what they see when their students engage in hands-on maker activities and chances are they’ll describe how students are activated with interest and curiosity as they put their learning into action through making.

That’s one reason why maker learning has steadily gone from the fringes to the mainstream of teaching practices in classrooms, after school programs, and summer camps. In the Pittsburgh region, Remake Learning has identified more than 170 makerspaces, including more than a hundred in area school districts.

This concentration of maker learning has also produced some insights into the inner workings of maker learning, insights that Remake Learning members are sharing with others working to expand access to maker learning opportunities.

But what is maker learning good for? In addition to the thrill of discovery and spirit of invention inherent in maker activities, there are real learning benefits to hands-on creativity and collaborative problem-solving. Maker learning incorporates a range of competencies related to the creative process, researching, developing, and testing a design, as well as building technical skills with tools, materials, and techniques that prepare learners for future career opportunities.

“Making is about more than creating objects, learning STEM principles, or how to code,” University of Pittsburgh researcher Leanne Bowler wrote in a previous blog post. “It is also about understanding the process, thinking critically about oneself and the role that one’s values and assumptions can have on the objects one makes, and the effect that one’s creations might have on others.”

In other words, maker learning is as much about developing the curiosity to explore new ideas and the confidence to tackle difficult challenges as it is about learning to use tools and materials to make (and re-make) the world around you.

Making connections to the physical world

Many maker learning experiences embrace playful discovery, especially activities and programs for younger children and their families. This form of open, exploratory maker learning is best exemplified by MAKESHOP at The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, a place where kids and their family learn together with teaching artists and maker educators.

“MAKESHOP was one of the first makerspaces designed for family audiences,” says Lisa Brahms, director of learning and research at the Children’s Museum. “We did the prototyping, we made the mistakes that other people can learn from. We’ve had the opportunity to study it and now we can be a model.”

MAKESHOP intentionally mixes high-tech making like 3D printing with more traditional crafts like weaving, sewing, and woodworking. It’s an environment rich enough to attract the attention of Adam Savage, who visited MAKESHOP as part of his national Maker Tour.

But as important as the tools and technologies are, reflections that result from the co-learning that happens among the learner, their family, and the mentors is where the deeper learning occurs.

“One of the biggest things kids can take away from making is seeing the world in a different way,” says MAKESHOP manager Rebecca Grabman. “For a kid who’s never made anything before, making personally empowering to them. It shows them they are able to create the things they want and need in their life.”

For Lisa Brahms, who also part of the original team of researchers and graduate students from the University of Pittsburgh Center for Learning in Out-of-School Environments that collaborated with the Children’s Museum to develop MAKESHOP, maker learning spaces are themselves made to fit their specific context.

“There’s no one right way to do it,” says Brahms. “It’s important for each maker program to think ‘Why making? Why do we want making to be part of what we do? Who are the people that are part of that experience? What is the stuff that we want to make?’”

In cooperation with the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Children’s Museum set out to turn these insights into Making+Learning, a framework to help others set up their own maker learning spaces.

And to help more schools incorporate maker learning into their curriculum, from early childhood to tech-ed, The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, in partnership with Google and Maker Ed, launched the Making Spaces initiative which helped 10 schools develop the resources and know-how necessary to establish spaces for hands-on, project-based maker learning in classrooms and other in-school spaces.

Blurring the lines between making and engineering

For students who catch the maker bug, new interdisciplinary approaches to STEM provide them with opportunities to level-up their skills and make academic progress. Project Lead the Way (PLTW) is a national nonprofit helping schools bring more hands-on learning into the K-12 system.

Several school districts in the Pittsburgh region participate in PLTW, including Chartiers Valley where educators are using PLTW’s engineering pathway for middle and high school students. Using a project-based curriculum that emphasizes design thinking and hands-on making, teachers at Chartiers Valley challenge students to investigate engineering challenges ranging from making more efficient energy systems to improving automated manufacturing production.

“Many students who are considering college might want to re-evaluate that decision and look at training programs or associates degrees,” says Superintendent Brian White. “The students get hands on experience and an appetite to create new things in the world. It really opens up all kinds of doors.”

Throughout the program, students learn the principles of science, technology, engineering, and math, design ways to apply those principles to solve a problem, and use industry-grade technology like 3D modeling software and plasma cutters to turn their designs into real products. A recent student project earned an award from the Smithsonian Institution and filed a patent for a double-bladed windmill they created that doubled its energy production capacity.

“We’ve had students go everywhere after coming out of Project Lead the Way,” adds Jeff Macek, who teaches applied engineering and co-leads PLTW at Chartiers Valley. “Some students have gone on to become aerospace engineers for NASA.”

Making maker entrepreneurs

For some students considering their future in the world of work, becoming a maker entrepreneur gives them the chance to turn their hobby into their livelihood. Startable Pittsburgh is a maker-oriented youth entrepreneurship program borne out of the city’s growing startup community as a way to help young makers make a living through making.

Over the course of an eight-week summer session, teens are coached by other maker entrepreneurs as they develop ideas for a product, create a business plan, and then dive headlong into making that product a reality.

“Teens split their time between Alphalab Gear, a startup accelerator, and TechShop, a makerspace with everything you need to prototype and do small-batch manufacturing,” explains Startable program coordinator Jackie Shimshoni. “At the end, students launch their business at an open market of all their products and pitch their business idea to investors.”

Startable is emblematic of the kinds of self-directed learning that out-of-school learning programs provide to students as a complement to their in-school learning experiences. Youth are given the flexibility and independence to pursue their ideas and develop their skills at their own pace, but also have a supportive network of peers and mentors at the ready.

“I had no idea what I was going to make coming into the program,” says Miranda Miller, Startable alum. “But I had a huge field of mentors and instructors who helped me along the way.”

Through Startable, young people have launched businesses making jewelry, designing and fabricating lighting fixtures, constructing lawn furniture, and producing a local fashion line. While the businesses range in ambition and longevity, they signal a broadening and deepening of Pittsburgh’s startup business community.

“As a region like Pittsburgh develops, inequities can develop with it,” says Shimshoni. “By democratizing maker resources, we’re hoping to get more diverse voices in the engineering and maker fields. We need more minority entrepreneurs, we need more female entrepreneurs,” says Shimshoni. “If Startable can contribute to that in the next five to ten years, I think we will have done our job.”


In the final installment, we’ll see how employers are partnering with educators to help students channel their passion for making into careers in manufacturing, production, and entrepreneurship.

What’s on deck for Inclusive Innovation Week?

In January of 2016, the City of Pittsburgh had an idea to promote inclusive innovation through a week-long celebration of events across the city. We had seen other city’s host innovation weeks, but we wanted this to be different, to reflect the broad stretches of innovation in the city and invite each organization, business and person to bring their own take on inclusive innovation to the table. The first Inclusive Innovation Week resulted in 60 events hosted by 47 organizations and ranged from maker opportunities to art shows to panels centered on women in tech, coding education classes and much more.

With a year under our belts, we are excited to host Inclusive Innovation Week 2017, March 31st – April 7th. What’s new this year? There will again be over 60 events, but this year more than 120 partners are working together to make that possible. Expect to see events where partners are collaborating and often testing out programming and partnerships for the first time.

New partnerships like Girls Write Pittsburgh and the Carnegie Museum of Art will be collaborating on a writing workshop, while Jetpack Workflow is partnering with Alphalab and Obama Academy for a meet and greet between startup founders and students.  And in a preview of Remake Learning Days in May, The Sprout Fund, Games for Change, City of Play, The Center for Arts & Education at West Liberty University, I&P and other community partners will be teaming up for a Future Communities Game Jam at AlphaLab Gear.

We’re also excited that Steel City Codefest is happening during Inclusive Innovation Week, where tech innovators will spend a week developing apps that solve pressing social and civic problems. Once the adults have had their chance, we’ll be waiting to see what youth coders can do at Steel City Codefest Jr during Remake Learning Days.

In addition to opportunities for youth to engage with innovation there will also be even more events for adults. Click here to see the full calendar for the week.

There are countless organizations and businesses who make inclusive innovation a priority every day and we want to take this week to celebrate and invite more people to experience the opportunities available. I highly recommend checking out the recently released OnePGH video. We challenge you to use this week to participate in and experience innovation in all its forms, meet a new neighbor and show us how you inclusively innovate. We hope you will join us in celebrating Inclusive Innovation Week 2017.

Join and follow the conversation on social media using #WeInnovatePGH

Forging an Educational Future for Everyone

A new report, The Future of Learning in Pittsburgh, adapts KnowledgeWorks’ national learning “forecast” for the Pittsburgh region. The social enterprise organization teamed up with Remake Learning to explore the inevitable changes facing the region—as well as the changes local actors will have to make to ensure an equitable future for all residents.

It is no secret that we are smack in the middle of an era of educational change. Digital advances have brought new tools into learning settings and have prompted big conversations about education innovation. Technology has also been at the center of economic shifts in the Pittsburgh region, with advances in higher education and healthcare industries. Meanwhile, scientific discoveries about young brains have challenged fundamental assumptions about learning.

There is a “growing urgency,” write the authors of the Pittsburgh forecast, to thoughtfully consider the potential impacts of these societal changes on our formal and informal education systems. “Equity is not a given,” they write. The digital innovations could create deeper divides, or be leveraged to engage all learners.

“Equity is not a given.”

Members of the Remake Learning Network have been working to make sure the latter scenario is our reality. But the forecast cautions against satisfaction with current efforts alone. The report pulls out examples of great work in our region— “signals” of both likely and necessary changes. Efforts like these will need to be expanded and emulated as the region forges its educational future.

All education providers “need to prepare learners for new economic realities,” the report says. The contemporary workforce values innovation and collaboration. This means the education system will have to assess and provide opportunities for mastery of real-world skills.

The summer employment program Learn & Earn, for example, places disadvantaged youth in jobs across Pittsburgh. The teenagers work everywhere—corporate offices, urban gardens,—developing a range of marketable skills. Throughout the summer, they earn digital badges, credentials that go in an online portfolio cataloging their experiences and skills.

The forecasters predict that learners and families will become “increasingly conscious consumers and architects of learning, seeking out educational approaches that fit their values and lifestyles.”

They point to programs that already encourage exploration and self-directed learning. At Assemble and MCG Youth and Arts, young visitors can experiment and tinker with tools, figuring out their own creative processes. However, the authors warn, greater choice in education could end up only privileging some families. Regional providers need to make sure all families receive guidance, so that the increasingly flexible learning environment doesn’t empower some and leave out others.

Learners will need to embrace volatility and complexity.

The report also calls for an education system that sets learners up to embrace volatility and complexity. In a rapidly changing world, they could be brought along for the ride or they could learn to become instigators of change themselves.

The program Hear Me helps youth have voices in their communities. It teaches them to use digital media to publish their thoughts on social issues and ideas for community change. Along the same lines, Youth Leading Change empowers young people in Allegheny County to educate people in their communities about education reform and social justice.

After all, the thing about the future is it’s never certain. Even if the weatherman predicts moderate temperatures, you might be surprised by a heat wave or a rainstorm. So people—young and old, students and teachers—have to become agents of change, acting deliberately to include all learners in the future of education.

Learning STEAM in Style

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Maker Volunteers Energize Expanding Movement

Readers of this blog know how quickly the maker movement has picked up STEAM in recent years. Yet as more schools and organizations recognize the importance of letting kids tinker and create, educators need the resources and time to work making into their programs and figure out their roles as mentors.

One national initiative is bringing maker education to as many kids as possible. A partnership between the nonprofit Maker Ed and AmeriCorps VISTA places volunteers at sites that provide maker opportunities for young learners.

Pittsburgh, no stranger to the maker movement, is the site of one of nine organizations playing host to VISTA workers this year. The two volunteers work at Assemble, a creative community space where artists and technologists of all ages are always busy building and crafting. Located in the Garfield neighborhood, the organization strives to be accessible to local kids and anyone else who wants to take part in its programs or simply drop in—so the emphasis VISTA puts on capacity-building is appreciated.

Not only has it “been really great” to have two new staff members expanding Assemble’s reach, said its director, Nina Marie Barbuto, but it has been invigorating to strengthen ties with others in the maker scene.

“It’s been great to work with other organizations on a national level and to see how we’re not alone,” Barbuto said. “It’s nice to see it’s not only in Pittsburgh. It’s really a national movement.”

No question. A recent white paper from the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Project Zero details the sheer momentum of the movement. Supported by a three-year grant from the Abundance Foundation, researchers with Project Zero’s Agency by Design visited numerous maker education sites.

“This is an important moment for policymakers, funders, and others interested in supporting an alternative narrative for education that focuses on deep and prolonged experiences of learning through making, and results in students developing a sense of agency, self-efficacy, and community,” the researchers write.

Pittsburgh itself is home to renowned makerspaces and, increasingly, infrastructure and opportunities for educators and organizations interested in joining the movement. In October, educators who want to integrate making into their curricula can attend workshops co-hosted by Maker Ed and the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. Shortly after, Pittsburgh gets its first full-size Maker Faire.

“When kids are allowed to pursue hands-on maker-oriented work, they’re able to see what they themselves are capable of.”
One of Assemble’s Maker Ed VISTA volunteers, Sienna Cittadino, got her degree in library science from the University of Pittsburgh. She enjoyed activities in library-based maker spaces and, she said, grew “cautiously optimistic” about the larger movement. She said she was a bit skeptical that the associated jargon was just that—jargon. But, particularly at Assemble, she has come to see maker education as a jumping-off point for some kids and an invitation to others to dive into existing interests.

“I think that when kids are allowed to pursue hands-on maker-oriented work, they’re able to see what they themselves are capable of,” Cittadino said. “They’re able to trust themselves.”

There is a valuable emphasis on exploration, self-direction, and tinkering in maker rhetoric. But whether their roles are more administrative or instructive, mentors like the VISTAs and the Assemble staff figure prominently in successful maker education. In a recent newsletter, writer Annie Murphy Paul pointed out that completely unstructured maker projects can be overwhelming or too mentally demanding for young kids. Adults can provide foundational guidance.

“Once students begin making, we can carefully scaffold their mental activity, allowing them to explore and make choices but always within a framework that supports accurate and effective learning,” she wrote. “The scaffolding lightens learners’ cognitive load until they can take over more mental tasks themselves. This approach actually dovetails with the apprenticeship model that inspired the maker movement: the student learns to create under the guidance of a master, taking on more responsibility as his skills and confidence grow.”

Giving young learners both freedom and guidance is a careful balancing act, Cittadino said.

Sometimes the educator’s role is “figuring out when to let them shoot for something that isn’t going to work,” she said. “And letting go of that control.”

For example? Cittadino recalled students who wanted to make a full-scale, complete version of Minecraft in the children’s coding program Scratch.

“Sometime, they secretly always knew a project wouldn’t work,” but were curious about the outcome anyway, she said. “Or maybe it will work! They’re really smart.”

Community Corps Brings Digital Education to County Kids

El Círculo Juvenil de Cultura, a bilingual after-school program that teaches Latino kids about their heritage, was looking to add a digital literacy component to its curriculum. The students it serves are part of a population that is less likely to have access to digital literacy education, said Felipe Gómez, co-founder of El Círculo.

Hispanic youth actually use the Internet more than their white peers, according to the Pew Research Center. But language barriers and cash-strapped schools often mean they cannot get the guidance and scaffolding they need from adults to learn from their technology use.

Gómez said many of his students have used computers and have access to cell phones. “But beyond being users, what we’re interested in is giving them some idea of how to create the tech,” he said.

“Beyond being users, what we’re interested in is giving them some idea of how to create the tech.”

Enter the Remake Learning Digital Corps.

Like El Círculo, organizations across the educational spectrum are recognizing the urgency of digital literacy education. But many of them lack the bandwidth, knowledge, or equipment to provide it. The Digital Corps aims to meet some of this need by recruiting, training, and deploying digital learning experts to after-school programs throughout Allegheny County. The program is now wrapping up its fourth series of workshops.

The goal? “It’s not just about jobs or school, though those are predominant and really important factors,” said Digital Corps manager Ani Martinez. “But also just about knowing how the world around them functions, how people communicate.” The Sprout Fund designed the program to train host-site staff, as well as the young participants, in digital literacy.

Digital Corps members, who include local software engineers and technologists, artists, and teenagers, come to their host sites equipped with a variety of digital literacy tools designed for kids: Scratch, Thimble, and Hummingbird Hummingbird to name a few. These programs aim to teach the building blocks of the web, and to demonstrate that the digital tools kids use every day are created by people just like themselves. What each educator does day to day—teaching basic coding, gif-making, robotics—is similar, but they have had to figure out how to adapt the curriculum to work well at sites with differing needs and demographics.

When Gómez first heard about the Digital Corps, he thought he would never find the triple-threat he needed at El Círculo: a tech-savvy Spanish speaker who has worked with kids. When previous El Círculo volunteers got trained as corps members, he ended up with two that fit the bill.

Corps instructor Yolanda Isabel Gordillo, a professional translator who works at El Círculo, worried that the kids would not have the attention spans for the long lessons. Not only did that prove to be false, the students also continued the work off-site on their own.

“It’s fantastic to see how these kids express this knowledge so fast,” Gordillo said. “They say, ‘Oh and I told my friends about this program I’m making and sent them the link.’ ”

And when put together, foreign language skills and tech savvy make a “powerful combination,” she said.

El Círculo, run by Carnegie Mellon University, is fortunate to have plenty of tech equipment. Other Digital Corps sites are not so lucky.

At the Northern Area Boys & Girls Club, the tech tools are less plentiful and more finicky. But staff member Caitlin Zurcher said the participants still get a lot out of the program, sharing computers, playing with the hands-on robotics materials, and setting up accounts on sites they can log into elsewhere.

“The great thing about the training I received at The Sprout Fund is many of the activities were very easy to do with a low budget,” Gordilla said. Her students loved one completely tech-free coding activity, where they pieced together paper puzzle pieces labeled with HTML tags to make a logical string of commands.

The Hazelwood branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, a veteran site now enjoying its third series with Digital Corps members, faced a different challenge: How to fit the sequential lessons into the library’s drop-in programming for teens, where they never know who might show up.

So Corps members worked with the librarians to adapt the digital literacy curriculum to be less structured and function like a weekly “menu of challenges.” Librarian Michael Balkenhol said he still thinks kids get a lot out of the program even in the less-structured environment. “We let anyone that walks into our teen space just jump in and play around a little, and hopefully enjoy themselves and make a point to come back,” he said.

There has been a range of reactions among the youth participants. “Sometimes it’s frustration,” Balkenhol said. “It’s not always easy to just jump into something new.”

Then there are the kids who come to every single session.

For the stretched staff at the library, the Digital Corps members have been a tremendous help. And even when Corps instructors are not around, the students have the basic skills to explore tech tools on their own, whether that means building a website or mashing up YouTube videos.

The program “inspires different ideas, and then you try to help out a teen or kid move forward with whatever they want to accomplish,” Balkenhol said.

The kids’ personal interest is often what drives the success of the Digital Corps program. At the Boys & Girls Club, some of the students were video-game fanatics, so they jumped at the chance to learn to make their own.

“Some of the kids who do it wouldn’t be friends if they didn’t have this video game interest,” Zurcher said. “This forced them to work together. They never hung out here at the club together.”

The organizations serve different populations with different circumstances. But the low-budget, flexible programming has allowed instructors to engage all the participants, and help them shift from tech consumer to tech creator.

Bearing Witness: Catching Up With Hear Me’s Jessica Pachuta

Jessica Pachuta is project codirector at Hear Me, a youth empowerment and media initiative at Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab. As Director of Hear Me 101, Jessica trains teens in Pittsburgh high schools to create documentaries and bring their messages to decision makers. She spoke with us about what she’s learning from spending so much time hanging out with politically engaged young people through Hear Me.

Remake Learning: What’s new with Hear Me?

Jessica Pachuta: Hear Me just wrapped up its fall/winter audio campaign on school funding. We partnered with the Campaign for Fair Education Funding coalition because they wanted to hear from students in schools across Pennsylvania about the way school funding impacts their educational experiences. The stories are all online. For our current campaign, we are partnering with Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy to ask students to explore the role that hands-on learning outdoors could or should play in their education. Interviews from this campaign will be shared with educators around the region, including the Pittsburgh Public Schools and local charter schools to inform decisions on environmental education initiatives. We also just started working on the Hear Me 101 video documentary project this year with our partners and students at schools in the Mon Valley.

What do you consider Hear Me’s biggest accomplishment so far?

Long term, that’s easy: the Hear Me 101 interns! Each year, we select a student from each of the Hear Me 101 partner schools to work with us for six weeks over the summer. They create action plans for their documentaries and receive training in youth voice strategies, messaging, and connecting their media to audiences. It’s the best part of our summer—hanging out with engaged young people who believe in their voices, then seeing them go back in the fall and take those attitudes and sense of empowerment back to their schools.

How many teens have finished the program so far? What else are they up to?

So far, there have been eight young people who’ve finished the program and they’re going to do big things in Pittsburgh. Just wait. 

The toughest part—and sometimes the most valuable part—is bearing witness to the reality of how many young people just aren’t served by the institutions put in place for them.

Recently, we got together with some really smart people in Pittsburgh to plan a Media Empowerment Student Summit (#MESSpgh). So, in November, some adult allies in Pittsburgh planned a day for high school students to come together to learn and share skills in media making and activism. There were workshops on stop-motion animation, audio production, a history of student activism, and -isms and their effects on us, and there was a panel of youth activists and live performances to end the event. It was a really high-energy day. The most rewarding part for me was seeing students from different parts of Greater Pittsburgh, who probably wouldn’t have the chance to meet otherwise, discussing youth organizing work they’re doing and getting excited about meeting peers who are also passionate about youth-led media initiatives in Pittsburgh.

What’s the toughest part about the work you do?

The toughest part—and sometimes the most valuable part—is bearing witness to the reality of how many young people just aren’t served by the institutions put in place for them. Also, when they can’t make sense out of—or feel powerless in—these institutions. It’s very enlightening and humbling to realize that sometimes us adults can’t make sense of these institutions either. Those are the stories that I think are really important to deliver to decision makers—the ones that say, “Please listen to us! Help us!”

How have you connected with other members of the Kids+Creativity Network, and how have the relationships influenced your work?

Our relationship with the K&C network is interesting because everyone is a potential collaborator. The network includes people who are really inspiring, push each other, and share practices, and now it includes youth in the network.

What’s your favorite thing to do on a Sunday in Pittsburgh? 

If it’s not football season, I’m either volunteering with Women in Film and Media Pittsburgh, doing homework for my MBA program, or on a nice loooooong bike ride on the Great Allegheny Passage.