At The Museum, DIY Learning

Museum professionals from around the country gather in Pittsburgh this week to explore the future of children’s museums in the 21st century. The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh's MAKESHOP, where kids and adults can experiment with the latest physical and digital tools, is one exciting model. Lisa Brahms, the museum’s director of learning and research, explains.

This post originally appeared at the Fred Rogers Center.

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]t the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh’s MAKESHOP, kids have a chance to uncover their inner tinkerer. Whether creating a paper shadow puppet with LEDs for eyes, a drill-powered skateboard, or a newspaper chair you can really sit in, the kids and their parents are engaging in one of the most effective ways to learn—hands-on or experiential learning. They’re also learning to take ownership of the digital world as creators, not just consumers.

The MAKESHOP opened in 2011 as a space within the Museum for visitors to experiment with real tools, materials, and creative process at the intersection of the physical and the digital. These explorations often lead to making tangible products or projects. We’re part of a growing movement of Makerspaces around the country working to promote more opportunities for making and to help better understand how children and families learn through making.

Our permanent exhibit design was built after extensive prototyping with visitors. The MAKESHOP is intended to welcome and engage visitors of all ages, genders, and levels of ability and to encourage collaboration across generations.

Families love the MAKESHOP. Kevin, one of our talented teaching artists, wrote a blog post about repeat visitors Aiden, Thomas, and their dad, who travel all the way from Buffalo, NY, to regularly visit the museum. They come to work on stop-motion animation with a dry erase board.

Makeshop at The Children's Museum of Pittsburgh/ Photo: Vaughn Wallace

Photo: Vaughn Wallace

We also work with schools and teachers to meaningfully integrate making experiences into their Museum learning visits. For example, a kindergarten class from the Environmental Charter School came to work on a design challenge: make a simple machine that would move a ping pong ball from one place to another without touching it. The kids worked together using wood, peg boards, toilet paper rolls, cardboard, and whatever else they could find in the MAKESHOP to build their contraptions. They had to work together to accomplish their goals.

But it’s not just cardboard and glue. We realize the important role that digital media plays in children’s lives, and we continually work to combine technology with more “real world” materials. MAKESHOP is a partnership project between the Museum, the University of Pittsburgh Center for Learning in Out of School Environments (UPCLOSE), and Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center (ETC). Together, we develop digital experiences that thoughtfully and intentionally consider the child, the family, the content, and the context of use.  The goal is to advance the use of digital media as an integrated tool for facilitating conversation, exploration, and productive making among young families.

We also give the next generation of designers hands-on experience. Each academic semester, a graduate student design team from the ETC works with UPCLOSE and representative MAKESHOP staff to develop a digital component for the space. This collaboration creates new and changing digital media based experiences for visitors, while participating ETC students learn a tremendous amount about meaningful interaction design for young children and families. These graduate students are encouraged to spend time testing their projects by working alongside MAKESHOP staff and families. As the students develop these digital projects, the MAKESHOP facilitation team develops complementary physical and digital making experiences that build on and extend the digital projects.

In response to our work in MAKESHOP, the Museum is now very interested in finding the productive intersections and tensions between the digital and the physical “real stuff” of children’s lives. We have found that children do not make such distinctions. We believe it is our job to help children and their families envision the familiar aspects and objects of their lives differently, to put the digital and physical pieces together in innovative ways. MAKESHOP enables this kind of envisioning and active innovation.

We’ll be hosting a Mini Maker Faire at the Museum on August 18. Last year we had over 1,800 faire-goers come to make, show off their own inventions, and celebrate DIY learning.

Even if you don’t live in Pittsburgh, you can join in by watching an episode of the MAKESHOP Show, an online resource hub for kid makers with a searchable, multimedia treasure trove of projects voted on by kids and designed with a researched understanding of young makers. The resource includes originally produced videos with  how-tos, maker interviews, junk-creation challenges, and more.

For more, watch the video below and follow our blog at We look forward to seeing you in MAKESHOP at Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.

Published May 01, 2013