Discussing Opportunities and Challenges at the State of Maker Learning Summit

Makers and educators from southwestern Pennsylvania and beyond came together to reflect on successes, work through challenges, and foster interdisciplinary approaches to maker education.

Roughly 100 makers and educators gathered at CoLab18 in Northside’s NOVA Place Thursday morning to discuss national and local developments in the field of maker learning. The conference was organized into three rounds of thematic lectures, each featuring a national keynote speaker, accompanied by a handful of “Ignite Talk” speakers from the Pittsburgh region.

Following a warm welcome from Remake Learning’s Sunanna Chand and Arconic Foundation’s Ryan Kish, attendees settled in to hear the first round of speakers.

National and Local Maker Landscape

Kyle Cornforth of MakerEd speaks at the State of Maker Learning / Photo by Nico Segall Tobon

Kyle Cornforth of MakerEd speaks at the State of Maker Learning / Photo by Nico Segall Tobon

The first national keynote speaker was Kyle Cornforth, who recently took over as Executive Director of MakerEd. Having spent the last two decades working in food policy and justice, Kyle admitted she’s still in a “beginner’s mindset” when it comes to maker education, and hopes an inter-disciplinary perspective can benefit the movement.

Kyle’s speech touched on a few overarching themes that continued to resurface throughout the day. She commended the movement as “a true grassroots development,” made possible by “people on the ground” co-creating with learners of all kinds. Kyle believes that, at its core, maker learning is “not about the stuff—it’s about people.” She shared her hopes that the movement’s “emerging focus on equity and access” can help transform the education system to better serve its most marginalized students.

“There’s nothing more important than re-imagining what the future might look like,” Kyle concluded. Maker education is all about helping young learners find the tools to build that future for themselves.

Following her speech, local educator Jeff Evancho of Agency by Design discussed the importance of “empowering [young learners] to be the makers of their own universe.” Chip Lindsey gave an overview of how The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh will strive to “create learning moments that are deep and powerful” in their upcoming museumlab space, while Samantha Utley from Duquesne City Schools shared her hopes that “our parents, relatives, and board members can see the pride beaming from students’ faces” when they’re engaged in making. Rounding out the first session was Shimira Williams, whose “Slaying the Future” event showcased the hard work and talent of nine African American women working at the intersections of STEM, beauty, fashion, and entrepreneurship.

After the first round of speakers, everyone broke out into small groups to reflect on various opportunities and challenges facing today’s maker-educators. Several groups echoed Kyle’s appreciation for “process over product,” and the ability to let students design their own learning experiences. On the other hand, many educators expressed frustration with a lack of administrative support, and the difficulty of measuring success in a system so fixated on test scores.

Equity in Making

The second round of talks focused on the need for equity in maker spaces. Keynote speaker Dr. Kareem Edouard delivered a presentation via video chat about his latest research study on the “ethnography of making,” and how maker spaces can work to be more inclusive. His findings reveal a troubling pattern in the imagery and attitudes surrounding most in-school maker spaces: flyers often feature power tools and machinery geared toward male students, while leadership roles are predominantly filled by white men. These aspects correlate with a major drop-off in girls’ attendance and comfort levels in maker spaces, especially as they enter high school. Maker spaces need to transform their identities, Edouard concluded, in order to accommodate a diverse range of students.

Maker educators listen to Dr. Kareem Edouard speak about the "ethnography of making." / Photo by Nico Segall Tobon

Maker educators listen to Dr. Kareem Edouard speak about the “ethnography of making.” / Photo by Nico Segall Tobon

For the second round of Ignite Talks, Dr. Temple Lovelace from Duquesne University declared “we can’t be business as usual” when it comes to promoting equity—we “need to disrupt the school to prison pipeline” by “allowing youth to lead the transformation of education.” Don Martin from the IU1 Fab Lab spoke about the revolutionary potential for maker learning to benefit students who otherwise might struggle in academic settings, while Brian Wolovich shared his passion for working with fellow Millvale residents in “the co-creation of community with the earth.”

The second round of speakers sparked lively discussions around how to cultivate inclusivity in maker spaces by diversifying leadership, and by broadening narratives around making to demonstrate how everyone—regardless of ethnicity, gender, class, or ability—has power and agency to create.

Making and Workforce Development

Terrence Robinson speaks about workforce development at the State of Maker Learning / Photo by Nico Segall Tobon

Terrence Robinson speaks about workforce development at the State of Maker Learning / Photo by Nico Segall Tobon

The third and final round of speakers focused on building stronger pathways between learning institutions and the workforce. Keynote speaker Terrence Robinson of Success Pathways Alliance touched on the benefits of vocational training for all students, and developing stronger relationships between the K-12 system and employers.

Expanding on Dr. Robinson’s comments, Scott Dietz of Catalyst Connection discussed labor shortages in local manufacturing. He hopes the organization’s new video game “Cube Cut” will help young learners develop a deeper interest in manufacturing. Liz Whitewolf of the Carnegie Science Center followed up by commenting on the need for strong mentorship roles in maker spaces.

The last two speakers tied all the overarching themes of the conference together beautifully. LaKeisha Wolf, Executive Director of Ujamaa Collective, spoke about the power of traditional and modern making practices in helping African women “become rooted in their creative history,” while also developing their entrepreneurial spirits. Finally, Chase Patterson of Pittsburgh’s Urban Academy talked about centering curricula around African American achievements in engineering and cultural development, helping students recognize that “black people have always been makers.”

After the final group discussions, everyone reconvened to discuss common goals and possible areas for collaboration, such as breaking down stigmas, letting learners lead the way, and transforming the educational system at large.

Sunanna concluded the event with a call to action, urging everyone to continue the work of “building a world where we can all live in harmony, peace, and justice.” Her words touch the heart of what makers and educators continue to strive for: a brighter future, built by today’s young learners on the principles of equity, cooperation, and collective growth.


Writing by Bennett Graves. Photography by Nico Segall Tobon.


Published November 20, 2018