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This Month’s Learning Innovation: Assemble Nurtures MAKERS

“Making can be as simple as taking something apart and transforming it into something else,” Nina Barbuto, a whirlwind of energy begins. “It’s everything. It’s from knitting to wood carving to laser cutting, to 3D printing to who knows what’s next, maybe bio printing.”

Making is also the name of a movement that encourages learning through making – the making of things as simple as a meal to complex, multifunctional robots. And at Assemble, a small storefront space in Pittsburgh’s Garfield neighborhood, “making” is an everyday event for the hundreds of youngsters who attend or have attended Assemble’s many programs, camps and classes.

Nina created Assemble back in 2011 to serve as a community space for arts and technology to come together. “We are a platform for artists, makers, technologists” – and especially kids – “to come and share their expertise,” she says. “And by serving as a platform we have many events that offer experiential learning, opening up the creative processes and building confidence through making.”

The maker movement, Nina says, “is a very interesting story. I feel that we have been making all our lives as human beings, running around in the Pleistocene plains and everything else, but you could notice, after things in the digital realm have gotten more and more complex, people started to revert back to hands on.” That’s when we began to see the rise of things like handmade markets – but also kits that help you create your own robots. It was a mesh of the old and the new, and another way to meet the needs and interests of the public, but especially the youngest learners.

When MAKE magazine began, they put a name to it – ‘the Maker movement.’ Nina laughs as she recalls, “it began with a lot of white guys with glasses on” promoting this. “But the face of making has been changing dynamically through different spaces like Assemble, and things that are happening at the Children’s Museum, or things in Millvale or other places in Pittsburgh like Hack Pittsburgh and the more professional makers at TechShop,” she adds.

To reach the young Makers, Nina and her fellow Makercorp members and volunteers run programs nearly every day. They vary widely – on one day, kids can learn complex computer languages; on another, they’re making, sending and receiving pictures and artwork from their young peers in Haiti. At the regular Saturday Crafternoons, kids can make a new “species” of animals with recycled fibers and with help from a local crafter, or ‘make’ seed balls for a garden with a community activist. The activities are as varied as making itself – but in the creation of these fun projects, a lot of learning is going on.

Take, for example, the day we visited the kids at summer camp. They were learning to make “Gack,” a combination of glue, Borax and water. It looked like a mess until, suddenly, the ingredients gelled and small hands were creating balls and other bounceable objects. Makercorp member Anna Failla laughed along with the kids, but then began explaining the science behind the making. “Everything is made of molecules and we’re going to be talking about polymers and monomers,” she said. “If you guys were monomers you could form chains with your arms, but you’re full of Gack so I don’t think you want to touch each other right now!”

Anna, a local college student, spent most of her summer teaching the kids art and technology at Assemble. She finds making “inspirational. It gets your creative juices flowing. It’s a way for you to combine what’s going on in your head and what’s going on with your hands. And then you get a product. You get something right away so there’s an immediate reward. The kids go home every day with three or four projects. And that’s really great because it shows them that they can do these things,” Anna says.

“Making is a way for you to learn by doing. And you get to work through the creative process on your own. At Assemble we give the children steps and then they get to experiment. So making isn’t just a set of instructions. That’s the first part of the process. But the second part,” Anna continues, “is going through these iterations and starting to think of things in terms of a continuum. So they’re allowed to keep doing more iterations and experimenting on their own. They get to think on their own and understand things by themselves.”

Making is great. “It’s fun because it allows you to get dirty,” Anna smiles. “Making allows you to do something you wouldn’t normally do in a classroom setting. In a class, someone gives you instructions and you follow them, but through the process of ‘making’ kids get to explore on their own. And you get to become your own teacher.”

And you learn that you sometimes fail – which helps you “make” even more. “There’s many things to learn from making, especially how you’ve broken something,” laughs Nina. “Failure is a great thing to learn from making. The whole idea behind making is changing what is to something that could be. Nothing is ever perfect.”

Making is “extremely important for everyone, but especially young kids because it helps them to realize that the world that they see around them doesn’t have to be that way. And they can change the rules the same way we change bits and bytes in the computer, to particles of the physical things we work with. I hope that by building confidence through making, they will find their own agency, not only in themselves but in their community and abroad.”

Want to get your hands dirty? Visit Assemble and come make your own things!

Assemble

Local Educator Helping Us Compete For Federal Dollars

Early Childhood programs in Pennsylvania – and Pittsburgh -- may be getting a big boost if Michelle Figlar has a say. Michelle, executive director of the Pittsburgh Association on the Education of Young Children (PAEYC), is sitting on a 20-member blue-ribbon panel tasked by Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto with submitting a proposal for a Preschool Development Grant from the Federal Government.

In August, US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited Pittsburgh; while here Duncan announced that $250 million in federal dollars would be up for grabs among the 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Pennsylvania can qualify for up to $20 million, but has to get an application in by mid-October. Michelle is helping to write the grant that may ultimately bring a chunk of that $20 million here.

This Pre-School Expansion Grant will be used to create a strategy to serve more four-year-olds in Pennsylvania, explains Michelle. “It’s a great idea, and then Pennsylvania can choose two or more communities” to receive the grant money. Pittsburgh could be one of those beneficiaries, using some of that $20 million “to best meet the needs of children.” If we get some monies, it will be used to increase professional development for teachers, help families gain access to programs that are targeted to four-year-olds, help provide transportation to institutions and achieve high quality programs.

The grants are aimed at helping low to moderate income families, those 200% under the poverty line and giving those families and children access to quality pre-school programs. But it would also free up monies to be used to improve existing early childhood programs – and create new ones.

“It would help four-year-olds in the city of Pittsburgh – that’s a big piece of the puzzle,” Michelle says, who will be heading up the Policy Committee on the Mayor’s panel. “And it will help us with the overall strategic plan for children.”

Arne Duncan’s recent visit made an impression on local teachers and educators. It showed that “our city and new mayor are really committed to young children and families who live in the city,” Michelle says.

Media Partnership Focuses on Learning Innovation

WQED Multimedia and our media partners, 90.5 WESA, Pittsburgh Magazine and NEXTpittsburgh have been focusing on Learning Innovation for the past months, and have put the media spotlight on everything from innovations in Early Childhood learning to computer science, STEAM and robotics.

The four media outlets, TV, radio, magazine and online magazine, are working together to focus on Pittsburgh leadership in the international movement to “remake learning” and create educational opportunities designed for our times.

Made possible through a grant from the Grable Foundation, Learning Innovation focuses on the Pittsburgh region's need to prepare its young people for college and the work force by building on the basics and connecting students with hands-on learning experiences that develop relevant skills.

Look for new stories, videos and content every month, on WQED-TV, iQ Kids Radio, and on WQED Interactive, and visit our partners at WESA, Pittsburgh Magazine and NEXTpittsburgh.

Photos



Celebrating the end of another Summer of Learning were visitors to The Sprout Fund’s Pittsburgh Maker Party, held at the Society of Contemporary Craft. (Photo by Ben Filio, courtesy, The Sprout Fund.)



Educators at the South Fayette Summer Learning Institute joined South Fayette Township School District teachers to learn about computational thinking, game design and more. (Photo by Norton Gusky.)



In July, 32 recent high school graduates created “Green Compass” radio features while serving as Heinz Endowments summer interns. The features focused on community issues. SLB Radio provided training and coaching. (Photo courtesy SLB Radio.)



Learning new digital skills with help from mentors from the Remake Learning Digital Corps was this teen.



Getting creative at the recent Second Annual Maker Party, thrown by The Sprout Fund. (Photo by Ben Filio, courtesy, Sprout Fund.)



Heinz Endowments summer interns created radio features on issues ranging from life in public housing to the plight of the honey bee. Training for the “Green Compass” program was provided by SLB Radio. (Photo courtesy, SLB Radio.)



High school students in Pittsburgh Filmmakers’ Youth Media Program summer camps experienced an “immersion” into filmmaking.



Exploring the heavens were these kids at the Outerspace Maker Party at Assemble.



Propel Schools are the first schools in the Pittsburgh area to use Playworks, an organization dedicated to revamping the concept of recess in schools. Here some teachers learn to “play.”

Spread The News

Do you have a story of learning innovation? A program, teacher or parent who is making a difference? Tell us about it and we’ll share it on our Learning Innovation webpage. Submit stories and videos to learning@wqed.org!

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