This Month’s Learning Innovation: Games Engaging Teens
Every week, for two hours, dozens of teens gather at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, East Liberty branch. They meet in the afternoons, from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m., after school is done. Sometimes they get there early and finish homework, often with a little help and guidance from Simon Rafferty, one of the CLP-East Liberty Teen Librarians. They come in the summer months, too, without fail. What is the draw? When 4:30 rolls around, they all head upstairs…for two hours of gaming.
The CLP has found that providing games – video games, old fashioned board games and word games, high tech music games – is a way to draw teens into the library….and keep them coming back for more.
“It’s for teens age 12 to 18,” Simon explains, “and it’s been going on before I even got here, but it’s sort of really blown up in the last year or so. It’s just been a great way to bring teens into the library. When we go on outreach, we talk about gaming and that’s what gets teens excited.”
They play in groups, alone, and even with Simon. “We have an Xbox 360 on a widescreen TV; we have PlayStations,” he adds. “It’s mostly cooperative games because we’re really into having games that are about playing with each other. It’s a very social environment.”
So why are Carnegie Library branches all over the city scheduling weekly Game Days for teens? “The library has been an evolving thing. It’s not all about books anymore. Books are a very important thing that we provide, but we’re also providing movies, music. We’re a cultural experience. And with teens, gaming is such a big part of being a teen, so it’s really important to be able to share that love of gaming in a place like the library,” Simon says.
So, the library is becoming more relevant to teens, meeting their interests. But by providing access to these games, CLP is doing much, much more: It’s also leveling the playing field.
“A lot of these kids can’t afford these games,” Simon continues. “Games are incredibly expensive. And to be cut off from that part of culture can really affect you in school, affect your social aspect.” Gaming helps teens develop many skills: they learn to work with each other; they learn to win – and lose – graciously. They are also picking up some STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Math – skills through games like Minecraft and SimCity.
But that’s not all CLP does: Gaming leads them to other great CLP programs, like The Labs, a popular and unique program currently at three sites around the city -- East Liberty, the main branch in Oakland and on the North Side.
“The Labs is a place where teens get to use expensive technology and equipment that professionals are using, so they’re using things like Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, DSLR cameras, Garage Band and music equipment and they have great mentors who work with them, teaching them skills to figure out how to use these things to create their own work,” Simon says.
One of those mentors is André Costello, who is also a teen specialist library assistant at East Liberty. “What I do is help with programming, help run these creative technology programs. I have a background in music and graphic design and I help with a lot of the software and things like using robotics kits. I work to get these kids being creative and expressing themselves in a really healthy way.”
The Labs are located in those three locations to be geographically and demographically positioned to provide the least amount of distance to travel and to be in diverse neighborhoods, André explains. Regular programming includes workshops run by Labs’ mentors and open labs where the equipment is available to the teens to use in their own projects. “We do music audio workshops, photo and video design and makers’ crafts,” he adds. And it’s all coordinated by Corey Wittig, Digital Learning Librarian in Teen Services at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.
“Our main priority is to reach teens all across the city,” Corey says. “Our ongoing goal is to draw teens to the library, and gaming is one of the ways we do it. It’s an entry point” to bigger programs, like The Labs. “We see it as a tool in our arsenal of engaging teens.”
It’s also a way to practice “Connected Learning,” connecting teens, Corey explains, to “the things that matter in their lives. Eventually, this may help them do better in school, develop job skills, build confidence, meet other kids, adults and mentors. We’re helping to guide teens to something they care about, and connecting them to opportunities around the city and community that may speak to their interests.”
The Labs are actually based on a national program, and they have proven so popular that there are plans to expand to more locations here in Pittsburgh in the future. It – and Gaming – is changing the way teens view libraries.
“This is a different way of thinking about what the library can do for you,” André says. “It’s become more like a community center, a central point where you can come. But the main thing is thinking about the library as a place for making. So this is a starting point for potentially a new thing that can be expanded to other age ranges. So, starting with the teens we’re focusing on this sort of maker space, this maker idea, and it’s technologically centered, which is different for the library, but it still celebrates information.”
These things work really well, André continues, “because I see these kids in here all the time, smiles on their faces, and I’ve seen them go from a place of being standoffish to being really creative. They’re interest driven and they’re on their own and they’re creating without us telling them what to do anymore.”
The library, Simon concludes, “has become a really fun place that’s geared towards teens. We’re really focusing on trying to make the experience unique and something just for them.”
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org!