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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!


Tinker Squads Encourage Girls to ‘Build’ Their Skills

The Ellis School, with a HIVE Grant from The Sprout Fund, has partnered with regional connected learning organizations to develop Tinker Squads for girls ages 10 to 13. Based at community centers and at schools, Tinker Squads encourage girls in grades 5 to 8 to develop design thinking, tinkering, and making skills. Connected learning is an educational approach that uses out-of-school learning environments (such as afterschool programs and museums), partnerships, and digital learning tools to increase engagement and ignite curiosity in young learners.

The Tinker Squad Program project team, led by The Ellis School, includes ASSEMBLE, the Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse, the FIRST Robotics Program at the Robotics Institute of Carnegie Mellon University, and Invent-abling. There will be a Tinker Meet on January 14 from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at The Ellis School.

A cross between technology, art and community engagement, Tinker Squads introduce girls in 5th to 8th grade to human-centered design methods, circuitry, the intersection of arts and technology, and engineering design. Tinker Squad girls define and make solutions through hands-on prototypes that address issues students see in their communities. By helping girls build these skills as early as possible The Ellis School hopes to help more girls become interested in STEM majors and careers.

The Ellis School developed the first squad and recruited four other all-girl squads from the Environmental Charter School, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh-Brookline and ASSEMBLE. Tinker Squad teammates help each other through projects, offer critiques, and show their work at Tinker Meets (Faires) where they will earn digital badges and meet other makers in the community. Each of the four founding Squads will host a "Tinker Teach" session at the Tinker Meet to help team members build skills.

>Each Tinker Squad team member is provided with a toolbox she can keep that includes the switches, origami, textiles, and materials kits from Invent-abling as well a poster that explains the Human Centered Design process and method cards from the LUMA Institute. Teams also went on an all-expenses paid shopping spree at the Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse where they acquired materials they could use to build prototypes for the Tinker Meet. The Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse also led a workshop with each Tinker Squad to coach them through the process of sourcing and selecting materials.

“Our goal is to help young people develop the capacity to engage with the world as problem solvers and makers. Our challenge as educators is to create environments in which skills can emerge naturally in the process of making—a process which often occurs in the company of others,” said Dr. Lisa Abel-Palmieri. “By ensuring girls have the opportunity to make and tinker we can ensure they build/practice their creative confidence today so that they have a shot at becoming the successful leaders of tomorrow.”

Two Local Educators Win National DILA Awards

Two area educators have received national awards for digital innovation. Aileen Owens, the South Fayette Township School District Director of Technology and Innovation, and Kris Hupp, 21st Century Teaching and Learning Coach at Cornell High School in Coraopolis, have been recognized with Digital Innovation in Learning Awards (DILA). These awards are given by EdSurge and Digital Promise and celebrate teachers, administrators and ed-tech organizations that demonstrate exemplary practices in using technology to support learning.

After receiving more than 1,500 first round applications and nominations from the U.S. and 31 other countries, and more than 550 video submissions, the panel of 10 DILA judges selected five finalists and then winners in each of the 15 categories.

Aileen received two national DILAs in the Administrator Trailblazer and Winner’s Choice categories. She won in the Trailblazer category for implementing an innovative school model. Over the last four years, Aileen has led the implementation of a computational thinking program that starts in kindergarten and builds at each grade level through high school. Students use Scratch to move from block-based code to text-based code, programming Legos and Arduino boards. Students even develop their own apps. The comprehensive program empowers students to be designers and creators from their first day in school and throughout their educational experience.

Kris Hupp was nominated by the Sprout Fund and won the DILA for “Busting Boundaries.” The Busting Boundaries award "recognizes teachers who inspire students to work in-person or virtually with peers in different geographic or cultural communities."

“Although the award was given to me it really recognizes the hard work of our students and staff and the opportunities provided to our students and teachers by Amiena Masoob and the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh and Tim Devlin at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit,” Kris says. “Through our continued collaboration our students have had the opportunities to collaborate through videoconferencing with their peers around the globe and to interview policy experts.”

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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 Remake Learning webpage. Submit stories and videos to learning@wqed.org!


Local teen Mirhir Garimella won top prize at the international Google science fair with a robotics project, a flying robot. Recently a video crew from Google’s London office videotaped Mihir at the Carnegie Science Center.

Kindergarteners from Propel East participated in the nationwide Day of Coding in celebration of Computer Science Education Week. Here they use iPads to learn the basics of coding.

4th Graders at The Ellis School are using the Hummingbird Robotics Kit to craft dioramas that deepen their understanding of setting in literature. These projects are based on the book, “Poppy.”

Propel Northside Third Grade students learn some special coding in honor of Computer Science Education Week. They worked with a tutorial program.

Educators gather to discuss Digital Badging at the recent Pittsburgh Learning Pathways Summit, organized by The Sprout Fund.

Propel East kindergarten students learn a little basic computer coding during the nationwide “Day of Coding.”

Educators from the A.W. Beattie Career Center travelled to the Eden Hall Upper Elementary School in Gibsonia to introduce students to STEAM-centered careers.

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featured specials

  • WQED is pleased to partner with Highmark to bring you these special reports on "Men & Cancer" and "Women & Cancer." Every year cancer claims the lives of nearly 300,000 men in America. According to the American Cancer Society, getting the facts about cancer is an important step in taking care of your overall health.

featured specials

  • WQED is pleased to partner with Highmark to bring you these special reports on "Men & Cancer" and "Women & Cancer." Every year cancer claims the lives of nearly 300,000 men in America. According to the American Cancer Society, getting the facts about cancer is an important step in taking care of your overall health.