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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!


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