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Kids+Creativity poised for more powerful impact here, internationally

Tom Lauwers in his Birdbrain office: helping and using the Kids+Creativity network for the benefit of many. Photo by Peter Leeman.
Marty Levine
August18/ 2014

For Aileen Owens of South Fayette School District, the Kids+Creativity Network gave her district the chance to collaborate for the first time with other districts surrounding it, encouraging educators and students to help—and teach—each other.

For Tom Lauwers, founder of BirdBrain Technologies, Kids+Creativity has linked him to fertile testing ground for his locally grown Hummingbird and Finch educational robotics kits, and is connecting him with the best minds in other locales.

And for Rick Fernandes, new head of the Fred Rogers Center, who has produced children’s educational media around the world, Kids+Creativity has shown him a city focused on bettering education as no other.

Kids+Creativity Network has entered its fourth year as the collective effort of more than 200 organizations—schools and out-of-school programs, libraries and museums, educational technology developers and local foundations.

“It’s a machine that is really churning now,” says Cathy Lewis Long, head of the Sprout Fund, which coordinates Kids+Creativity activities and communicates its possibilities and accomplishments to members and the world.

The Sprout Fund is at the center of much of Kids+Creativity's work. Left to right: Dustin Stiver, Matt Hannigan, Mac Howison, Ryan Coon and Cathy Lewis Long. Photo by Peter Leeman.
The Sprout Fund is at the center of much of Kids+Creativity’s work. Left to right: Dustin Stiver, Matt Hannigan, Mac Howison, Ryan Coon and Cathy Lewis Long. Photo by Peter Leeman.

“The idea of Kids+Creativity is to bring multiple people together from multiple sectors to really push innovation,” says Long. “We understand that learning happens at any time. It doesn’t stop at 3:00. There is so much opportunity to contribute to the overall learning pathway for the young person.”

The group began informally in 2007 with the Grable Foundation and others meeting regularly to connect people working in various areas of education and kids issues and to see how Pittsburgh could be the best place for kids to grow up. The group had more than 800 participants in 2013, at events and via its central Remake Learning site, representing 40 percent growth from the previous year.

It has begun affinity groups at the intersection of making and learning and in other areas to make sure participants find connections and collaborators, new ideas and opportunities.

Kids+Creativity members have presented at the national Digital Media & Learning Conference, and the Clinton Global Initiative. The network’s efforts were central to the City of Pittsburgh wining a Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Award in New York City on April 25.

Network members have written about their work for CNN and Huffington Post. The New York Times, Slate and the Wall Street Journal have all taken notice. Pittsburgh’s accomplishments in remaking learning for children and youth “are rather extraordinary if not unique in the country,” says Michael H. Levine, the founding director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, which conducts research at the Sesame Workshop toward better uses of new educational media technologies for children. Levine cited Kids+Creativity in his award recommendation.

“Pittsburgh is on the leading edge of integrating digital media into a whole range of learning spaces,” he says.

As Gregg Behr, head of the Grable Foundation, said in a letter about the award: “Our potential is clear … Because the Pittsburgh region demonstrates what is possible for all children and youth in the 21st Century, the White House and the U.S. Department of Education regularly ask members of the Kids+Creativity Network to participate in meetings among America’s leading education advocates. We have world-class ambitions for all kids.”

Lynne Schrum, dean of the College of Education and Human Services at West Virginia University, is a member of the Remake Learning Council of regional leaders and a long-time researcher in educational technology. She came to Kids+Creativity after Benedum Foundation-funded projects introduced her to organizations already involved. “I was incredibly impressed and knew I needed to connect my college to what was going on in Pittsburgh.

“Children spend about 30 hours a week in formal education,” Schrum notes. “They spend the rest of their lives, which is a large number of hours, doing other things. We can’t imagine the kinds of jobs they will have … We have to prepare them to tackle their lives.”

That takes a great deal of informal education, she says: “Formal education and informal education have been on parallel tracks. I saw in Remake Learning they were trying to make a connection between the two and that was the driving force… We need to partner with the innovators who are surrounding kids’ lives all day.”

Sports rivals, classroom collaborators

Aileen Owens of South Fayette has discovered new collaborations with local school districts. Photo by Peter Leeman.
Aileen Owens of South Fayette has discovered new collaborations with local school districts. Photo by Peter Leeman.

Kids+Creativity, says Aileen Owens, South Fayette’s director of technology and innovation, “has broken down the barriers that existed between school districts in the past.”

Owens has attended network meetings since its beginning and now belongs to two of its smaller affinity groups focused on games-based and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, the art and mathematics) learning. Since then, students and teachers in her district have traded lessons on programming languages with kids and educators at the nearby Fort Cherry and Mars districts.

Owens in one of the many  environmental learning spaces created through Kids+Creativity work. Photo by Peter Leeman.
Owens in one of the many environmental learning spaces created through Kids+Creativity work. Photo by Peter Leeman.

Last month South Fayette held its first STEAM Institute, which attracted teachers from nearby districts as well as West Virginia and Huntsville, Alabama. It included a game jam taught by Pittsburgh’s Schell Games and Environmental Charter School.

The district has also reached out to the North Side’s Manchester Academic Charter School to teach their STEAM educational model to teachers there. It has used a

Sprout Fund catalyst grant to create a sustainable agriculture environmental curriculum ( http://www.environmentalsustainabilityk-4.com/#!development/c1nvd) and a variety of gardens. That includes the Art and Poetry Gardens with student-created flags and tiles promoting its environmental themes and signs with QR codes for smartphone users to learn about student work and hear students’ garden-inspired poetry.

Now South Fayette is mentoring West Allegheny School District’s grant application to Sprout. “We are working hard to support those districts and teachers who want to do similar things,” Owens says. “We’re reaching out more to professors in universities and businesses to develop new, innovative programs for the future.

“The Kids+Creativity Network has transformed our world.”

From Pittsburgh, across the country, around the world

“What’s going to be interesting,” says Drew Davidson, director of the Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) at Carnegie Mellon University: “is how do we start partnering across other metropolitan areas?”

Already, Kids+Creativity has helped make Pittsburgh a pioneering city for the international HIVE program of new learning and creativity opportunities for teens. Sprout is helping network members take part in the national City of Learning effort to use curricular standards for what they already teach, such as digital programming and digital image making, then reward kids with digital badges that colleges and employers will recognize as signs of accomplishment. Pittsburgh also had disproportionate representation at the first White House Make Fair this year.

Locally, ETC’s work with partners through Kids+Creativity has helped bring about everything from the Makeshop at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh to the Elizabeth-Forward S.M.A.L.L. facility (Situated Multimedia Arts Learning Lab). For Davidson, it has connected ETC students to practical research projects in local schools.

“What’s been really important with this network,” he says, “is that it has enrolled people who care about working in this area, who have more impact and make the most of these connections…”

The Sprout team will continue to make all the cogs of Kids+Creativity turn in the coming years. Photo by Peter Leeman
The Sprout team will continue to make all the cogs of Kids+Creativity turn in the coming years. Photo by Peter Leeman

“When you have a small center like ours,” says Rick Fernandes, head of the Fred Rogers Center, “it’s based on partnerships. It’s hard to do it on your own, in finances and resources. Being a part of the group allows us to talk to different groups and see who are the best partners.” He is currently working with network members to adapt the digital badge idea for adult learners.

Since taking his job in January, Fernandes has observed an “amazing amount of cooperation between organizations” here. Elsewhere, he says, “there’s often an unhealthy competition” for resources and credit. “Here the goal is really what is best for children. That was Fred’s philosophy… And it works here because of the community.”

Pittsburgh as testing ground and pioneer

Tom Lauwers developed the Hummingbird robotics kit, which allows the youngest kids to learn to make robots from pre-wired components—light, motion, sound and temperature sensors and a speed control—while at CMU’s CREATE Lab. Now the sole employee at his startup, BirdBrain Technologies, he displays three colorful robots that teachers and students created with Hummingbird components.

Motion sensors raise and lower the gate of an orange and blue castle built by one teacher, while the antennae on human-shaped creation, constructed by another, wave above its blue plastic-cup legs. The windmill, created by a fifth grader at Falk, uses distance sensors to govern whether and how quickly the cardboard blades turn.

Tom Lauwers found Kids+Creativity was known in other U.S., and has had a chance to talk about it around the world. Photo by Peter Leeman
Tom Lauwers found Kids+Creativity was known in other U.S., and has had a chance to talk about it around the world. Photo by Peter Leeman

Beside these creations sits Lauwers’ latest robot teaching tool, the Finch, designed for instruction and play in AP science courses. Initial Finch development involved research among CMU, Community College of Allegheny County and several local high schools

“We’ve been able to do several things together that are really cool,” Lauwers says of his association with Kids+Creativity. He has personally trained members of Sprout’s Digital Learning Corps in the Hummingbird, which Corps members now teach in schools and community groups.

He’s also begun working with Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, training 25 of their teen specialists on using the Hummingbird. “The whole Kids+Creativity idea around using Pittsburgh as a lab … that’s my goal too. It’s something I can point to for other cities – here’s something that’s working with my product, it’s something you can regenerate.”

Megan Cicconi, curriculum and reading coordinator at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, which aids the county’s 42 school districts outside Pittsburgh, cites Tom Lauwers when she says, “The creative geniuses in Pittsburgh do make things relevant” for local students. Allegheny Valley School District, for instance, is using Hummingbird robotics kits for lessons on poetry.

“Instead of saying, ‘Hey kids, let’s tear this poem apart and talk about it,’ they found a way to make this poem intriguing in a different medium altogether.” The students create embodiments of poems in dollhouse- and diorama-like robotically controlled art pieces.

When a student wants to show the passion of a poem, for instance, he uses Hummingbird components to turn a fan and move colored paper strips representing fire, then up pops a character to recite the appropriate lines – recorded in the student’s voice.

What’s next for Kids+Creativity? Cathy Lewis Long, the Sprout Fund co-head, says now the network has an opportunity to go deeper than connecting groups together, into exploring new learning pathways, such as the badging program. The group also will be looking at economic opportunities that may stem from the results of all this collaboration, “keeping educational outcomes at the fore, but keeping in mind there is a big industry associated with educational technology.”

“The Remake Learning eco-system,” says Cicconi, “has just opened up so many doors for teachers and administrators and students for accessing so many quality products, programs and partners.

“That creates an informed citizenry, people who can create change and impact our world in a positive way.”


Marty Levine