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Learning through making helps stop the summer slide

Janeen Ellsworth
June18/ 2015

Summer break has arrived. Poolside lounging, popsicle picnics and summer camp adventures are finally within reach. And while teachers, parents and students agree that summertime should include plenty of opportunities to unravel and relax, kids who continue to learn over the break transition to the next school year with more confidence and better grades. Students actually perform better–on the exact same test–at the end of one year than at the beginning of the next. It’s called the “summer slide.” But with a little creativity, it can be avoided.

Speaking of creativity, it’s National Week of Making, celebrating the global Maker Movement revolutionizing learning for our kids. Why not join the nation in celebrating a creative educational approach that fosters process-based, hands-on problem-solving? Why not get your kids making this summer?

Making at Assemble in Garfield, Photo courtesy of Assemble
Making at Assemble in Garfield, Photo courtesy of Assemble

How to start making in Pittsburgh

According to a recent article in EdTech Digest, Pittsburgh has more than 100 maker spaces. Many of them are outfitted with all the latest in high-tech 3-D printers, laser cutting tools, LED fixtures, circuitry design gadgets and more. And some are even family-friendly, offering kids and their caregivers the opportunity to experiment with these cutting-edge tools to make something new.

“Technology is for everybody,” says Nina Barbuto, founder of Assemble, a Garfield gallery and workshop space that aims to bring the Maker Movement to the general public. “People can come here to try out something that might seem scary because they’ve never done it before. But in the end, we want people to realize that using a laser cutter, for example, is no big deal.”

Over the summer months, Assemble offers a drop-in Saturday afternoon M3 program, as well as weeklong summer camps for kids ages 6 to 13. Led by expert artists and scientists, campers experiment with mosaics, homemade volcanoes, gardening, digital media, robotics, Claymation and bioengineering.

The MAKESHOP at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh is another innovative maker space, where kids and their caregivers can explore circuitry, wood-working, sewing, stop-motion animation and more. Also, check out the Museum’s event calendar to find special events in the space including Youth Maker evenings for children ages 10+ and MAKEnights for grownups too!

Looking for other creative maker activities in Pittsburgh to beat the summer heat? Check out TechShop’s summer camps, the Millville Community Library’s Maker Thursdays, The Labs @ CLP with regular maker programming for teens, ReMaker Playshop at the Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse and the Maker’s Place in Homewood. Also, Pittsburgh City of Learning has a regularly updated listing of citywide maker activities for kids this summer.

Interested in learning more about the Maker Movement in Pittsburgh? Check out this recent article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Making at home, Photo by MNStudio
Making at home, Photo by MNStudio

How to start making at home

As Barbuto points out, it may be difficult for busy families to visit local maker spaces regularly. But with a little ingenuity and some basic tools, making is affordable and easy to do right in your home and on your own time. There are plenty of DIY projects that kids can start making right away, such as designing a zip line for their stuffed animals, creating their own clay or crafting a pretend submarine or marble roller coaster out of duct tape and cardboard. Also, the MAKESHOP has its own blog, offering inspiration for DIY maker projects.

“Keep it simple and see what sparks an interest for your child,” says Nikole Sheaffer, director of innovation at Pittsburgh’s Environmental Charter School. “The end product is important, for sure, but making starts with the genius of the child, and that often means starting simply with basic materials and equipment.”

Puzzles by Pittsburgh-based digital dream labs
Puzzles by Pittsburgh-based Digital Dream Labs, Photo courtesy of Digital Dream Labs

If DIY isn’t your forte, there are also some maker toys on the market to inspire budding inventors this summer. These are just a few of dozens available, but they all meet the essential Maker Movement criteria: to make, give, learn and tool up.

For kids who want to build: Roominate chalets, estates and studio apartments are not your grandma’s dollhouses. Time Magazine’s 2014 Toy of the Year is a line of build-it-yourself structures that allow kids to construct, and even wire, their very own toy homes, restaurants or stores. Modular furniture and motorized circuitry give kids a chance to explore the basics of engineering and architecture while bolstering their imaginations. Little builders decide how to piece together walls and furniture parts to create unique designs. Then, they can deconstruct and start all over again to try something new. The process fosters spatial skills, hands-on problem-solving and confidence with technology, all essential maker movement concepts. As an added bonus, your child can showcase the final product by sending Roominate a photo to be featured on their website.

For nature-loving artisans: Cyanotype paper and fabric is an old engineering tool with a 21stcentury twist. Kids can set out on a nature walk to collect found objects. When these objects are placed onto the photosensitive Cyanotype and baked in sunlight, beautiful silhouettes are forever emblazoned in a rich Prussian blue. Further tinkering–spritzing with a detergent solution or soaking in a bath of tea, for instance–changes its color to a peaceful yellow or nostalgic sepia tone. The endless opportunities for experimentation make this a true maker activity. And with plenty of room for imagination, kids can take this craft to the next level by creating greeting cards or a set of napkins for a nice holiday gift.

For the robot lover: TinkerBots by Kinematics, winner of the 2014 CeBIT Innovation Award, lets kids invent robots without having to learn wiring or programming. By simply snapping together kinetic modules, passive pieces and even Legos®, kids can create an infinite combination of robotic race cars, construction vehicles, dogs, spiders and more. Once built, kids can control how their TinkerBots move via a playback recording, or they can use an app on their tablet or smartphone as a remote control. The best part of this toy is that it welcomes collaboration, a basic pillar of the Maker Movement philosophy.

circuitBlocks
Circuit Blocks by Pittsburgh-based Children’s Innovation Project, Photo courtesy of Children’s Innovation Project

For future engineers: Circuit Blocks, invented by the Children’s Innovation Project (CIP) right here in Pittsburgh, answer the question, “What do you DO to make that HAPPEN?” With switches, toggles, photo cells, buzzers, wires and motors, these contraptions teach kids basic circuitry. Easy for small hands to hold and fascinating for hours, Circuit Blocks are perfect for kids who love taking things apart and putting them back together again. The concept flows from the principles of prediction, testing, reflection and revision, giving kids plenty of room for error and inspiring them to try another method. And while little engineers are learning complex concepts, parents can rest easy knowing that Circuit Blocks were sustainably harvested from Pennsylvania hardwoods, and that each purchase helps fund public school projects where CIP operates.

For gamers and programmers: Puzzlets, by Digital Dream Labs, was also invented in Pittsburgh. First, kids need the Puzzlets electronic puzzle tray that connects to any computer or tablet. Then, they can download the video game, Cork the Volcano, for free. The goal is to help a dinosaur, a hedgehog and a sloth seal an erupting volcano. With careful planning, experimentation and strategy, players lay the digital puzzle blocks into the tray to control whether the characters jump, fly, run or turn left or right. Through sequencing, programming and collaboration, kids create endless game combinations in order to reach the next level. The process encourages kids to try different solutions to see what works, one of the Maker Movement’s main goals. Since this game is currently still undergoing product testing, S.W. Randall is the only place in Pittsburgh to get your prototype puzzle tray. Puzzlets engineers are busy adding all the final touches–and accepting your input–to make it widely available this September.

 Featured photo: Boy playing with TinkerBot, Photo courtesy of TinkerBots

Janeen Ellsworth

Janeen is a storyteller in Pittsburgh, PA, who loves to write about people doing what they love and how they overcome life's big challenges. When she's not chasing around her 'Irish twins' or jogging in circles at Highland Park, you'll find her in a sunny corner of Bloomfield writing fiction and nonfiction.