On a grassy lawn booming with hip-hop music, food trucks and swarms of tweens, sixth-grader Olivia Howell took a break from her studies on Friday afternoon to peer into a pair of virtual reality goggles and venture into unchartered territory.
“It’s amazing,” Howell said, tilting her head from side to side and marveling at the wonders appearing inside the glasses. “Ooh, it’s the desert. Now I’m in the city!”
Surrounded by her classmates from Pittsburgh Sunnyside PreK-8 and booths from dozens of local innovators, Howell was among hundreds of students who visited the Google Geek Street Fair at the open field across from Bakery Square last week to explore science, technology, math and engineering in a carefree — and classroom-free — carnival.
Hosted by Google, Walnut Capital and The Pittsburgh Technology Council, the free interactive event combined street fair with science fair to put the magic of modular robots, 3-D printers, Ethernet cables and virtual reality into the hands of Pittsburgh kids.
Google Public Affairs Manager Liz Schwab said the multinational organization brought the Google Geek Street Fair to Pittsburgh as a way of bringing together partners in the local technology community. Google has hosted previous street fairs in cities including New York, Chicago and Toronto, but this was the first year for Pittsburgh – which houses about 400 employees in the company’s Bakery Square offices in Larimer — to welcome the fair.
“Pittsburgh has a wealth of nonprofits, technology companies and universities doing cool stuff in this space,” Schwab said. “It’s a fun glimpse for kids to know this is happening in their own backyard.”
Pittsburgh Public Schools used the fair as a field trip, delivering middle schoolers on school buses to explore hands-on activities from the likes of The Andy Warhol Museum, Carnegie Mellon University, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, IAM Robotics, Maker Faire Pittsburgh, Meta Mesh Wireless Communities, TechShop, BirdBrain Technologies and many more including of course, Google.
PPS Superintendent Dr. Anthony Hamlet associated the technology behind the robotics, drones and other innovative ideas on display at the fair with an opportunity to foster an entrepreneurial spirit in young students.
“This might give them a spark of inspiration,” Hamlet said as the sun shone on brightly colored crates dividing the activity stations. “This is what academics is all about.”
Students from The Ellis School in Shadyside demonstrated experiments in coding and design, while Assemble staffers showed kids how to make wearable circuits in the form of LED pins.
Visitors also toured the trailer that houses Carnegie Science Center’s Mobile Fab Lab and worked on a small laser-cut project while the Center for Creativity taught concepts of circuitry and sound manipulation through different synthesizer styles. The Sprout Fund invited kids like Howell to try Social VR to experience 360 images and to make their own meme using HTML.
Back in her science classroom, Howell will learn about Hurricane Matthew and work diligently on her science-fair project. For curious kids like her, trying out inventions such as virtual reality outside Bakery Square is an eye-opening experience that may just grow into a lifelong love of STEM subjects.