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Learning outside the classroom

Katie Salvi
January30/ 2014

Connections and collaboration

There are many exceptional creative and educational spaces in Pittsburgh outside of schools. There are venues where open areas inspire connections and collaborations. And there are sites that are dedicated to improving children’s learning experience by emphasizing such qualities as classroom orientation, natural light, acoustics, color, mood, temperature and green energy. Whether it’s a maker space, community center, workshop, a mix of these or none-of-the-above, the role the environment plays in a student’s education is crucial – and can be inspirational.

ASSEMBLE: a space for all ages

Assemble, in Garfield, “is a safe space for people to come and experiment with their ideas,” says Nina Marie Barbuto, the founder and director. “This is a space for all ages. We invite kids to come and create, try new things, new technologies, and more. We also invite grownups … to try, play, test, etc.”

Assemble was built on the understanding that learning is dynamic, and the space should be dynamic too. Barbuto and her crew transform the space constantly.

“As an architect, I feel space always affects how we as humans work and play and create,” she says. “The environment is part of the experience. That environment could be static, unchanging, and feeling like a prison or it can be dynamic and approachable to all people. If the space is not welcoming, kids won’t open up to trust the teachers and the information being presented to them. So, the environment can enhance or hinder.”

Assemble’s Scratch Class teach kids how to program their own interactive stories, games and animations, and share them with the online community. M3 Workshops for Kids (Materials, Media, & Me), offered weekly, uses a different artist or technologist to introduce a material (metal, paper, fabric, found materials, electronics or paint), show kids how to use the material, and lead them through a project that each child can take home at the end.

A monthly gallery show features a new artist/maker/technologist, with an interactive, experiential component to the opening, including an artist talk or workshop.

Inspired by David Kelley of IDEO, the design consulting firm, and Rudolf Steiner, the philosopher and architect behind the Waldorf schools, Barbuto places great importance on how kids will learn from their environments as well as through hands-on making.

And there is another reason space is important, says Barbuto – It helps create an atmosphere of respect. “Respect yourself, your peers, and your space,” she says. “This in turn helps others to take ownership of the space.”

All of Assemble’s classes, workshops, and events are focused on 21st Century learning skills and STEAM principles (science, technology, engineering, art, and math). Ani Martinez, program associate for The Sprout Fund , who is involved with their new Remake Learning Digital Corps, (a network of out-of-school time educators working to promote digital literacy), also stresses the impact that the design of the physical educational space can have on children.

“Architecture is pretty magical. Remember the school-house? Imagine it: The school house, with the gauze of time over it, represents a microcosm of life … memories, isolated from the rest of life as a child. Even the adults you interact with are different. The clubhouse is another example of this. Maker spaces function much this way. Assemble is really special; it’s not part of any institution, and that gives it a lot of privilege, and a lot of responsibility to the neighborhood. Assemble captures young people’s attention and distracts them into doing and learning.”


The Irma Freeman Center for Imagination is an example of the place itself becoming an ever-changing source of learning – in this case, about green approaches to life.

Sheila Ali and Brett Boye, the co-founders, purchased two vacant buildings on Penn Avenue in Garfield in 2008. They had a vision of establishing a unique arts and green energy community center in an environmentally sustainable building.

Ali,  the executive director, spent about six months creating the 25 by 20 foot mosaic out of broken mirrors, tile and industrial colored glass on the building’s façade, spelling out the center’s name.

“I chose to name this a center to be for the imagination so that anything is possible,” Ali says. “We are always looking for new ways to use our space, and we love to host unique events and classes that invite people from all walks of life. I believe that there is an artist in everyone, and that every child can achieve greatness, given the opportunity.”

The mosaic is only one of many distinctive features of the space. Originally a garage, rim shop and then used furniture store, it was renovated by Boye, the CEO and director of operations, using green resources and recycled materials when possible. He installed solar panels on the roof, radiant heat under the floor, a roof garden, a large rain barrel and soy-based insulation behind the walls and ceiling. Ali says the muse for the space came from Earthships, off-the-grid structures that are completely sustainable, such as the Earthship Biotecture in Taos, New Mexico.

A wall made by Boye in the entrance of the space, using the bottoms of glass bottles, is an enchanting honey-comb of serene color. The sunlight filters through it as if it were stained glass. Inside, there are exceptional acoustics and an impressive, circular floor mosaic. It is a multi-purpose area used for many activities, from yoga, a kid’s art workshop and an impromptu play to gallery exhibitions, drum classes and more. Another gallery space, a small art reference library, a kitchen, an office, and an educational center and workshop round out the Freeman Center.

Classes and events are the Miniature Worlds summer camp, where kids construct their own universe using cardboard, paper-mache, paint, sticks, stones, and other found objects, and Pinhole Photography where children create their own pinhole cameras and learn basic darkroom photography.


Located in East Liberty’s Bakery Square, TechShop is a community-based blend of DIY workshop, a fabrication studio, learning center and hackerspace.

The TechShop philosophy is learning by doing, and “nothing puts you in that mind-state more than being surrounded by other makers,” says Les Gies, senior account manager.

“The layout of TechShop reflects our concept of open access,” Gies says. The 16,000-plus square feet of space is surrounded by glass windows, allowing for plenty of natural light. The vibrant colors of the shop walls make it clear that this is not your typical work environment. Windows throughout the interior of the shop provide a full view of other makers at work, emphasizing a culture of collaboration and openness. The facility features laser cutters, plastics and electronics labs, a machine shop, a wood shop, a metal working shop, a textiles department, welding stations and a waterjet cutter.

Kids can get in on the Techshop action. “We offer many classes for children aged 12 years and older,” Gies says. “Our classes teach children to how to use TechShop’s tools, software and equipment. Students can learn a wide variety of skills including 3D printing, sewing, soldering, welding and much, much moreWe also offer private workshops for groups of children, such as classroom field trips or club meetings.

“Hands-on experiences – such as constructing paper air rockets or laser-etching personal water bottles – open up new possibilities to children,” he adds. “Our team is also in the planning stages for TechShop Pittsburgh’s first official summer camp, with sessions beginning in summer 2014.”

Members pay a monthly or annual fee for the use of the design software, tools, and equipment (after completing TechShop’s safety and basic use classes). And you don’t need to be a member to take a class or learn a new skill. “Dream Consultants” are there to help with any of the equipment or give advice on projects.

Walking into this space, located inside the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, you instinctively want to roll up your sleeves and put together (or take apart) something amazing.

MAKESHOP is designed exactly like a true workshop. The story of how things are made is illustrated by the metal, wood and other elements used to build MAKESHOP. Unpolished wood floors, counter tops and doors, and metal with exposed fasteners translate to an informal, unfinished, DIY atmosphere. Large, wooden worktables and a vast array of materials are there for children to use in an open-ended, exploratory way.

Kids use recycled toys, cardboard, wood, and fabric to weave into rugs, or other creations. Using both old and new technologies from circuitry and animation tools to sewing and woodworking, kids can learn to make their ideas come to life or challenge themselves to think in inventive ways.

MAKESHOP projects range from making a “bot” out of a cup, wires and battery to weaving, soldering, animation and board game making. A child might take apart a small appliance or recycled toy and repurpose it into something all his own. It’s all about involving a child in a genuine experience using real materials and tools.

Explains Lisa Brahms, the museum’s director of learning and research: “The design of the space, the ways in which the tools, materials and equipment are positioned in the space is very intentional, designed to encourage families to work together, to engage in conversations about their process, to rekindle and share memories.”

Photographs courtesy the venues.

Katie Salvi