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Rec2Tech turns city rec centers into STEM labs for kids

Amanda Waltz
September16/ 2016

Five Citiparks rec centers are temporarily converting into technology-enhanced learning spaces this week for the first Rec2Tech Pittsburgh. The after-school program enables kids to acquire science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills by completing intensive, hands-on projects designed to solve a community challenge.

On Sept. 17, the initiative will end with a big event at Schenley Plaza in Oakland where the public will get a chance to see what the students created.

The program was meant to demonstrate how free after-school programs can help youth in city neighborhoods get a leg up in STEM learning. An estimated 200 city youth between the ages of 7 and 12 took part in activities at participating rec centers, including Ormsby in the South Side, Magee in Greenfield, Warrington in Beltzhoover, Phillips Park in Carrick and Paulson at Lincoln-Lemington in the East End.

“This is definitely not your traditional classroom,” says Sprout Fund community building team member Ani Martinez.

She adds that Rec2Tech introduced students to hands-on, tech-focused activities such as hacking and building websites, creating virtual reality spaces and environments and video game design. One group built a mini-greenhouse using recycled plastic bottles, while another 3D printed an accurate model of the human heart.

The organizations supervising the activities include Sisters e S.T.E.A.M.Citizen Science Lab, Assemble, the YMCA, the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, TechShop Pittsburgh, and Digital Corps.

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Digital Corps at the Warrington Rec Center in Beltzhoover. Image courtesy of the Sprout Fund.

The original Rec2Tech model was started by high-school teacher Andrew Coy of inner-city Baltimore, who wanted to provide his students with more opportunities to engage with technology and maker culture. In 2013, he quit his full-time job and founded the Digital Harbor Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to transforming the city’s abandoned rec centers into spaces for youth tech programs. The organization also launched the Center of Excellence to train others how to incorporate making into their own learning environments.

Rec2Tech Pittsburgh was launched through a partnership between the mayor’s office, the Office of Innovation and Performance, Citiparks and the Sprout Fund. Funding was provided by Comcast, with additional support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

The Sprout Fund coordinated Rec2Tech’s programming along with the Remake Learning Network, a group of more than 250 organizations working to shape the future of teaching and learning in the greater Pittsburgh region.

Rec2Tech Pittsburgh will culminate with a free public Demo Party from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Sept. 17 at Schenley Plaza in Oakland.

“The Demo Party is the capstone event for the entire week,” says Martinez, explaining that participants from all five of the rec centers will be bused in to present their projects.

Demo Party guests can also take part in a myriad of fun and educational activities involving working robots, digital animation, video gaming, screenprinting and much more. There will also be free food, make-and-take crafts and a DJ set. As a bonus, the first 300 kids to arrive will receive a Rec2Tech backpack filled with goodies. The event is free and open to the public.

Amanda Waltz

Amanda Waltz is a freelance journalist and film critic whose work has appeared in The Pittsburgh City Paper, The Syracuse Post-Standard and Pop City. She writes for The Film Stage and is the founder and editor of Steel Cinema, a blog dedicated to covering Pittsburgh film culture. She currently lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and oversized house cat.