Over last few years, I’ve watched with interest (and some jealousy) as Remake Learning Pittsburgh has unlocked the capacity of the entire city to support learning for children. Remake Learning is a 10-year-old network with 533 member organizations all sharing a common mission, metrics of success, and beliefs about how we educate for today’s world. I thought we might have a few things to learn from them, so four weeks ago, a delegation of 14 people flew to Pittsburgh from Fremont Unified School District, Mission Valley ROP, Alameda County Library, and the City of Fremont. In three days, we visited three school districts, the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum, the Carnegie Library, two makerspaces, and the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, a national model for arts education, apprenticeship training, and out-of-school learning,

The trip was full of inspiration and ideas that we would like to bring to Fremont. Here are some tangible take-aways from our journey through Pittsburgh’s maker network:

Figure 1. Dr. Wallace learning about block programming from second graders.

It starts with “Why?”

As Gregg Behr tells the story, Remake Learning started with a simple observation from teachers, librarians, museum educators, youth workers, and others: “I’m not connecting with kids the way that I used to.” Digging into this, they found that “youth in the digital age are pursuing knowledge differently, developing their identities and interests differently, and seeking support differently.” The community they created has, over the span of 10 years, evolved into a network “that ignites engaging, relevant, and equitable learning practices in support of young people navigating rapid social and technological change.” That’s the network’s goal. Each of the network members had slightly more nuanced goals stemming off this foundation.

Todd Keruskin’s goal at the Elizabeth Forward School District was to help kids learn creative problem-solving and STEM skills. Aileen Owen at South Fayette wanted to “embed the design problem-solving process into the K-12 curriculum and to empower students to be the innovators of tomorrow.” The Pittsburgh Children’s Museum believes making things creates rich and powerful learning experiences, so they created a maker space to enable and study this process. The Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild is a living testament to the idea that world-class facilities, mentoring, and expectations can change outcomes for everyone. TransformED’s mission is to enable teachers in its 40 member districts to incorporate hands-on projects and creative problem solving into their classrooms.

While each organization had its own reasons, they are all based on the belief that the process of making leads to powerful learning opportunities about not just school subjects, but also life after school. This deeper learning about one’s own ability to shape the world around them prepares students for careers and adult life.

Start small and dream big (as applied to space, tools & projects).

When walking into the South Fayette FabLab and seeing its hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment, it’s hard to believe that the lab started small. The Pittsburgh Children’s Museum’s makerspace started in a small garage, then gradually grew into the 5,000-square-foot space that greets visitors when they enter the museum. Elizabeth Forward’s space started with some bright paint (never underestimate the impact of bright paint) and a declaration.

Each place that we visited seemed to have started with a “little bet” — a low-cost and low-resource experiment to see what would happen. In fact, South Fayette explicitly uses “little bets” as a framework for how they experiment. They even have an after-school incubator where they try out new ideas before moving them into the classroom.

Fremont actually has many “little bets” created by MVROP and irrepressible teachers across the district. But we don’t have (yet) an organized system to learn from them.

Figure 2. Superintendent Bart Rocco explaining the green room where, using free software, students can make movies about their subjects that are superimposed over related pictures and videos.

The power of leadership

Each stop seemed to demonstrate the power of leadership. Jane Werner of the Museum, Bart Rocco and Todd Keruskin of Elizabeth Forward, Bille Rondinelli and Aileen Owens at South Fayette, and Dave Deily at the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild all set powerful and inspiring visions for where they wanted to go, then invited others to contribute to and take part in the vision. They explained WHY their proposed changes were important to children and invited their respective communities to contribute to their vision.

Figure 3. Two ninth-grade girls explaining the submersible they built for an underwater competition.

The power of the network

It seemed as though each organization in the network had carved out its own role in the broader goal of “igniting engaging, relevant, and equitable learning practices.” The Children’s Museum studied why and how hands-on projects can create powerful learning experiences and frameworks that made it easy for other organizations to get started. The Carnegie Library focused on after-school time with a badging program, dedicated team space, and kits that teens can check out for button making, digital imaging and dozens of other topics. The schools adapted their practices, schedules, assessments, and language to support hands-on projects during the day. The Manchester Craftsman’s Guild offered fine arts programs and job training programs. TransformED offered kits and professional development training so that teachers could learn to do hands-on projects in their own classrooms. Overall, the effect of the network was to create an ecosystem in which children were surrounded by opportunities to explore and own their personal learning journeys.

It’s easy to be intimidated when seeing a 10-year-old network with 533 members that creates an entire ecosystem services for children. But as many people in Pittsburgh told us, it didn’t start that way. It started with a small group of people around a pancake breakfast trying to solve a problem. On our trip, the Alameda County Library, MVROP, the City of Fremont’s Parks and Recreation and the Fremont Education Foundation all came back with partnership ideas and a vision of what success would look like.  We have what we need to get started.  We just need to create our own little bets and the process to learn from them.