Making School New

[I’ve been part of the Remake Learning Network in Pittsburgh for over seven years. It’s amazing to see how this ecosystem has grown and become a rich resource for educators of all sorts. At school districts like Avonworth, Elizabeth Forward, and South Fayette, it’s a collaboration that brings together the arts, with design thinking, and project-based learning. Suzie Boss in this article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review does an excellent job chronicling the growth of the network and the impact on learners.]

Suzie Boss, Summer 2016

Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

On a typical school day in the Elizabeth Forward School District, which covers parts of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, students engage in learning activities that are anything but typical for public education. Elementary students visit a mobile fabrication lab, where they use laser cutters and other tools to turn raw ideas into prototype objects. Middle school students learn math and language arts by using motion-capture technology and whole-body movement to control a giant computer screen that is projected onto their classroom floor. High school students create 3D animations and tackle college-level programming challenges in a special classroom that they have dubbed the Gaming Academy.

That these futuristic educational experiences are taking place in a small district that borders Pittsburgh—a city known for its “steel town” past—is especially surprising. But those experiences are “symbolic of how Pittsburgh has transformed as a region,” says Bart Rocco, superintendent of the district. “This is a Rust Belt community that needed to change or die.” Since 2008, his district has gone through a reinvention. Back then, it was losing enrollment to charter schools and online academies, and it had a high dropout rate. Today teachers and students at Elizabeth Forward schools regularly partner with cognitive scientists, game designers, and tech entrepreneurs to design state-of-the-art projects. Partly as a result, enrollment in the district has stabilized, and the dropout rate has plummeted.

Similar stories are unfolding across the greater Pittsburgh region as Remake Learning—a loosely organized innovation network—brings together disparate groups to reinvent education. By pursuing a new model for how, where, and when learning happens, participants in the network give formerly disengaged young people compelling reasons to connect with schools, museums, libraries, and other institutions. The network traces its origins to 2006, and today its membership includes more than 250 organizations and about 2,000 individuals.

Remake Learning efforts have helped bring national support and recognition to the Pittsburgh region and its schools. In 2013, the MacArthur Foundation awarded the city $500,000 to join Chicago and New York City in creating a “hive learning network” to support nontraditional youth programming. In 2014, Pittsburgh became the first US city to win the Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Award. The same year, the Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools honored three districts in the region. (Elizabeth Forward was one of the three.)

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