Capturing Creativity

I remember a high school principal challenging me one day when I told him you can “teach creativity.” He didn’t believe me. In the last ten years educators have realized that you can both teach and assess creativity. Two Pittsburgh educators, Melissa Unger and Anna V. Blake, have captured their personal findings in their new book, Capturing Creativity, to share with fellow educators, parents and higher education programs 20 easy ways to bring low-tech STEAM into the classroom.


I’ve been quite fortunate to see some of the work done by Melissa Unger in person. We began working together ten years as part of grant through the Grable Foundation. I served as a consultant for the South Fayette School District. Melissa was hired by the South Fayette School District to work with students in three environments – urban (Manchester Academic Charter School), suburban (South Fayette), and rural (Fort Cherry) – to deliver a program around computational thinking, Habits of Mind, and project-based learning. The program had been conceptualized by Aileen Owens and the administrative team for the South Fayette School District and now the challenge was to see how this approach could impact a diverse group of students in very different environments. Needless to say the program proved quite successful and Melissa carried on her work becoming an elementary STEAM teacher for South Fayette.


For seven years I joined the South Fayette team to expand the impact of the program to other schools and educators through a Summer Institute. In my role I helped to document the workshops through photographs and to evaluate the success of the program through surveys. My greatest fun was always visiting Melissa’s class. It was obvious that teachers were enjoying themselves. You could see it in the faces of the teachers. They were collaborating in ways many of them had not experienced since they were children. When we looked at the ratings, Melissa always had 100% success. Every educator who participated found something that they could take back to their classroom and use successfully. I know this was the case, since we did follow-up surveys to determine how people were able to use what they learned.

Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

I can guarantee that you too will have the same kind of success as the educators and students who have worked with both Melissa and Anna. Like South Fayette, the Elizabeth Forward South District has become a national leader in Maker Education. Anna is one of the keys for the school district’s success. I also had many chances to visit Elizabeth Forward over the past ten years and observe teachers and kids working together to creatively solve problems.


What connects Anna and Melissa is a framework that was developed by Harvard University, Agency by Design (AbD). In the Prologue to the book, Peter Wardrip and Jeff Evancho, share the framework and the key values for the project:

  • Curiosity
  • Collaboration
  • Problem-solving
  • Persistence
  • Creativity

In everything I’ve observed Anna and Melissa successfully address these values. Today Anna and Melissa continue to work with the Agency by Design team. They are some of the educators who have had great success developing a STEAM program that works and makes an impact on all students. AbD has added an element of research looking at that question that was thrown at me years ago: how do you know that you are making a difference for learners? How do you assess creativity?


During the recent COVID period when so many schools struggled with hands-on activities for kids, Anna and Melissa took their ideas and created a virtual program, “Pittsburgh STEAM Station.” They invited other educators to join them. Today they have a free resource that includes great lessons from 26 educators representing 19 different schools and districts.

The book is divided into chapters with interviews of fellow educators. The chapter on Curiosity includes one of my colleagues from my days as the Coordinator of Educational Technology for the Fox Chapel Area School District, Stan Strzempek. Stan is a great example of how Maker education has transformed educators. Stan took a traditional computer classroom and redesigned it as a Maker space, the Collaboratory. Stan, like Melissa and Anna, uses commonly found objects. Two of his successful projects are in the book, a parachute design challenge (pp 45-46) and a bubble wand activity (pp 47-48).


In their book Anna and Melissa have not only provided simple and successful examples of STEAM projects, they have outlined the materials you need, the steps to follow, extension activities, and a QR code to the STEAM Station episode that provides a visual representation of the lesson. This is definitely one book that educators, parents, and higher education professionals working with pre-service teachers will want to add to their library.

Low Cost, High Tech to Address Digital Equity

The 2020-21 school year created many challenges for all school systems around the world. The Consortium for Schools Networking (CoSN) published a report as a response to the challenge of digital equity during the COVID period. The complete Edtech Next report is only available for CoSN members (great reason to join CoSN). I serve as the co-chair for CoSN’s Emerging Technologies Committee and I helped to gather many of the resources in the report. For this article, I’ll share some of the highlights that might help you as you look for proven strategies that are cost-worthy.

The report clustered the strategies into four areas:

  • Digital Equity Starts with Connectivity
  • Digital Equity via Virtual Teaching
  • Digital Equity via Technology-Enabled Assessment
  • Digital Equity via The Internet of Things (IoT)

For each cluster I’ll highlight projects that have demonstrated how low cost, but high tech solutions can address digital equity.

Connectivity: Communities as Early Adopters

Some school districts and communities have used the COVID challenge to examine new ways to bring Internet connectivity to all of their users. New technologies like Wireless Mesh Networks (WMS) or Citizens Band Radio Services (CBRS) have been used around the country. Why? Schools realized that it was less expensive over the long-haul to create their own networks rather than try to provide wireless access points or other kinds of connectivity to address the digital equity issue.

In the Pittsburgh area, Kris Hupp, the Director of Technology and Instructional Innovation for the Cornell School District, took a lead role. He realized in the early days of remote learning during the COVID period that many of his students were not connected. Kris began by providing 1:1 devices using CARES funding. He connected with Carnegie Mellon University who then linked Kris and his community to a regional initiative – Every1Online that enlisted a rural partner, the New Kensington-Arnold School District, and three schools that are part of the Pittsburgh Public School System. The project taps into the state-wide fiber backbone provided by the Keystone initiative for Network-based Education and Research (KINBER) and uses the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning as a broadcast tower to each community. Everyone1Online provides free access via 50/25 mbs connections to connecting families. After the year-long pilot, districts will have the option to purchase affordable connectivity for students through an arrangement with another partner – Meta Mesh. As Kris points out, “My hope is that, through Every1online, I will have a solution for our families–just like breakfast and school lunches, if we have a hungry kid, we’ll feed them. And if we have a kid who needs Internet, we can provide Every1online.”

The Fresno Unified School District (FUSD) in California, like Cornell, discovered that many of its students were without service to their homes. Fresno decided to create its own solution rather than partnering with any other entities. FUSD opted to create its own LTE CBRS network with partners Net Synch and NOKIA to overcome the inequities it faced. The project is expected to go fully operational in Fall 2021. FUSD decided to use its own buildings as part of the linking chain. On building roofs FUSD mounted antennas and tripods to send signals throughout the district. Dr. Phil Neufield, the Executive Officer for Technology, has led the charge. According to Phi, “We’ve got to push carriers to change the baseline. Changing the game under the ground with fiber, changes the game in the sky and in homes.”

Virtual Teaching: OnRamp – A Regional Virtual Professional Development Initiative

Early during the COVID period of remote learning the Allegheny Intermediate Unit (AIU), one of 29 regional agencies in the state of Pennsylvania that provides services to K-12 schools, realized that educators and parents needed training and support. According to Kevin Conner, the Curriculum and Instructional Technology leader at the AIU, “Tech isn’t useful until it’s useful to you. You have that light bulb but no one can turn it on but you.” Conner and his teammates at the AIU started a series of Zoom online sessions that reached out beyond the AIU to other IUs. By May, 2020 they had reached out to over 10,000 teachers throughout the state. The AIU partnered with local providers, non-profits, and universities to offer a variety of courses. Sessions were based on the notion that peer-to-peer instruction would best turn on the light bulb. The AIU partnered with the Friday Institute at North Carolina State University to create a dynamic interconnected framework for the online instruction. The project tapped into existing resources and provided grant opportunities for educators to share their expertise.

Technology-Enabled Assessment: Highline School District

Rebecca Kim, Executive Director for Teaching, Learning, and Leaders in the Highline Public Schools (HPS), explained how her district looks at equity, “We are looking at Proficiency through the lens of Growth and Mastery. We celebrate growth…Our focus is on acceleration, not remediation which is a deficit approach.” Highline discovered that its years of curriculum development had set in motion a great approach to meet the challenges of COVID and remote instruction. HPS’s acceleration model stemmed from rigorous grade-level content development using a guaranteed and viable curriculum. Instructional supports included individual and small-group core-instruction support, home-learning resources, and family supports. The district turned to four formative online tools that the District already was using to deliver instruction during the COVID period: Zoom for daily instruction and attendance monitoring; Screencastify for asynchronous instruction; Seesaw for its elementary students; and Google Classroom for secondary students.

Internet of Things: Remote Robotics

Birdbrain Technologies, a spin-off company from the CREATE Lab at Carnegie-Mellon University, discerned quickly that its physical computing solutions, the Hummingbird Kit and the Finch Robot, needed to find a new way deliver instruction for remote learners. Tom Lauwers, the CEO and founder of Birdbrain, worked with his team and they discovered Netsblox, a free visual programming tool developed a number of years ago at Vanderbilt University. Netsblox provided a link between remote Internet enabled devices and users on the Internet. Soon Tom and his team had a number of pilot projects up and running at no cost for remote users. Erin Whitaker at Sewickley Academy, developed her Robot Dance Party Project using the Hummingbird Kits she had. She had her students remotely use Google Drawing to design their robots and then Erin constructed the robots based on their collaborative designs. Erin created the Netsblox code so each team could control their robots. The students used YouTube to view their creations. At each point she found an existing resource that required no additional costs.

At Seneca Valley School District Eric Fogle wanted to engage all 600 of his middle school technology education students. He set up 12 robots around four themes: Moving Masterpieces, Musicians, Carnivals, and Animals. The middle school students used Microsoft Teams to work on their coding and designs. The project engaged the students in coding, collaborative design, and computational thinking with no additional cost for the Eric’s class since they already owned the Hummingbird Robotics Kit and had Microsoft subscriptions for students and teachers. As Tom Lauwers explains, “Teachers need enthusiasm and interest, not necessarily experience in robotics or CS, to get started.”

Key Takeaways

The CoSN Edtech Next Report highlights the following points to remember:

  • Create Change via Networking, Partnerships, and Grant Opportunities
  • Invest in Buy-In Time
  • Do Your Homework. Leverage Your Influences
  • Build Sufficient Support Networks
  • Evaluate Costs/Benefits Relatively

Engaging Learners in a COVID World

Usually I base my stories on what other educators are doing. However, this winter I had a chance to teach an Osher course for Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). I really wanted to test out some of my ideas about engaging learners during this period of remote learning. In this blog article I’ll share some of my successes as well as many of my failed attempts working with senior adults.

Before the sessions began I decided to create a survey to find out what my class knew about tools for engagement and what they hoped to learn in the class. For any type of learning it’s important to assess your learner’s and customize your learning activities based on the interests of your students. I also decided before the class started to test out some features of Zoom. One of the best ways to engage people in addition to the Chat Room is the Poll feature. When I tried to create a poll for my first class with Ani Martinez and Jason Swanson to look at the Tomorrow Project powered by Remake Learning, I found the polling feature didn’t function for me. I thought: maybe I’m missing something. I’ll contact CMU. Well, guess what? CMU disabled the feature for study leaders, their term for instructors of Osher classes. They suggested I send them my questions. I didn’t like that idea. It would be cumbersome and difficult to do each week. I thought about other online sessions I had joined and remembered a few years ago one of my colleagues used an online tool called Mentimeter. I thought: I’ll create my own polls and pose them during the class.

At the end of our first class Ani Martinez suggested that we save the Chat discussion. I never had done that, but I agreed it made perfect sense. Guess what CMU had done? Yes, they eliminated the ability to share any comments. Why? I asked but never really received an answer. It would have been a wonderful tool for engaging the class at our next session, but I had to think about another way to handle the challenge. I asked my teaching assistant, Bev, to write down the key ideas that people shared and sent them to me as an email file. It worked. Not as seamless as just saving the Chat conversation, but it proved again how you sometimes have to pivot in ways you don’t expect when you teach online.

It was easy to create a Word Cloud activity in Mentimeter, but when I went to have my class access the poll for my first class, it didn’t work. They couldn’t see where to enter information. I used the opportunity to talk about how we learn from our mistakes. I decided I would search for another polling tool. Were there some other challenges for that first class? Yes, of course. Jason Swanson wanted to show a video, but that didn’t work. Fortunately, he had planned for an interactive activity using Padlet. It had been years since I used this online tool. I never would have thought about it for an online class activity. It worked quite well.

The senior adults in my class quickly entered their ideas for the activity that Jason had developed around the Futures Triangle. Jason spends most of his time working for KnowledgeWorks as a Futurist. He’s not a prognosticator, but a person who analyzes the past, the present and the future by looking at major trends. The Osher class added their comments online and then Jason shared the Padlet board with the class. It engaged everyone and provided a wonderful first step for the class to look at the future of learning – one of my goals.

Tom Lauwers, the founder and CEO of Birdbrain Technologies, joined the class for Week 2: Remote Robotics. Tom and his team at Birdbrain struggled in the early days of COVID. How did you engage learners in Physical Computing when students don’t have access to robots at home? After doing some research Tom realized that there was a tool, Netblox, developed by Vanderbilt years before the pandemic that would allow remote users to control physical devices. It was an Internet of Things (IoA) solution. Tom then had to work with his team to make the Hummingbird Kit and Finch robot work with Netsblox. That was an easy challenge. For my class Tom highlighted two pilot projects using Remote Robotics from the Pittsburgh area and then set the stage for my Osher students to control a series of Finch Robots from their remote sites. The Osher students would manipulate some variables using Finchblox, a Scratch-like programming language that Birdbrain created.

Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

While some of the students had great success, others floundered. Adult learners are not as open to new ideas and working in a digital playground. That was my key take-away from Session 2. You need to have more guided instruction. I should have remembered that from my days training teachers. However, the Osher students enjoyed their experience and we discovered another way to be engaged learners. I also observed how important “feedback” was for student success. Tom Lauwer’s did an excellent job observing how the students tested out ideas about moving the Finch. For any learning experience, especially for an online activity, immediate feedback is critical.

For Week 3 I invited Stephen MacIsaac, the executive director of the Neighborhood Learning Alliance (NLA) in Pittsburgh, to bring a team of students to talk about the World of Virtual Learning and Work. NLA had created a pre-COVID a program, High School U, that combined taking college classes in high school with job placements related to the courses that the students were taking. A local group. Partners4Work, helped to fund the project. What was unique about the High School U program was the opportunity to get paid for time in class as well as time on the job. In the original model NLA tried to place students with work partners that related to the student’s college classes. How can you do that during a time of Remote Learning? How do you keep students engaged as both content learners and workers? Stephen invited Deb Smallman, the NLA coordinator for the High School U program, to join him and share the High School U success story during COVID with my Osher class. Deb sent out the word and four students and one tutor joined us. My Osher class first heard from Deb about NLA’s pivot, but it was the student stories that really made a difference for the class. I learned a great lesson – always include personal stories. Building relationships are key for any learning and especially in remote learning you have to find creative ways for people to relate to each other.

I also discovered another tool for engagement for the session with the High School U students. During an earlier online event I had attended one of the presenters used Slido. I discovered that Slido had an AddOn™ app that was designed to work with Google Slides. That solved my earlier problem with Mentimeter. Slido made it easy to project a poll and then have my students see the results.

For our fourth session I turned to Jessica Lee to look at virtual art, especially music, as a tool for engaging learners. Jessica and I had worked together on a number of projects in the past five years, especially a series of Design Challenges for the Energy Innovation Center. However, Jessica had a personal interest in using Music as a tool for Wellness, or what Jess calls “A Healthy Body, Healthy Voice, Healthy Life.” Jessica not only entertained the class with wonderful exercises such as doing mouth percussion, “Za, Za Zoom,” but she also provided wonderful guidance around developing a Life Performance Lifestyle. The class didn’t need any slides to be engaged. It was more fun to actively participate in the exercises and hear Jess outline what she’s discovered teaching music online during this COVID period. It’s not easy to teach music remotely, since you cannot have people sing in real time. Zoom and all of its competitors have a sound delay that challenges any in-person music collaboration. However, as Jess pointed out, you can still use the same tools for one-on-one teaching and as my class demonstrated be very engaged by music. Social and emotional learning are keys for learning success. The arts are a wonderful tool to use to provide for new opportunities with social and emotional learning.

Justin Aglio, a colleague who just took over the leadership for the Penn State Readiness Institute in Pittsburgh, provided another lesson- don’t expect Internet connections to work in remote locations outside of your home. Justin thought he could create a hot spot for himself at the senior care facility where he was in the process of moving his father. The connection did not allow for a robust enough connection to make a Zoom session work. Fortunately, I remembered one of the key mantras for distance learning – always have a Plan B and Plan C. Justin sent his slide deck to me ahead of the class. That proved to be the key ingredient for sharing Justin’s story. I know I couldn’t be an animated and engaging as Justin, but since I knew Justin’s story and had his slide deck I was able to make his story come alive, especially getting my class engaged thinking about a Growth Mindset and participating in the Hope Moonshot that Justin had organized for the Readiness Institute.

Engaging learners requires us to think beyond today, but it’s critical to have real world connections. The Readiness Institute is designed to provide learners with connections to the community and business to make that real world connection.

I’ve always believed that in order to achieve “Deeper Learning” you need to apply what you’ve learned. In order to demonstrate to my class what a “capstone” project might look like, I created a movie for my class. This article is another example of how to process what you’ve learned.

My final session brought the pieces together. Justin Aglio joined the class and responded to people’s Hopes. He also explained that he’s had over 30 countries submit responses and some countries, like Ecuador, are thinking about a national campaign around the Hope Moonshot. Most of my Osher students shared their Personal Stories. They found the class rewarding and gave them new ideas for their Lifelong Learning. All of the projects were very anthropocentric, looking at a variety of needs for people ranging from veterans to educators with learning challenges to kids with cancer.