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.

Sparking the Innovators of Today and the Future

More and more schools are turning to student-centered learning that incorporates some type of making, designing, creating, or tinkering. Both in-school and out-of-school activities have found great success using this type of approach. Here in Pittsburgh the YMCA as well as programs like the Energy Innovation Center Design Challenges provide opportunities for young people to solve real-world problems using innovative strategies under the guise of experts.

The YMCA offered during the summer of 2016 a week-long camp for learners ages 9-14 at the headquarters of the international organization, DDI.  The learners were divided into three teams. The teams worked on projects involving wearables, robotics, and aquaponics. For both the students and the learners it was a time to be “vulnerable” – to take risks and trying out new ideas. According to Amy Liston from DDI, “This was the most fun I ever had at work.”

Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

At the Energy Innovation Center (EIC)  high school students from Parkway West Career and Technology (PWCTC)  schools have been working on solving real world problems as consultants. The consulting teams present their work to a panel of experts – professionals who work in areas related to the Design Challenge. For the 2016-2107 school year the first round of Design Challenges focus on issues of Sustainability. Students from the Montour and Quaker Valley School Districts are tacking the problems of designing a sustainable food distribution system. As part of the challenge the students are looking at three related issues: growth of food; marketing/sales of food; and the distribution/transportation of food. The Driving Question becomes: How can schools contribute to a sustainable food distribution system. In Phase 1 of the problem the students will look at how each of the twelve schools in the PWCTC consortium can grow, market/sell, and distribute the necessary foods for the PWCTC Culinary Arts program’s restaurant. For Phase 2 the students will look at a more regional opportunity to market/sell and distribute food to the Community Kitchen, a non-profit agency located in the EIC, that provides meals to schools, non-profits, and businesses in the Pittsburgh region.

A second team of students will tackle another issue of sustainability: designing and developing an educational sustainable community on the campus of PWCTC. The Career and Technology Center has close to sixty acres of undeveloped land. The student consulting team from the Chartiers Valley School District, South Fayette School District, and PWCTC will probe into the necessary zoning, building, infrastructure, and design to sustain a community of learners. The students will develop a Master Plan for the project given the name “Green Acres” by Darby Copeland, the superintendent for PWCTC.

Key to both the YMCA and the EIC programs are a focus on solving real-world problems using professional experts to help guide and evaluate student work. The students through their innovative work demonstrate essential skills, such as collaboration, persistence, and risk-taking.

Designing Learning Spaces for Innovation

[The idea of Redesigning Learning Spaces is happening in libraries, K-12 schools, and higher education. In this Campus Technology article two universities are highlighted. In both cases it’s a classic case of designing spaces that empower learners to make, tinker, play, and create.]

By David Raths


USC’s “Garage” space features flexible classrooms, maker facilities and spaces for collaboration. (photo courtesy of USC / D. Quistorf)


Susan Metros vividly remembers the blank slate that would become the “Garage,” a new learning space for the University of Southern California‘s Iovine and Young Academy for Arts, Technology and the Business of Innovation. In 2013, entrepreneurs Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre (aka Andre Young) had given $70 million to create a unique undergraduate program that promotes new kinds of learning through cross-disciplinary and hands-on discovery, in a fully immersive and collaborative learning space. The space for the new program, on the fourth floor of the Ronald Tutor Campus Center, was completely undeveloped.

“I remember going to a meeting and there was no electricity,” said Metros, associate dean of the academy. “We really got to start from scratch.” The space was an open canvas for innovation, yet the timeline was aggressive — with only three months for design and five months for construction.

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