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.

“Making” Change at Y-Creator Space

[Many times the most creative approaches to learning occur in after or out-of-school programs. Three sites for the YMCA in Pittsburgh have tapped into human-centered design to challenge young people to not only “make” items, but to solve problems in their communities. Here’s an article from Remake Learning that highlights a creative use of eTextiles to solve a transportation issue. I have visited two of the sites and observed the kids at work. They tackle the challenges with enthusiasm and creativity.]

Written by Natalie Orenstein on November 12, 2015

Photo by Norton Gusky CC 4.0

Photo by Norton Gusky CC 4.0

Last year, a group of kids in Pittsburgh set about making cycling safer—and more stylish. With a sewing machine and a lesson in circuitry, the pre-teens created a shirt that lights up and changes color depending on how fast you ride your bike.

The young designers were participants in Y-Creator Space (YCS), an afterschool program that serves low-income youth at three Pittsburgh locations. The mission of YCS is to teachhuman-centered design using science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Kids create prototypes and then build products that solve a problem or hurdle that a person or a community faces—thus the “human centered” tag.

At first glance, YCS might appear a lot like other local programs—Assemble or MAKESHOP—that emphasize creativity and hands-on learning. “But we’re different from a makerspace in that we’re very purposeful,” said Nic Jaramillo, YCS director since its start in 2011. At YCS, the goal is less open-ended tinkering and more tangible application of ideas and creativity. The kids are always making something—whether that’s the playful wearable technology or an aquaponics system that encourages healthy eating.

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