In Pittsburgh, A Modern-Day Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood


Kindergarteners at Pittsburgh Allegheny School create their own circuits. Making use of technology as raw material, students take apart toys and reappropriate their components. Educators are working with the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, part of the city's regional learning network that focuses on kids and creativity. Screenshot/ The Sprout Fund.

8.9.12 | In 2007, over coffee at Pamela’s Diner in Pittsburgh, Gregg Behr and Jessica Trybus shared their growing sense of just how different today’s kids are.

Behr was the executive director of the Grable Foundation, which gives to youth-oriented organizations in the Pittsburgh area, and Trybus was an adjunct professor at the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University and CEO of Etcetera Edutainment.

“That first conversation sparked a realization not only that kids are different today, but that we need to work together differently to facilitate their learning,” Behr said.

That first breakfast was followed by another one, and then another and another. Within a year, Behr found he had a loose network of about 200 people. Participants included roboticists, museum designers, gamers, technologists, teachers and artists. It was all the people, Behr said, who were interested in the work of figuring out this “new way of learning.”


Assemble is a community space for kids to experiment with art and technology. Photo/ Assemble.

Today, these people are the Pittsburgh Kids + Creativity Network, an interdisciplinary network of people collaborating and innovating to create learning products and experiences around the nexus of technology, art and media.

“We realized that a networked model in a connected learning community was really the way to go to foster change,” said Cathy Lewis Long, co-founder of the Spark project, which was created with a $900,000 grant from the Grable Foundation to support the Kids + Creativity Network.

Spark was managed by the Sprout Fund, a small-scale grant making organization focusing on civic engagement, digital media, public art and learning, co-founded by Cathy Lewis Long and Matthew Hannigan.

From 2008 to 2011, Spark awarded grants and supported events coming out of the network around digital learning for 2- to 8-year-olds. It sent weekly updates and hosted the occasional meeting. Then, this past spring,  Spark re-launched the network for pre-K to 12th grade, with a more focused strategy and more definite structure in place.

“It had become apparent, there was really a ‘there’ there,” Behr said.

Today the Kids + Creativity Network has a five-prong organizational structure that allows it to function as a network: First, there’s the network of connections between formal and informal learning environments; then innovation, research and development; then learned research and scholarship; and then commercial and entrepreneurial support. The last prong is the “strategic stewardship” provided by Long and Hannigan through Spark.

“We realized that a more intentional strategy and structure associated with these informal collaborations could yield greater benefits,” Long said. “Our role has evolved into a more formal role of steward of the network.”

To poke around the Spark website is to meet hundreds of people from all areas of the digital media and learning, education, and maker worlds. A random perusal will introduce you to Jeff Baron, director of student engagement for the Consortium of Public Education; Mitra Fatollahpour, an education technology designer and researcher who’s currently working with Human Computer Interaction Institute researchers at Carnegie Mellon; Kevin Crowley, director of the University of Pittsburgh Center for Learning in Out-of-School Environments; and Sabrina Haskell, who creates robots “with personality.”

Mister Rogers was just a total geek who wanted to use the technology of his day to engage kids with learning. ... All these people in the network are modern-day Freds.

– Gregg Behr, the Grable Foundation

Network members can find each other’s contact information, see what projects they’ve been involved with, and learn about each other’s affiliations.

The focus on collaboration and bringing people from different backgrounds together has been there since the beginning. Behr still remembers how struck he was by finding himself in early meetings with school superintendents, librarians, videogame designers, science teachers, museum curators, university department heads and members of the maker community. In other words, the network was and is made up of all the different kinds of people who have a stake in figuring out how 21st-century kids learn and what they need to know.

Behr said the interdisciplinary nature of the network led to intense collaboration, not competition.

“When you have a group of people who represent interdisciplinary fields with complementary skill sets, they’re not competitive,” Behr said. For example, a first-grade teacher and a game designer may both be interested in numeracy. “They’re going to say to each other, ‘Let’s build the toy kids can use in your classroom and then take home to learn even more about numbers!’”

For an example of the kind of success the network has been having in a formal learning environment, take the case of the Elizabeth Forward School District in the old industrial section of Pittsburgh. About a year and a half ago, the Elizabeth Forward District superintendent of schools, Bart Rocco, was in a meeting with other superintendents, a representative from the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, and Don Marinelli, former director of the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon. Rocco was so excited by what he heard, he went and met again with Marinelli.


The Makeshop at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. Photo/ Ben Filio.

This was followed with a research trip to places like Quest to Learn in New York City and the YOUmedia digital space at the Harold Washington Library Center in Chicago. The Elizabeth Forward District ended up with two grants, one for transforming an old industrial-model classroom into a YOUmedia-styled space and another for converting the library to resemble the YOUmedia room in Chicago.

“The Elizabeth Forward School District is a very unlikely place for the future to be taking hold,” Behr said. “And yet look what’s happening there.”

As for informal learning environments, there’s the Makeshop at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. That grew out of a retreat when the museum’s executive director, Jane Werner, met Carnegie Mellon’s Jesse Schell, who also runs Schell Games. Taking advantage of other nodes in the network— the Technology Center and Research Unit at the University of Pittsburgh, to be specific—the museum designed Makeshop in an attempt to unite digital media and learning and do-it-yourself (DIY) cultures. It’s one of the network’s biggest success stories. Kids can pop in and use recycled materials to build a cityscape, or learn how to DJ with Hip Hop On L.O.C.K., an arts education and mentoring program, the brainchild of another network member, Emmai Alaquiva.


Reefbot. Photo/ Joey Kennedy.

Or take Reefbot, a yellow swimming robot that can be dropped into fish tanks at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PBG Aquarium. The robot, as well as the software and the controls, were a collaboration between Scott Morland at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon and Ashley Kidd from the museum and aquarium.

Or there’s Assemble, a community space for kids and youth to learn about art and technology in a hands-on, inquiry-based way. It was founded by network member Nina Marie Barbuto—who is also involved in Click! Spy School, a Girls, Math & Science Partnership project spearheaded by multimedia artist Heather Mallak that helps teenage girls explore careers in science, math, engineering and technology. The girls complete experiments and interact with mentors at local companies and universities.

So while the network remains a network of connections and ideas, projects like Assemble or the Makeshop give kids a physical space to learn and create. And the connections between the people in the network seem nearly endless.

Behr said the work from the network isn’t that different than what came from Fred Rogers, host of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” who was a former Pittsburgh resident himself. In fact, the Fred Rogers Center at St. Vincent’s College is also involved with the network, driving the early childhood research.

“In the 1950s,” Behr said, “Mister Rogers was just a total geek who wanted to use the technology of his day to engage kids with learning. The newfangled technology then was television, and he co-opted it and made it interesting for kids. All these people in the network are modern-day Freds.”

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