Pittsburgh: Forging a 21st Century Learning Community

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Editors' Note: As Richard Culatta explains in his EDUCAUSE Review article "From Innovation Clusters to Datapalooza: Accelerating Innovation in Educational Technology," the U.S. Department of Education seeks to identify forward-thinking regions where commercial, academic, and education partners have come together to form an innovation cluster focusing on a specific challenge that their region is uniquely suited to address and solve. One such partnership — Pittsburgh's Education Innovation Cluster — is described below.

Downtown Pittsburgh at dusk / photo: Rob Long, 2012 [Flickr]
Downtown Pittsburgh at dusk / photo: Rob Long, 2012


The Greater Pittsburgh Region is a 21st century model of a creative, collaborative, and connected community committed to creating remarkable learning experiences for children and youth that enhance achievement in science, technology, and the arts.

Researchers, university labs, cultural institutions, and child-serving agencies are working across disciplines to forge dynamic partnerships with educators and administrators of public, private, charter, and virtual school systems, civic leaders, and the burgeoning entrepreneurial private sector focused on technology and media.

With millions of dollars invested, thousands of children and youth engaged, hundreds of dedicated practitioners active in dozens of organizations, and a thriving ecosystem to support and sustain this work, Pittsburgh's approach has yielded tangible results for children, youth, and the community at large.

"Today, new pioneers — gamers, roboticists, technologists, and designers — are working alongside educators in and out of schools to inspire and provoke creativity and curiosity among children and youth in the Pittsburgh region."

—Gregg Behr, Executive Director, The Grable Foundation, Pittsburgh, PA

Cluster in Action

Working at the intersection of many disciplines, Pittsburgh's Education Innovation Cluster designs and implements projects, programs, and activities that make engaging use of technology and digital media tools, empowering children and youth to discover and pursue their passions by connecting their learning, interests, and achievements — both in and out of schools, and among peer groups and families.

Extending Learning Opportunities in Informal and Formal Settings

In Pittsburgh, educators both in and outside of schools are incorporating arts and interactivity with STEM learning to educate the next generation of STEM professionals and informed citizens.

At the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, museum educators like Mary Ann Steiner are extending the impact of onsite museum programming through new virtual tools like the Digital Discovery Room, an online portal for nature exploration that lets children use Gigapan imagery of local parks to identify flora, fauna, and geological features they observe on field trips.

The museum partnered with the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy and the CREATE Lab at Carnegie Mellon to extend the museum learning experience by putting digital tools in the hands of children, equipping them to be budding citizen scientists.

Inspiring Creativity and Raising the Next Generation of Makers

Pittsburgh is home to an emerging community of Do-It-Yourself (DIY) makers, tinkerers, inventors, and innovators of all ages. In and out of schools, makers combine physical and digital skills from science and engineering, technology and media, crafting, and the arts to learn how to work together to reshape the world around them.

MAKESHOP is a space for hands-on building and tinkering with old and new technologies, exciting projects and cutting-edge media and is the newest permanent exhibit at The Children's Museum of Pittsburgh. Working alongside crafters, hackers, and inventors, kids in the MAKESHOP can toy around with materials like wood, textiles, and electronics and learn creative processes like animation and printmaking.

Developed in partnership with Carnegie Mellon's Entertainment Technology Center and the University of Pittsburgh Center for Learning in Out-of-School Environments (UPCLOSE), MAKESHOP benefits from ongoing stewardship from museum director Jane Werner and learning scientists like research fellow Lisa Brahms.

Connecting Student Interests with Opportunities for Creative Learning

Good games, like good learning experiences, motivate players to achieve mastery. By scaffolding gaming tropes like peer competition, quest-based challenges, and ongoing merit-based rewards with clear goals for learning, games create opportunities for children and youth to connect their interests with academic success.

At the Elizabeth Forward School District just outside of Pittsburgh, teachers and administrators are applying the principles of gaming to create a more interactive classroom environment. In partnership with Carnegie Mellon's Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) and educational gaming firm Zulama, educators at Elizabeth Forward High School developed the Entertainment Technology Academy, a 21st century classroom where students study the history and application of gaming, and then design and program their own educational apps and video games.

Leveraging Pittsburgh's Leadership in Robotics

Pittsburgh is a leading center for research, development, and commercialization of robotics and computer science technologies. Innovations in these fields have found application in community settings and consumer products designed to enhance children's learning, creativity, and development.

The CREATE Lab at Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute works to further human-robot interaction on a broad, community-based level, proving that technology education is not the province of a few, but an accessible body of knowledge, tools, and skills that can empower everyone.

CREATE Lab Artist in Residence Jeremy Boyle collaborated with Pittsburgh Public Schools kindergarten teacher Melissa Butler to develop the Children's Innovation Project, a classroom program that introduces students grades K–2 to the origins of digital technology in simple circuitry. Using circuit kits specially designed for young hands, children hack and remix familiar electronic devices and toys and reappropriate them for new expressions.

Pittsburgh as a Learning Innovation Ecosystem

Elements of Pittsburgh's Education Innovation Ecosystem [Flickr]

With more than 60 organizations and over 100 active participants, the Education Innovation Cluster in Pittsburgh takes the form of a collaborative, creative, and connected learning ecosystem.

Five key areas are linked: formal and informal learning environments, innovation research and development, learning research and scholarship, entrepreneurial support and commercial interest, and strategic stewardship.

Education innovation is "sparked" at the edge — where sectors intersect.

Formal and Informal Learning Environments

In the Pittsburgh region, schools are open and receptive to new ideas and teachers are eager to apply new learning strategies in their classrooms. Outside of schools, regional institutions actively seek out and implement innovative programming to enhance and extend opportunities for lifelong learning.

  • The Allegheny Intermediate Unit (an affiliate of the PA Department of Education) supports educators in 67 school districts across four counties through STEAM grants for innovation in the classroom and through TransformED, a digital playground for teachers' professional development.
  • The Carnegie Museums, encompassing the Carnegie Museum of Art, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Carnegie Science Center, and the Andy Warhol Museum, are committed to energizing their approach to out-of-school learning opportunities.
  • The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh (CLP) is a public library system comprising 19 branch locations. Free to the people since 1895, CLP is transforming the role of the library in the community with services, programs, and facilities incorporating 21st century technology.
  • The Children's Museum provides innovative museum experiences that inspire joy, creativity and curiosity. It is a place that delights and inspires children to take off on fantastic flights of imagination daily, and return to earth to splash in a river, hammer a nail, and ink a silkscreen.

Innovation Research and Development

Pittsburgh is home to a remarkable cadre of scientists, inventors, and educators working at the leading edge of innovation. In particular, Carnegie Mellon University, a leading private research university with global influence, is a nexus for innovation across a variety of fields applicable to education innovation.

  • The Entertainment Technology Center is a globally recognized leader combining technology and fine arts to create new processes, tools, and visions for storytelling, entertainment, and learning experiences. Notable projects include principal design for YouMedia space at Chicago Public Library.
  • The Robotics Institute translates advanced research into community benefits through Robotics Academy and CREATE Lab in virtual and hands-on programs that engage kids in learning math, science, and arts.

Learning Research and Scholarship

Research centers are actively evaluating the outcomes of new approaches to learning being deployed in local schools and educational environments.

  • The Learning Research and Development Center (LRDC) at University of Pittsburgh conceptualizes, supports, and assesses education innovation through initiatives like the Activation Lab, which measures how informal and formal learning can activate children's passion for science, technology, and the arts.
  • The Fred Rogers Center at St. Vincent College advances the fields of early learning and children's media by acting as a catalyst for communication, collaboration, and creative change. The Fred Rogers Early Career Fellows program supports rising and aspiring technologists, media producers, educators, artists, and researchers in the creation of innovative, developmentally appropriate, media-based products.

Entrepreneurial Support and Commercial Interest

Pittsburgh's entrepreneurial community is largely an out-growth of innovations first launched in the region's universities and research centers. High-tech startups and spinouts find a supportive network in the region.

  • The Pittsburgh Technology Council connects companies from four primary sectors of the technology industry that are represented by a critical mass of businesses in southwestern Pennsylvania including advanced manufacturing/materials, green technology, information technology, and life sciences.
  • Idea Foundry is a home for innovative ideas on their way to becoming new enterprises. Providing funding, guidance, and technical assistance to technology firms just starting out, Idea Foundry has invested more than $1 million in its Children's & Education Technology Portfolio of 11 companies whose products can be found in more than 100 school districts across 45 states and seven countries.

Strategic Stewardship

What began as an informal and organic movement has rapidly developed to reflect a shared vision among the region's leading civic, commercial, cultural, and academic stakeholders.

  • The Sprout Fund serves as a leader and connector of the many spokes of the cluster. Sprout provides catalytic funding support for new ideas and initiatives, enhances knowledge sharing through network services, and amplifies the voice of the network through storytelling and promotion.
  • Pittsburgh's philanthropic community has aligned behind efforts to develop a regional model for 21st century education. With a cumulative investment of nearly $20 million in children and youth programming since 2005, Pittsburgh's leading philanthropies, such as The Grable Foundation, The Buhl Foundation, Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, The Pittsburgh Foundation, and others, share a commitment to advancing learning and creativity in the region.

Background and History

Drawn together by a shared purpose, learning innovators in Pittsburgh have worked under the banner of "Kids+Creativity" to improve opportunities for children and youth to live, learn, and play. Supported by deep commitments from The Grable Foundation and other funders, and more recently through the strategic stewardship of The Sprout Fund, this interdisciplinary working group has been meeting, exchanging ideas, and collaborating for more than five years.