How Do Pittsburgh-Area Schools Incorporate Maker Spaces? It Depends On The Money

Sep 22, 2017

About 10 miles south of Pittsburgh, a construction crew in Bridgeville is finishing the tech wing of the new Chartiers Valley High School.

The space has the traditional components of a shop class with welding and woodworking stations. There are also robotics classrooms, 3D printers and laser cutters.

When the $80 million building project is complete, the high school will surround a space where students will design, build and tinker every day. That was an intentional decision made by the building committee,  made up of teachers and architects.  

“The age of stuffing the shop as far away from the core and academic classes, that model has been broken. We built it around the shop,” said Mark McAleer, technology teacher and chair of the department.

McAleer refers to the space as an advanced manufacturing lab where students will learn to program machines to do what humans used to do on an assembly line.

The tech wing of the new Chartiers Valley High School features a robotics classroom as well as more traditional spaces like welding and woodworking.
Credit Sarah Schneider / 90.5 WESA

With the help of new technology, making in the classroom has dramatically increased in popularity in the last decade. In the Pittsburgh region, that’s in part because of a push from a large regional network, Remake Learning.

Ten years ago, Remake Learning got its start when a group of teachers, philanthropists and technologists began meeting informally over pancakes at Pamela’s in the Strip District with the goal of rethinking methods of instruction to keep up with evolving careers.

“We don’t know what [this evolution] looks like, but we do know it’s going to take a set of cross-sector conversations and activities and new ideas and innovations to emerge to start to paint the picture for what learning should look like. And then how do we think of scaling that?” said Remake Learning director Anne Sekula.

Some of the teachers felt they weren’t engaging students. They wanted to support creativity and equip students with skills that standardized testing didn’t value, what they thought would be essential for future jobs.

They wanted a network where they could share what works.

Remake Learning has now expanded to 130 school systems. The network facilitates meetup groups and showcases the work of districts through its website and social media.

One of the pushes from the network has been design-centered or maker learning. According to Remake Learning, network members in the last 10 years have built 170 maker spaces for students to tinker and create in.

At Hopewell Junior High School, north of Pittsburgh, it took nearly three years to weave making into the curriculum. Teachers are expected to use elements in their classrooms and every student takes a class called “Innovate Ed,” where they make something almost every day. The STEAM room – Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Math – replaced the home economics classroom.

One class spent a day researching artist Jackson Pollock, who was known for a drip-style of painting. The next day, the class programmed robots to wheel through paint, splashing streaks across a page.

Hopewell assistant principal Jessica Webster says making in school can sometimes feel like chasing the latest trend.

“I think the difference isn’t to create just to create or to use technology just to use technology, but how are you intentionally embedding these activities so that it relates to the curriculum,” Webster said.

Educators point to the research showing that hands-on learning improves outcomes and engagement when defending their maker spaces.

How a district incorporates making looks different from school to school. That’s often because of money. Chartiers Valley was able to build a new school and center around a state-of-the-art tech facility. Chartiers teachers have applied for grants, but other schools like Hopewell have had to find more modest ways to embed tech and rely on crowdfunding.  

Sekula with Remake Learning said the network is aware of the opportunity gap between wealthy, suburban districts and schools in more impoverished neighborhoods.

At the 10-year anniversary celebration of the network, a new mission statement was released with an emphasis on equity.

The mission statement reads, “Based on national and regional research, this means particular attention is paid to working alongside, as well as uplifting and supporting the voices, strength, and potential of: learners in poverty, learners of color; learners in rural areas; girls in STEM; and learners with exceptionalities.”

WESA also receives funding from the Grable Foundation, which supports Remake Learning.