Our city has become a center of the national maker movement
June 18, 2015 12:00 AM
President Obama speaksat TechShop Pittsburgh.
By Gregg Behr and Linda Lane
Last year, the maker movement hit the mainstream with the first White House Maker Faire. A 17-foot-tall giraffe named Russell meandered on the White House lawn, a 3D printer created a pancake displaying President Barack Obama’s face and visitors played piano on a keyboard made of bananas. The maker movement, which celebrates a do-it-yourself ethos of hands-on learning and creation, was front and center in the national spotlight.
This year, the White House is celebrating a nationwide explosion of maker activities this week with a Week of Making. It coincides with the National Maker Faire in Washington, D.C., where makers from around the nation take part in an educational extravaganza along with federal agencies, among them the Department of Education and NASA. A centerpiece of the fair will be the release of the Remake Learning Playbook, a fundamentally new way to look at education in the United States that is being spearheaded by Pittsburgh’s Sprout Fund.
The Maker Faire might be headquartered in Washington, but walk around Pittsburgh and it seems like every week is a week of making. During the last five years, a burgeoning maker culture has spread across the city. From entrepreneurs collaborating in community maker-spaces to kids hammering away in libraries, Pittsburgh has become a national focal point of the movement. Plus, a group of the city’s most influential leaders called the Remake Learning Council have come together to lead the national conversation on making and innovation.
While the contemporary notion of making has some new facets, making is part of the city’s DNA. In the 1800s, the steel, oil and glass industries sprang up from the hard work of men and women who engineered an industrial economy. Today’s makers are carrying on that spirit with new ideas, cutting-edge technology and a get-it-done attitude.
For example, with support from Carnegie Mellon University’s Project Olympus and startup accelerator AlphaLab, CMU graduates Hahna Alexander and Matt Stanton launched SolePower, which manufactures power-generating shoe insoles that can charge a cell phone. SolePower recently represented Pittsburgh at the White House’s Global Entrepreneurs Event.
Pittsburgh’s many community maker spaces act as hubs for creators like Ms. Alexander and Mr. Stanton. At Hack Pittsburgh, members have built electronic musical instruments called theremins and learned to program with Arduino microcontrollers for electronic devices.
In 2014, Mr. Obama visited another of Pittsburgh’s maker spaces, TechShop, 16,000 square feet of workshops filled with tools, equipment and software. TechShop’s Bakery Square location is one of eight around the country where members can use 3D printers, laser cutters and more.
This democratization of tools, spaces and skills is part of why the Obama administration and others have become interested in leveraging the maker movement to help fuel the economy. Maker spaces like the ones in Pittsburgh make it easier for people to follow their entrepreneurial inclinations, learn modern design and fabrication skills, and bring ideas to life. As TechShop member Elliot Kahn told Mr. Obama when he visited, “We’re at a point where a person can have an idea at breakfast and a prototype by lunch.”
Our city is home to a web of making opportunities that are raising the next generation of Pittsburgh makers. The Children’s Museum’s MAKESHOP, created with CMU and the University of Pittsburgh, has become a national model for family maker-spaces since opening in 2011.
Meanwhile, at a community arts space called Assemble, tweens and teens are building circuits, sewing electronic textiles and learning about robots from local experts at “Learning Parties” and “Saturday Crafternoons.”
Last summer, at the Millvale Community Library, kids built a unicycle and sewed tote bags with pockets that light up. One 9-year-old donated his action figures to be used as players on a painted foosball table the kids built from wood.
Pittsburgh Public Schools have infused making into their teaching culture and day-to-day learning. Perry High School was one of 28 public schools that recently received a STEAM grant from the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, Chevron, the Benedum Foundation and The Grable Foundation. The school will use the grant for a new Maker Space Lab complete with a CNC milling machine, 3D printers and 3D modeling software. The district plans to integrate the new equipment into the curriculum for students to stretch their critical-thinking, problem-solving and communication skills and learn to work like innovators and engineers.
With grant support from The Grable Foundation and the Fund for Excellence, Schiller Middle School and Lincoln and Woolslair elementary schools will launch new project-based programs in the fall.
Giving kids and adults the tools to transform themselves from technology consumers to creators may someday help them make whatever they choose. Whether it is a giraffe, a shoe generator, a new company or an idea we cannot yet imagine, empowering people to make gives them the chance to be part of the innovation economy.
During Pittsburgh’s week of making, we hope residents are reveling in the resources the city’s expanding maker community has to offer. And if people don’t wrap up what they’re making by Friday? In Pittsburgh there’s always next week, too.
Gregg Behr is executive director of The Grable Foundation and co-chair of the Remake Learning Council. Linda Lane is superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools and a member ofthe council.
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