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00000176-e6f7-dce8-adff-f6f7707e000090.5 WESA's Life of Learning series focuses on learning and education activities, opportunities and challenges in the Greater Pittsburgh area.This multi-year commitment to providing learning-focused news coverage in southwestern Pennsylvania is made possible by a generous grant from the Grable Foundation.

City of Learning: Recognizing Teens for the Learning They Do Outside of School

Chris Squier
90.5 WESA

Educators are increasingly concerned about kids losing knowledge during the summer. As part of our Life of Learning Initiative, we look at a program that not only helps middle and high schoolers learn during the summer, but also allows them to show off their new skills to colleges and future employers.

On a loading dock behind TechShop in Bakery Square in East Liberty, local artist James Gyreand his four teenage students are sitting in a circle playing hand drums.

Four days prior, these drums existed only as sketches on paper.

Gyre worked with TechShop staff to develop the week-long Drum Makers workshop, which he said teaches kids a wide range of skills.

“You’ve gotta learn two dimensional design," he said. "You’ve gotta have a concept of three-dimensional design. You have to learn a little bit of basic vector work, a little bit of basic machine tooling, and then you get to use the CNC, you get to use the laser, you get to use your hands, and at the end of it you get to play music.”

CNC stands for computer numerical control. It’s a way to automate machine tools using computer programs.

TechShop’s education coordinator, Lizzee Solomon, explained to the students how the machine works.

“This is basically what you made on Adobe Illustrator,” Solomon said as the kids gathered around the computer which controls the CNC, or ShopBot. “It’s transformed into what’s called a tool path. So this machine is using a rotating drill bit to cut through the material.”

The kids in the Drum Makers workshop were introduced to a lot of high-tech concepts and skills, and they have more to show for it than their own hand drums.

As part of its City of Learning initiative, The Sprout Fund is facilitating a program that awards digital badges to the drum makers and kids in 19 other summer camps and workshops throughout Pittsburgh.

Khalif Ali, who manages the program, said people can think of the badges as scouting badges. Instead of living on a vest or a sash, they live online in a student’s virtual “backpack.” Ali said the badges fit into three categories.

“Knowledge is really about what you know as a result of participating in the program,” Ali said. “Skill has to do with your increased capacity to do something as a result of participating in the program. Disposition is really about … the changes that occurred in habits of mind and behavior as a result of your participation in the program.”

TechShop’s Lizzee Solomon said the drum makers will be awarded three different badges.

“They get the CNC maven, drum master, and then they also get maker mindset which is our general badge,” Solomon said. “That’s basically the ability to work independently but also be a team player when you’re working on your idea, not to be proprietary about any ideas you have.”

Ali said the idea for digital badges began last year in Chicago, the flagship City of Learning. Other Cities of Learning include Washington, D.C., Dallas, Los Angeles, and Columbus, Ohio.

“All of these cities are saying we recognize that learning takes place at any time and at any place, and that this is learning that should be not only captured, but recognized,” Ali said.

Many of the badges are tech oriented, but others recognize skills such as leadership, bicycle safety and tree identification.

Ali said it’s particularly important to keep kids engaged in the summer, to make sure they don’t lose the knowledge they gained during the school year.

But 12-year-old Rocco Lazzari said he’s actually finding it easier to learn and solve problems in this kind of an environment.

“It’s really fun,” Lazzari said over the whir of machine tools. “Just trying to overcome the different things you have to do to make the drum actually work. (We have to do) a bunch of math stuff, and I’m not really that good at math, so I feel like it’s going to help me out.

James Gyre said that for some kids, informal learning is simply more helpful than classroom learning.

“I say that as a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University and always had a great education,” Gyre said. “But honestly, if I had come here at 18 and had been around these kinds of tools, and been around this kind of people, and this kind of creative, supportive environment, that would arguably have gotten me further in life, faster.”

The pilot digital badge program ends this month, but Ali said he’d eventually like to see it as a year-round initiative, recognizing that kids can learn anywhere and everywhere, and that Pittsburgh truly is a City of Learning.