A New Form of Cluster Development Emerges in Pittsburgh Centered on Kids and Innovation

11.13.2012 | An innovative example of cluster development is underway in Pittsburgh (aka Kidsburgh). But unlike more traditional cluster development, such as “eds and meds” or high-tech manufacturing, that focus on sparking new industry, this cluster is banking on the future by sparking and feeding the curiosity of future innovators–kids.

As SproutFund’s Ryan Coon writes in Educause, Pittsburgh’s “education innovation” cluster is joining the rich cultural, educational, and entrepreneurial resources in the metro area to create a hive of learning and exploration in science, technology, engineering, and the arts:

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.

While most metros have a rich set of cultural, civic, and R&D institutions that enrich urban living. they seldom come together in a unified, strategic way to coordinate their programming. Even fewer coordinate their programming to foster a new generation of innovators and technologists. This is not a new problem, as regional planners have learned.

Take St. Louis. It had a strong base of  world-class scientists in medical and plant biosciences. But, as Richard Culatta, the deputy director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education, writing also in Educause, notes,

The region was not always as successful at translating that research into practical application. The expertise that already existed in the region mostly comprised independent services, isolated research efforts, and siloed commercial ventures. Regional leaders recognized the opportunity to accelerate the commercialization of bioscience innovation and to capture the economic benefit of the region’s research base. They realized that if they could treat these independent projects as a coordinated effort, they could accelerate the pace of innovation.”

Pittsburgh is taking those lessons seriously. Rather than each organization creating its own programming and hoping kids will magically see the connections between, say, the Children’s Museum exhibit on robotics, an afterschool program on tinkering with circuitry, and an algebra class, the groups work together under the banner of Spark: Kids+ Creativity Network to coordinate their programming and build on each other’s resources. They are in essence stitching together a seamless set of creative, educational, and cultural “learning ecosystem” in the metro area.

Two examples are a collaboration between the Elizabeth Forward School District and Carnegie Mellon and a gaming firm, Zulama; and CREATE Lab and the city’s public schools. As Coon describes:

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.

The CREATE Lab at Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute works to further human-robot interaction on a broad, community-based level…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.

Culatta sees the future of education in this new mix.

Today, basic research in learning science is often disconnected from the practical implementation of products and services. Acquisition processes can make it difficult for new tools and approaches to be deployed in educational institutions, and limited infrastructure can stifle broad adoption. Yet developing cross-disciplinary partnerships to create an intentionally integrated innovation ecosystem could help remove the barriers that slow innovation in learning technologies.

The entrepreneurial and commercial partners in the effort include The Pittsburgh Technology Council, which connects companies from four primary sectors of the technology industry in southwestern Pennsylvania, including advanced manufacturing/materials, green technology, information technology, and life sciences. It also includes the Idea Foundry, a home for innovative ideas on their way to becoming new enterprises.

Other partners include the Learning Research and Development Center at University of Pittsburgh  and the Fred Rogers Center at St. Vincent’s College, the Entertainment Technology Center, the Robotics Institute, the Children’s Museum, the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, the Carnegie Museums  and the  Allegheny Intermediate Unit, an affiliate of the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

With all the “moving parts,” an education innovation cluster can quickly become akin to herding cats. That’s why Coon notes the importance of stewardship. The Sprout Fund serves as a leader and connector and provides catalytic funding support for new ideas and initiatives. The Pittsburgh area philanthropic community is also deeply involved, with a cumulative investment of nearly $20 million in children and youth programming since 2005.

This idea is not unique to Pittsburgh. The MacArthur Foundation in Chicago is investing in this kind of collaboration, calling them Hive Learning Networks. In New York City, for example, the Hive Learning Network was started in 2007, and is now supported by the Mozilla Foundation. In Chicago, a Hive began in 2009 with support from MacArthur and is now hosted by DePaul University. Both are based on the assumption that in today’s interconnected, tech-centered world, school is not nor should be the sole source of education in a community. Pittsburgh has recently joined the Hive network as well.

For more on Pittsburgh, see www.sparkpgh.org

Also: here’s a great video of the types of projects and collaborators involved. Love “reef-bot”! 

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