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This Month’s Learning Innovation: MACS tackles etextiles

They’re sewing. And they’re programming something on the computer. Wait, they’re also discussing circuitry and electricity. These fourth graders at Manchester Academic Charter School in Pittsburgh’s Manchester neighborhood are combining all of these very different activities – and in the process creating T-shirts that seemingly magically light up and make sounds.

What they’re also doing is participating in a STEAM activity – combining elements of science, technology, engineering, arts and math into something that’s easily understandable, and for fourth graders – lots of fun. The students in Lauren Javens’ fourth grade class are working with “etextiles,” fabrics that enable digital components and electronics to be embedded in them – in this case, sewn on with conductive thread. Then, the students can go to their computers, use a simple program and create shirts that light up and even play music.

In the process, they’re learning a multitude of skills – computer programming, the basics of electricity and circuitry, even sewing – and seeing real life applications and imagining the possibilities.

Manchester Academic Charter School is one of three schools that are benefiting from the talents of Melissa Unger, the STEAM consultant for the South Fayette School District. As part of a Grable Foundation grant, Melissa comes to three different schools equipped with all kinds of STEAM activities and teaching computational thinking like Scratch and WeDo Robotics and environmental sustainability. She can be found at South Fayette, Ft. Cherry in southwestern Pennsylvania, and at MACS here in the city, working with the teachers on providing fun – and educational STEAM projects.

“We try to come up with projects that give the students the chance to try out these different disciplines in creative ways, “ Melissa explains.

Here at MACS, Melissa works closely with Lauren and art teacher Anne Batyko. Lauren explains that her students have just completed a unit on “electricity where they learned about simple circuits, parallel circuits and series circuits and also a little bit of computer programming, so this is kind of like a big project that ties it all together.

“They love it,” Lauren continues. “I think the most important thing about projects like this is that it just sparks a lot of interest. Not a lot of fourth graders have experience or have been exposed to computer programming, or using circuitry other than getting a light bulb to connect. So when they see it in real world applications like this it really makes them think, oh, maybe I want to be an electrical engineer when I grow up, maybe this is really a career that I should explore more. So I think that’s the biggest thing with these projects. It really sparks a lot of interest.”

Melissa, who visits three very different schools in her travels as the STEAM consultant, explains that “Etextiles is a project designed to teach computational thinking, circuitry, a little bit of programming for the students and gives them the opportunity to design shirts that light up and are programming in the way they want them to be.

“We use t-shirts because they allow the students to use their creativity and practice circuitry, which they’re already learning, then have a wearable object at the end of the unit that they can actually show off their programming skills with.”

Melissa explains that the schools she visits share a similar vision. MACS is an urban school, Fort Cherry School District is a rural district near McDonald, and South Fayette is suburban, but all “the students and teachers share the same enthusiasm and passion for STEAM learning.”

The fourth graders at MACS love the project. “I think it’s really important to start in the fourth grade,” says Lauren. “They’re nine and ten, they haven’t ruled out any careers right now, they’re still very much interested in everything. They are still very much sponges where they pick everything up. So when they see what we’re doing in class and read about it and use hands-on materials and then get to connect it to make a project like this, it just sparks so much more interest. It makes the learning authentic.”

And this really takes learning to a new level. “It gives our students the opportunity to learn about computers and computer programming; it’s also really great for girls especially to get them more involved in programming and design elements,” Melissa sums up.

“This is going to help the students in the future because they’re already being exposed to computer programming concepts and design concepts that they can then use later on in their education.”

(and for a basic etextiles explanation) wikipedia.org/wiki/E-textiles/

Maker Corps allows artist to share passion for making

By Seth Gamson, Assemble Intern

Fabienne Hudson was one year out of CMU’s School of Art when she joined Maker Corps. With a background in photography, painting, and printmaking, she had the qualifications and passion of a maker. As she looked for a path as an artist she came across Maker Corps, and her involvement would soon become her avenue “to express my love for creating with others, while simultaneously learning from others as well.”

Fabienne has had trouble reconciling that her art can seem like a “self serving or lonely process” with her desire to participate and truly give to something greater than herself. Luckily for Fabienne, she was able to find a way to put into practice her trade and her desire to give back.

Through Maker Corps, Fabienne has been working at Assemble, the community space for Art and Technology in Garfield. She is a core member, running summer camp programs for ages 6 to 13. With Assemble, she has also worked at various events, promoting Assemble’s STEAM learning principles and working with children to give them creations of their own from innovative media. She has found her work to be “rewarding and enlightening” as she has taught and learned from young makers.


Having fun making things out of found objects -- like this sunflower -- is a young student at Assemble, the Maker space in Garfield.

At the opening of “The Wonder of Learning, the Hundred Languages of Children,” the Reggio Emilia, Italy exhibit on display now at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center through November 15, are Steering Committee Members Allison Stevens, intern, left, and Cindy Popovich, University of Pittsburgh faculty member.

Environmental Charter School encourages talented “thinkers” in the school’s innovative Thinking Lab. Leading the way are educators Rose Papa, left, and Stephanie DeLuca.

Makers from all over the region attended a recent Maker Ed Meet Up session organized by the Sprout Fund at CMU’s Hunt Library.

Saturday Light Brigade encourages even the youngest children to explore their creative sides by recording audio cards. (Photo courtesy Saturday Light Brigade.)

Assemble’s recent Rainbow Party was a big success.

WQED Cameraman “extraordinaire” Paul Ruggieri hard at work at a recent shoot for WQED’s Remake Learning segments.

Learning about color, light and especially rainbows were these Makers at the recent assemble Rainbow Party.

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