The Teachers’ Innovation Project

In Melissa Butler’s kindergarten classroom at Pittsburgh Allegheny, an elementary school on the city’s north side, 5-year-olds are learning about simple circuits and electricity.

The children examine the circuit parts, take them apart carefully, and notice each component. They sketch the technology from different angles. They discuss what they see with their teachers and their friends.

This classroom is part of a unique partnership called the Children’s Innovation Project, which will be expanding this school year to become the Teachers’ Innovation Project—a partnership between the Fred Rogers Center, Carnegie Mellon University, Carlow University, Clarion University, Pittsburgh Public Schools, and the Sprout Fund.

“As opposed to children just using technology to explore, we want them to be producers of technology,” Butler said, “and create their own circuits and take apart toys and re-appropriate their components for new expression.”

The project was started by Butler and Jeremy Boyle, an assistant professor of art at Clarion University. In 2010, when Boyle was a resident artist with Carnegie Mellon’s CREATE Lab, he developed simple circuit blocks for use in K−3 classrooms as an effort to explore meaningful technology education with young children.

We’re interested in persistence, and struggle over time. We’re interested in ideas around collaboration and conceptual thinking.

Butler and Boyle wanted to understand how technology could be a vehicle for innovative pedagogy. They wondered what kind of learning the exploration of technology, as raw material, could facilitate in a classroom.

“We focus on principles of learning,” Butler said. “So we’re interested in persistence, and struggle over time. We’re interested in ideas around collaboration and conceptual thinking.”

Their work since has taken off. In five years, the project has grown from one kindergarten classroom to 10 classrooms across three grade levels. This school year, with support from The Grable Foundation, the project will expand to an additional school, with plans to grow to four schools within the Pittsburgh Public Schools in the coming years. With the additional resources, the project also plans to increase emphasis on teacher professional development, teacher leadership, and teacher evaluation.

Graduate teaching fellows from Carlow University work with elementary school teachers once a week to design lessons and to figure out how to best present the technology in the classrooms. Butler and Boyle will also teach a class on CIP to the graduate students. ASSET, a national nonprofit that aims to improve STEM education, will document teachers’ responses. Researchers from the Fred Rogers Center and partnering universities will also use video to highlight and document exemplary teaching practice.

The new funding will also facilitate monthly teacher-led professional development sessions. Consistent with the Fred Rogers Center’s Junlei Li’s work on the Something Worth Giving project—which aims to capture and amplify high-quality, everyday interactions between adults and kids—these sessions will give teachers a space to reflect on the use of technology and their everyday teaching practice. This space, Butler said, is often missing in schools today.

“If we can create a space where teachers are able to collectively notice more about children’s learning (what children are doing and saying),” she said, “then teachers will be able to see more in what children are doing, saying and knowing, ask new kinds of questions [and] arrange different kinds of open-ended experiences.”

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