People at the Heart of Technology and Innovation

No one knew quite what to expect as we gathered on Saturday morning in the plaza outside the Children’s Museum to start our volunteer shift at Maker Faire Pittsburgh. I had been to previous Maker Faires, and seen the 3D printers and frisbee-throwing robots, but this was leaps and bounds larger than previous years. There were life-sized R2D2 robots, baseball bats with data-logging sensors, air cannons, and Tesla-coil music machines. What the 13 of us from Sewickley Academy ultimately found was a fascinating introduction to the amazingly creative, passionate, and diverse community that makes Pittsburgh an innovation hub for the national maker movement.

We soon put on our “volunteer aprons” and started to find ways to contribute to the Faire. Consistent with the maker ethos, there was no volunteer manual to follow. We had to find our own jobs, which we did! I want to give a special thank you to everyone who came out to volunteer: Nicholas, Erin, Bennett, Sofia, Peter, Saverio, Betsy, Georgia, Eli, Nikki, Mrs. Callaghan, and Mrs. Sanborne!

Each of us found something during the day that fascinated us. My favorite ideas and exhibitors included animators using string-less puppeteering, a combined 3D printer and laser etcher, and a teenage-only radio channel. Scroll down to see more about these, which are all local Pittsburgh companies and institutions.

When I asked our students what their favorite booths were, each of them talked about something highly technical, such as the new 3D printers, drones designed by teenagers, electric go-karts assembled for under $500, and of course the chance to drive an FRC robot with Steel City Robotics. The technology, after all, was highly visible and very cool.

Our students were certainly interested in these cutting-edge technological demonstrations and found them pretty amazing, but their eyes didn’t light up until I asked them what their favorite jobs were. Then, they talked about helping people find the makers they had come to the Faire to see, or delivering water and safety goggles to the maker booths, or registering families as they entered the Faire.

Then there were the three students who, as soon as we finished our lunch break, asked if they could go back to a booth from before lunch to continue working. “I left some projects unfinished with the kids there and need to get back.”

The maker station that these students were so eager to get back to was the Fine Arts Miracles booth. This not-for-profit organization offers “classes for those faced with life’s challenges, whether physical, intellectual, emotional or circumstantial, who want the freedom to explore their creativity in a safe and fun environment.” Their booth was covered with scissors, glue sticks, tape, and tubs of cardboard, buttons, feathers, and other found objects, which participants used to make fanciful art robots. Our students were helping younger children – and a few older ones – turn these everyday materials into their own visions of what robots should look like. DSCN6044

It was no wonder it captured our students’ attention – and affection – because they love working with people, they love being creative, and they love watching other people get excited about what they are creating. This was one of the most hands-on booths in the Faire, as well as being one of the “lowest-tech” and the most crowded.

So while I left with some fantastic ideas about new projects and new technologies, the greatest take-away from the day for me was seeing how passionately engaged our students are when they combine being creative with working alongside other people. This is a great reminder to me about why we incorporate technology and innovation into our curriculum. It is not just to teach students how to develop the next amazing app or robot or line of code. We incorporate technology and innovation because these are ways that today’s students engage in the world, how they think about interactions between people, and how they get a start on making a difference in other people’s lives – even if just for a few hours on a Saturday at the Maker Faire.

You can see the whole line-up of makers online, but here are my other favorite take-aways.

1) Dranimate from the Art Fab group at Carnegie Mellon University School of Art. They make digital animations using a gesture sensor! At the Faire, children drew pictures and they turned them into digital puppets on the spot.

2) Boxzy from Kinetigear LLC is a modular milling, laser etching, and 3D printing machine. It’s made in Pittsburgh and is designed to be far more affordable for schools and hobbyists than three separate machines. It’s also being used by professionals like Kerf device cases.

3) I walked inside the Carnegie Science Center’s Fab Lab for the first time. After reading about it, and the world wide network of Fab Labs, it was great to see it in action.  

4) The staff from Youth Express was there broadcasting on their radio channel. After talking for ten minutes, their executive director and I were talking about when our SA Middle School podcasting students could have their own show! Here’s their piece from the Faire itself.

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