Building as Learning at the Children's Museum's MAKESHOP

by Lisa Brahms and Peter Wardrip

The Learning and Research Department at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh is composed of a small team of researchers and practitioners who are working in collaboration with the University of Pittsburgh Center for Learning in Out- of-School Environments (UPCLOSE) to meaningfully change the face of informal learning here in Pittsburgh as well as on a national level. The focus of much of our research and practice is on “making” as a learning process.

Making is a process involving learning through inventing, tinkering, and building that exists at the crossroads and fringes of disciplines such as science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics. Many schools and informal learning environments— such as museums and libraries—are investing in making by designing programs, activities, and exhibits that encourage children’s engagement with physical and digital materials, tools, and processes as learning experiences. Making has been hailed by the White House for its potential to encourage youths to become interested and engaged in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education, which can serve as a pathway to STEM-related careers, and for the wellspring of political and economic rebirth making has brought about.

The Children’s Museum has its own program and exhibit for children and families dedicated to making—often referred to as a “makerspace”—called MAKESHOP, a collaborative project with Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center and UPCLOSE. MAKESHOP’s dedicated facilitation team, with expertise in the areas of digital media, sewing, flexible materials, electronics, woodworking, and informal learning, helps visiting children and families to translate their visions into tangible products.

Opened in 2011, MAKESHOP also serves as a laboratory for the informal learning community and, as such, has established the Children’s Museum as a national leader in advancing efforts to support understanding around making. Through a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), MAKESHOP has identified a set of learning practices of making to help guide future designs and track shifts in engagement: inquire, tinker, seek and share resources, hack and repurpose, express intention, develop fluency, and combine and complexify.

The museum also is collaborating with IMLS to develop a national framework to support learning in other museum and library makerspaces. And, together with UPCLOSE and Pitt’s Learning Research and Development Center, the Children’s Museum cohosted and organized the first ma jor meeting of making researchers from across the country in July 2014. These efforts will guide practitioners in the design of new spaces and programs.

In addition to furthering the conversation around making with regard to museums and libraries, the Children’s Museum is working with an array of schools and social service organizations. Through a new grant from IMLS, we are working with ACTION-Housing, Inc., a Southwestern Pennsylvania-based nonprofit, to design, implement, and research a makerspace in a housing unit serving youths who have aged out of the foster care system. In cooperation with the crowdfunding site Kickstarter, Inc., we also are piloting an effort to nationally scale making in schools—supporting 10 schools in Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia to raise funds to create school-based makerspaces—as making gains momentum as an educational innovation within both informal and formal settings of learning.

Lisa Brahms (PhD ’13) is director of learning and research at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh and an UPCLOSE visiting researcher. Peter Wardrip (PhD ’14) is Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh learning scientist and UPCLOSE visiting researcher.