Summers are a special time for learning. As soon as school is out,  Summer Learning Campaigns start up and droves of young people get busy with all sorts of hands-on learning. And even though summer seems like a long way off with all the cold and slush sticking around, Maker Corps’ return to Pittsburgh is just one extra reason to get excited about summer 2014.

Assemble, the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, and Millvale Community Library are three of the 35 sites in the US set to host Maker Corps members from the Maker Education Initiative this summer. All season, the corps will help kids and their families tinker and build all kinds of things to spark an interest STEM through making.

The Maker Education Initiative is only two years old, but it’s growing quickly, just like the larger maker movement it’s a part of. Makers are an expanding group of people in garages, basements, and maker spaces who love, well, making. They build catapults, bake 20-sided pecan pies, and print sheep on 3D printers.

However, enthusiasm for the maker movement has spread far beyond weekend warriors and Maker Faire attendees. It’s gaining a foothold in education as a way to leverage kids’ natural inclination to tinker and experiment while simultaneously nurturing a passion for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Last summer, we wrote about how the movement has made its way into Pittsburgh classrooms.

But why now? Haven’t kids always messed around and built things out of cardboard? As Gary Stager, author of “Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom,” told me last summer, there’s a simple reason the maker movement is picking up so much steam: the technology people can get easily their hands on now has amplified the possibilities.

“The excitement about these new technologies will reanimate the best traditions of progressive education in classrooms, of learning by doing, of working on meaningful projects, of developing agency and becoming lost in the flow of something you care about,” Stager said.

Part of the goal of Maker Corps is to build the capacity of host sites to do maker programming not only in the summer, but also into the future. 

The Maker Ed Initiative fits in perfectly with that goal. Through its Maker Corps and other various programs, Maker Ed brings making experiences to scale in public learning environments across the country. The White House is even on board; the administration applauded the program in a recent blog post that announced the first-ever White House Maker Faire. In only its second year, the 108 Maker Corps members have already engaged 90,000 youth and their families in creative projects that encourage problem-solving skills. But as much as corps members inspire young makers, they’re also a huge resource for their host sites.

“Part of the goal of Maker Corps is to build the capacity of host sites to do maker programming not only in the summer, but also into the future,” said Lisa Regalla, national program director at the Maker Education Initiative, in a video for makers interested in applying to be corps members. She added that

while corps members are working at the host sites, they also help host organizations get in touch with other maker spaces and connect them with local resources.

Pittsburgh’s maker spaces are already pros at connecting. Millvale Community Library’s maker space is actually made possible through the MAKESHOP and the Children’s Museum, and is one of several libraries in the country that’s now a making-friendly spot. According to its website, the library is expanding its space to include a more “vivacious maker space” and a tool lending library. A partnership with Open Floor Maker Space, a collective of skilled craftspeople, is in the works too.

The organizations that are making this tinkering-filled summer possible are coming together on March 5 at SXSW Edu on a panel called “Making and Learning: Put Your Hands Together!” If you’re lucky enough to go, you can see Dustin Stiver from The Sprout Fund, Lisa Brahms from The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, and Paloma Garcia-Lopez from the Maker Education Initiative discuss making for learning and how their organizations are promoting making at the local, regional, and national levels.

The maker movement and Pittsburgh’s learning ecosystem fit well together. Both center on collaboration, resourcefulness, and thinking a bit outside the box.