Aileen Owens, director of technology and innovation at South Fayette School District, was on the hunt last year for the best way to incorporate robotics into her district’s intermediate school curriculum. Then, while at a meeting last March for Pittsburgh organizations interested in digital media and learning, she bumped into Robin Shoop, the director of the Carnegie Mellon Robotics Academy.

“Even though I was at the meeting for a different reason, we started talking,” Owens said. They started working together, and in early November, Owens brought six teachers to the academy to be trained with Shoop on a type of robotics platform called VEX IQ.

This upcoming spring, fifth and sixth-graders will be programming and designing VEX IQ robotics, with a larger roll-out through middle school and into older grades planned over time.

The collaboration is only one of many partnerships that have brought different programs into South Fayette’s four schools. Students in the district have grown vegetables in hydroponic gardens with a grant from the Sprout Fund. Another team of students developed a flash card app with guidance from a Carnegie Mellon University computer scientist. And at an upcoming lunch session, a group of students will meet with designers from MAYA Design to get professional feedback on a product they developed—“Shark Tank” style. (The product is top secret and still under wraps.)

Although these collaborations grew naturally, they didn’t exactly just “happen.” South Fayette School District and its many partners are part of the Pittsburgh region’s Kids+Creativity Network, which consists of more than 200 organizations and more than 1,000 people who have come together to build an ecosystem for learning in Pittsburgh extending beyond school walls and hours.

But the learning opportunities stemming from the network aren’t only a bonus for Pittsburgh kids. Yes, networks provide new chances for hands-on learning after the final school bell rings. But as the economy and work landscape change, the network is a critical piece of preparing kids for a changing economy and future.

Why Networks?

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Hummingbird Robotics Kits. Photo/ Ben Filio

To compete in today’s economy, kids need to learn more than their A-B-Cs. High-income parents have known this for some time, and they have been cultivating their children for this more competitive world. They enroll them in afterschool programs and send them to math camp or robotics classes in the summer. They work to develop their children’s talents and skills through these organized activities.

As sociologist Annette Lareau has documented in her book, “Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life,” lower-income and less-educated parents, in contrast, are still embracing a more “free-range” childhood. The latter approach, which relies heavily on schools to prepare kids for their futures, worked as a strategy for decades. But it no longer does.

Economists Greg Duncan and Richard Murnane found that, in 2005 to 2006, the most affluent families spent an average of $8,872 on enrichment activities per year, whereas poorest families spent $1,315. This gap has grown significantly since the 1970s.

“What you see is more and more money being spent privately for enrichment activities, which means the education gap is growing,” said Michele Cahill, vice-president of the National Program at the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

And this is where citywide networks come into play. Cahill believes we need to redefine schools as more porous organizations and consider partnerships with outside organizations as a core element of schools, not only as add-ons. Networks of learning opportunities for kids can help bridge this spending divide and give all children rich exposure to ideas and opportunities to discover their interests.

Cahill believes we need to redefine schools as more porous organizations and consider partnerships with outside organizations as a core element of schools, not only as add-ons.

Although schools, Cahill explained, must continue to address the education gap head-on, “cities also need to address it. It’s really about an experience divide.”

Cahill said cities should do a better job of capitalizing on all of their existing resources to help students learn.

“Schools themselves have intellectual capital,” she said, “but a city’s ecosystem has so much more of it. Why are we keeping it so separate?”

“It’s not only the professionals, it’s the university students, community college students—it’s everybody who can be mobilized. But it does take a design. I don’t mean it’s only one type of five-year plan, but it takes intentionality.”

The Network’s Beginning

The Kids+Creativity Network began with just this type of intentionality nearly a decade ago. How could we do a better job connecting Pittsburgh kids to more experiences and resources the city has to offer? The network began as informal gatherings in 2007 when leaders from the Grable Foundation began connecting people in the education field. Interest and participation in the group grew and, in 2011, the Sprout Fund began providing strategic support to formalize the network and enhance its potential.

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Photo: Ben Filio

Today, the network includes more than 1,000 members who rub shoulders at conferences and work together through more formal partnerships, professional development programs, and affinity groups like the one Shoop and Owens attended. It also provides seed funding, grants, and other support to ensure that those new relationships can blossom into real opportunities for young people.

Other cities throughout the country have built similar networks of opportunities. In Rhode Island, for example, the Providence After School Alliance (PASA) AfterZone program lets middle-school students pick from a citywide network of free afterschool activities like horseback riding, sailing, knitting, learning guitar, building solar-powered go-carts, or analyzing plankton. All activities are run on the same afterschool schedule, and PASA provides transportation to and from the off-campus sites.

Uncovering New Ideas and Ways of Doing Things

These kinds of networks have another advantage: They create a new model for continuous improvement in schools. For decades, schools have worked to improve through a painstaking, and slow, process of trying an idea in a couple of schools, assessing whether it works, tweaking it when it doesn’t, and then expanding the program district wide, testing again, and, eventually, replicating it in schools nationwide. In effect, the new method or idea is originated at a hub and then spread outward to the satellite schools.

The problem is that to develop, validate, and scale up education reform takes time—up to 14 years if the teams follow the process to a tee, according to educational research. And by the time it is implemented widely, all sorts of factors can muck it up. This approach also doesn’t take early advantage of the ideas and insights of people in the larger network or satellites.

Networks can be a solution. With networks of people and organizations, fresh approaches emerge through the very process of scaling up. Networks, in other words, spur an innovation cycle.

Tom Lauwers / Photo: Ben Filio

Tom Lauwers / Photo: Ben Filio

Tom Lauwers, founder of Pittsburgh’s BirdBrain Technologies and creator of the Finch Robot and Hummingbird Robotics Kit, has discovered the benefits of a network firsthand. He has plugged into the network in many ways, including testing his products in classrooms.

Lauwers also said he’s met regularly with Lisa Abel-Palmieri, the director of technology at the Ellis School, for feedback. Abel-Palmieri, with other teachers, suggested the second version of the kits should be packaged differently to make them more visual and logically organized for classrooms.

“The thing about a network like this is it’s hard to tease apart the effects,” Lauwers said. “But I think without the network you wouldn’t have face-to-face access to important stakeholders in what you’re doing.”

And, he said, just being part of a formal network “gives everybody a shared sense of mission” and makes people instantly receptive to the possibility of collaboration.

Or, as Owens put it, “There are no boundaries.”

“I think it’s invaluable. It’s invigorating,” she said. “Once you meet someone and begin talking, there’s this synergy—you hold a passion in the same area. It’s more powerful, [and] it helps direct innovation.”

Networks like these are able to continuously tap and integrate the stored wisdom and insights—the intellectual capital—of its members. It’s messier than the hub approach, but it’s also more dynamic.

And, as Cahill argued, there’s no reason to limit the network to only schools and their leaders. A city’s cultural organizations, businesses, and nonprofit providers have a lot to offer to schools, and vice versa.

The Department of Education and Digital Promise are working to encourage more districts to build networks like these to support public education. In August 2014, Pittsburgh hosted the first gathering of these emerging networks from throughout the country.

And with the endorsement of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Sprout Fund is preparing a ‘Playbook’ that will help other cities model their efforts on Pittsburgh’s learning innovation ecosystem.

The power of networks, the Department of Education’s Richard Culatta told us in September, is that they identify problems early and often, which makes for a better result in the end. In Culatta’s vision, education, research, and commercial partners collaborate closely.

“If you have research showing that this is not working or people saying, ‘We’re using this, and it doesn’t help solve this problem,’ you know that before anything gets out of the gate,” Culatta said.

The process results in “a higher level of reliability of the tools and services that are coming out of a region.”