Last year, a group of kids in Pittsburgh set about making cycling safer—and more stylish. With a sewing machine and a lesson in circuitry, the pre-teens created a shirt that lights up and changes color depending on how fast you ride your bike.

The young designers were participants in Y-Creator Space (YCS), an afterschool program that serves low-income youth at three Pittsburgh locations. The mission of YCS is to teach human-centered design using science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Kids create prototypes and then build products that solve a problem or hurdle that a person or a community faces—thus the “human centered” tag.

At first glance, YCS might appear a lot like other local programs—Assemble or MAKESHOP—that emphasize creativity and hands-on learning. “But we’re different from a makerspace in that we’re very purposeful,” said Nic Jaramillo, YCS director since its start in 2011. At YCS, the goal is less open-ended tinkering and more tangible application of ideas and creativity. The kids are always making something—whether that’s the playful wearable technology or an aquaponics system that encourages healthy eating.

Kids sign up for a 10-week series of workshops during which they collaborate on elaborate projects, like building a fleet of drones. In addition, kids can just drop in for creative inspiration. Jaramillo estimates that the program serves 400-600 youth each year between its sites at the Hilltop YMCA, the Homewood-Brushton YMCA, and the Allentown Learning and Engagement Center.

“Making” change is an idea that is catching on elsewhere, too. This past spring, power tool company Dremel hosted a Making Impact contest, in which college students pitched maker projects to effect community or world change. The winner was a University of Central Florida engineering student who used recycled electronic materials to make a pediatric therapy toy. The customizable device was designed to boost cognitive development and motor skills of children. In the winning example, a special needs pediatrics patient, who previously avoided purposeful interaction, used the toy, pressing buttons that activated his favorite video.

“We’re different from a makerspace in that we’re very purposeful.”
YCS itself is a product of kids using their hands and minds to solve a problem. Before it was a youth design program, YCS was a federally funded internet access initiative for all ages. But money was tight and the equipment was often broken. Young visitors to the site took it upon themselves to fix everything from vacuum cleaners to computers. Observing the kids’ creativity and problem-solving skills, Jaramillo and other staff members thought there might be something worth pursuing there.

Jaramillo feels strongly that the kids’ creativity muscles are not exercised nearly enough in their schools, which have too few resources. According to an Afterschool Alliance report, “Afterschool STEM programs are proving to be highly effective and they deliver important outcomes.” Graduates of these programs have improved attitudes toward STEM careers, increased STEM skills, and a higher likelihood of graduating and pursuing a STEM career—an important skill set in a workforce facing a STEM gap.

Programs like YCS are also doing their part to inspire something equally valuable in today’s workforce: creativity and entrepreneurialism. Problem-solvers, in other words.