For many kids, the new school year promises a chance at transformation. Some come back after the summer with an edgy new hairstyle. Others vow to actually do the extra-credit assignments this year.

Just like their young visitors, Pittsburgh’s recreation centers are trying on new identities this week.

The Rec2Tech initiative injects five rec centers with a dose of the 21st century. The centers, spread throughout Pittsburgh, typically host afterschool programs where neighborhood kids play sports, get homework help, and receive dinner. But from September 12-16, visitors at 5 of the city’s 10 centers will engage in free STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) activities. Kids ages 7 to 12 will have the chance to participate in everything from programming a virtual neighborhood to dissecting a heart.

“It will be a crazy rainbow of tech and science.”

Rec2Tech is a collaboration among the Sprout Fund, the City of Pittsburgh Office of the Mayor and Department of Innovation and Performance, and Citiparks. It is supported by Comcast NBCUniversal and received initial funding from the MacArthur Foundation.

Rec2Tech is inspired by a Baltimore initiative of the same name, but Pittsburgh’s program capitalizes on the city’s unique network of learning organizations and institutions. Several collaborators—Assemble, the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, the Citizen Science Lab, Digital Corps, Sisters e.S.T.E.A.M., TechShop, and the YMCA—are helping or leading the programming, which will vary at each site.

The result will be a “crazy rainbow of tech and science,” said Ani Martinez, program associate at the Sprout Fund.

At the Phillips Rec Center in Pittsburgh’s Carrick neighborhood, kids will turn into urban agriculture experts, building a greenhouse from water bottles. At the Warrington Rec Center in Beltzhoover, they will test a virtual reality tool from Carnegie Mellon University that lets users upload 360-degree photographs of their surroundings and tweak them. The kids will become civil engineers for the week, using the tool to virtually improve their neighborhoods. The Magee Rec Center, on the other hand, will be converted into a laboratory where young scientists will dissect hearts and print 3D models of the organ.

But Rec2Tech is not just a week-long role play. The goal is to introduce Pittsburgh’s young people to the skills and tools they will need in their near future.

“Digital skills and 21st century skills are no longer an option” but a necessity, Martinez said.

Tech employment has ballooned in Pittsburgh, growing by 19 percent between 2010 and 2013. But too many local youths lack training for jobs in this growing sector.

Pittsburgh has an active network of educators and technologists, so the Rec2Tech organizers have leveraged existing facilities and programs, combining them for maximum impact.

“Why not turn our centers, which have been embedded in our neighborhoods, into these places where people can come and really gain access to 21st century skills?” said LaTrenda Leonard Sherrill, deputy chief of education at the Office of the Mayor.

“How do we make these workforce skills accessible to the community?”

“It was a matter of, How do we make these skills that are going to be needed in the future workforce accessible to those that are part of the community already?” she said. 

By meeting kids where they are—literally—the hope is to reach students who lack regular access to STEAM learning. The participants will become acquainted with the host organizations and find out about their year-round programming.

On Saturday, Sept. 17, at Schenley Plaza, parents will get to see what their kids came up with at an interactive party that the Sprout Fund hopes will attract 500 families. There will be 3D printers, robots, screen-printing, and audio recording opportunities. Participants from all five centers will be bused in.

The Rec2Tech partners hope the initiative will become a pilot for a permanent integration of STEAM learning into Pittsburgh’s communities, giving all students the chance to transform themselves over the summer or during the year.