In the MAKESHOP – Informal Learning and Making at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh

In the MAKESHOP – Informal Learning and Making at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh

MAKE sat down for an interview with Lisa Brahms (Director of Learning and Research) and Adam Nye (MAKESHOP Manager) from the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. The Q&A mostly swirled around the museum’s MAKESHOP, both a program and a space inside the museum where kids and adults alike make things and learn about real stuff, from electricity and electronics to woodworking and sewing.

MAKE: First off, tell us a bit about MAKESHOP, and about its role in the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh (CMP).

CMP: MAKESHOP at Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh is a casual learning environment for children and families to engage in making experiences with the “real stuff” — materials, tools, processes and ideas — of making. A partnership with informal learning, design, and research organizations Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center (ETC), and the University of Pittsburgh Center for Learning in Out of School Environments (UPCLOSE), MAKESHOP provides visitors access to digital media resources and physical materials as well as a dedicated team of skilled makers, artists, and educators to help translate their visions into tangible products.

MAKE: By operating whenever the museum is open, along with near-daily activities, can you describe a day-in-the-life of MAKESHOP? How is it staffed? How many people use the space? What’s the daily flow like?

CMP: MAKESHOP is open during regular Museum hours (10 A.M.-4:30 P.M.), so visitors can drop in at any time to participate. It’s in a prominent place within our museum, and is typically one of the first exhibits that visitors experience. We offer a variety of activities, including sewing, woodworking, and electronics. We also feature many guest makers who demonstrate their skill and inform our visitors about their practice. On occasion, we offer workshops that are more focused on a specific process, tool, or material.

The number of people in the space depends on how many visitors we have in the museum on that day, but MAKESHOP is a popular exhibit and it’s usually full. The space itself is very open and flexible — it rarely feels over-crowded or hectic. And it changes daily, based on visitor and staff interest, choice, and pursuit.

We have a full staff of teaching artists, skilled in many different disciplines, who guide visitors through the exploration of materials, proper use of tools, and the learning of new skills.

MAKE: I think our readers know why, but can you expand on why early and middle childhood learning is so important, both for kids as well as how it relates to MAKESHOP’s mission?

CMP: As the idea of MAKESHOP emerged, two trends were taking shape in the museum’s institutional community. As places of informal learning, libraries began designing research-based, media-rich creative environments for youth (e.g., YouMedia Chicago), widening the perception and use of digital media as learning tools for creative production in informal environments. Simultaneously, a narrowing trend of identifying and designing primarily for children age five and younger began among children’s museums across America. At the time, the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh knew that older children, beyond five, still encompassed a significant percentage of the child-visitor population (28%) (UPCLOSE, 2011). Additionally, recent studies (UPCLOSE, 2005, 2011) found that among the museum’s permanent arts and science-based exhibits, children age eight and above favored those that offered active opportunities for creativity, invention, play, and co-activity among family members. Parents reported that these spaces were markedly enjoyable and empowering for their older children.

MAKE: Can you elaborate on the notion of “informal learning”?

CMP: Informal learning is basically learning outside of “formal” school or classroom environments. Some common contexts of informal learning that are studied are museums, science centers, and zoos (designed informal learning environments), libraries, youth afterschool programming, and even everyday activity, such as dinner table conversations and children’s videogame play. A significant and current approach in informal learning is to think of our daily lives as a learning ecology, one that stretches beyond our traditional contexts of learning (i.e. schools) across social settings, over the course of life, and in relation to prevailing cultural influences.

MAKE: In an age when youth are increasingly growing up surrounded by capacitive touchscreens and engaging through digital means, can you talk about the importance of “real stuff?”

CMP: We are now very interested in finding the productive intersections between the digital and the “real stuff” of children’s lives. Children do not see the distinctions, so it’s our job to help them envision the familiar aspects of their lives differently, to put the digital and physical pieces together in new, innovative ways.

MAKE: When dealing with tools and machines, how does MAKESHOP handle safety?

CMP: Safety is a part of the making experience and we put a lot of consideration into how to properly teach safety when working with tools. Before we even begin to make a project, visitors test out the different tools to understand what they are used for and how they should be used. This instills a deep appreciation, and the child responds to it by being careful and respectful.

MAKE: I’m a fan of the mess of making. I like to see activity, process, components, works in progress. Is it tough keeping MAKESHOP tidy and in order?

CMP: Yes! But we have found that visitors naturally tend to clean up after themselves. Unsurprisingly, children have just as much fun cleaning up the mess as they had making it.

MAKE: MAKESHOP officially opened on October 22, 2011. Are there any upcoming one-year anniversary events people should know about?

CMP: We host a Mini Maker Faire in Pittsburgh. We are hosting a Making MAKESHOP workshop to help other museums create maker spaces in their own museums.

We present at many conferences, such as the Association of Children’s Museum conference, the DML 2012 Conference, ASTC 2012. We plan to continue presenting at future conferences.

MAKE: There’s also the MAKESHOP SHOW, which are longer, produced segments for online viewing. Please talk a bit about that.

CMP: The MAKESHOP Show is an online resource hub for kid makers ages 6-10 years old. It is a website with searchable, multimedia how-to projects for kids, organized into Wearable, Buildable, Musical, Upcyclable, Edible, and “Animalable” categories. All projects are voted on by kids and designed with a researched understanding of young makers.

YouTube player

The idea for The MAKESHOP Show began with the question of how originally-produced media content could bridge MAKESHOP into the home and community. Accessible media platforms could reach beyond the walls of any physical maker space to support kid makers and the adults who teach and raise them. It is inspired by and often filmed in the MAKESHOP exhibit at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.

Be sure to follow all the activities of MAKESHOP at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburg, via their blog, their Twitter, and their Facebook page.

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I'm an artist & maker. A lifelong biblioholic, and advocate for all-things geekathon. Home is Long Island City, Queens, which I consider the greatest place on Earth. 5-year former Resident of Flux Factory, co-organizer for World Maker Faire (NYC), and blogger all over the net. Howdy!

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