Making Creative Space with Assemble’s Nina Barbuto

Maker News Makerspace
Assemble in Pittsburg

Assemble is a leading example of a community-oriented makerspace focused on the needs of youth, providing summer and afterschool programming that is fun, expressive and personal.  In this episode, I talked with Nina Barbuto, the founder and director of Assemble, which serves youth and adults in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Starting and growing a community non-profit is hard, but Nina has persisted in building out this creative space and its programs since 2011.

Nina Barbuto

Before starting Assemble, Nina graduated from Carnegie Mellon with a degree in architecture and she got her master’s at Southern California Institute of Architecture, SCI-Arc. While in LA, she was inspired by the creative space, Machine Project, that was developed by Mark Allen. And when she returned to Pittsburgh, she did odd jobs and such while she reached out to people in the community to join her in making and creating Assemble. 

As an example of the many creative programs that Assemble puts together, Maker Date is coming in September. “It is our big fundraiser at Assemble,” Nina explained. “It is a twist on the date auction concept. Instead of bidding to spend time with someone they’re attracted to, folks get to big to spend time with local artists, maker, technologists, and creatives to learn how to make from them! It’s like a playdate but a maker date!” What a cool idea.


Dale: And now to our guest, Nina Barbuto, the founder and director of Assemble, a community space for arts and technology that serves youth and adults in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Starting and growing a community makerspace is hard, but Nina has persisted in building out this space and its programs since 2011.

Before starting Assemble, Nina had graduated from Carnegie Mellon with a degree in architecture and she got her master’s at Southern California Institute of Architecture, SCI Arc. While in LA, she was inspired by the creative space, Machine Project, that was developed by Mark Allen. And when she returned to Pittsburgh, she did odd jobs and such while she reached out to people in the community to join her in making and creating a new space called Assemble. 

I’m joined by Nina Barbuto, who started Assemble, which we’ll learn more about. First of all, welcome Nina. Nice to talk to you. 

Nina: It’s so great to talk to you, Dale. It’s been so long and it’s always just, I’m always so inspired by all the things that you’ve done and are still doing and all those that you help.

Dale: Same for you. I know I visited Assemble. And you’ll have to tell us more about it and its evolution over time, but it was near the beginning. I’m always impressed by people that can stick it out. These things are not easy or everyone would do them. Which is a shame. I wish they were easy and I wish everyone would do them, but you’re one of those people that has been so determined to find out what this means to other people and keep it going by all means necessary. 

What is Assemble?

Dale: So tell us what Assemble is. 

Nina: Thank you, Dale. And yes, it’s not easy.

There’s a lot of– let’s say it’s a process as is everything in making. Assemble has definitely grown and changed over the years. We are a community space for arts and technology, and we envision a world we’re learning and creating are transformative experiences and where people are equipped with the tools to make a difference together.

We use learning as a tool to create a more equitable future for youth and learners in the Pittsburgh region and beyond. At the guts of it, we’re building confidence through making and connecting learners, technologists, artists, and makers, and also nurturing agency in learners too. So it’s not just like what you do with us, but what can you do everywhere, right?

Like, how does this also show up in your own life? Thinking about just like the long road. We started Assemble as an all-volunteer run organization in 2011. When I think about it in the total timescale, it still blows my mind. We now have 14 full-time staff and like up to 20-22 people working at Assemble any point in time, with part time folks and of course like interns. We’ve got a storefront that is accessible. I don’t have to lock the back door with a bar anymore. Like starting from the bottom to a pretty good space. And then we were just recently able to acquire an additional storefront to have more office space because there’s so many people doing this work. We’re so student-youth centered that sometimes we forget like the people doing –the grownups doing the things for the youth, like how do we support them too? And make it not just like a space to make stuff, but really a great place to work. 

Where is it located in Pittsburgh?

Dale: Can you describe the location? Like where in Pittsburgh and what the neighborhood is? 

Nina: Totally. We are in the Penn Avenue arts district. So Assemble is in a storefront just down the street from where you might buy your hot Cheetos or walk home from school. And we’re really close to a cemetery, children’s hospital is down the street, but we get the great context of being along so many different gallery spaces, spots like the Center for Post Natural History is down the street, Boom Concepts, the Glass Center is down the street from us. Kelly Strayhorn theater and the Dance Alloy– so so many different people making with different things. We’re in our own building, which is owned by Action Housing, which is a nonprofit that helps with housing folks who need help. And the building we’re in really is dedicated to housing for retired veterans.

So that’s an interesting mix of folks who love to make different things too. Shout out to Mr. Derek, who has really fallen in love with 3D printing. He makes something, he makes crazy stuff. But in our own building, we have Silver eye gallery, which is a photography gallery, and we have Level Up, which is a dance studio.

And they also have a recording studio in there too. So there is creativity all up and down Penn Avenue in the arts district. 

What is happening at Assemble on an average day?

Dale: If I walked into Assemble, at a prime time, what would it look like? What would be going on there? 

Nina: I don’t know if you’d be able to walk very far because there’s probably be kids on the floor, at the tables.

There’s definitely cardboard cutting or drawing. There could be things from we’re making robots, we’re making spin art machines, we’re making puppets, we’re coding, maybe we’re doing some Minecraft over here maybe we’re getting messy, maybe we’re getting a little less messy, but people working in different groups, working together, sharing together. Hopefully not running too much but that does happen. Maybe even eating snacks and reading some books. 

Dale: So it’s a social space as well as a creative space. And they go together. 

Nina: Very much. So we we also have a gallery space. So you might see we have a different show every month — different artists, makers, technologists sharing their work.

This last June, we had our teens from our Hack the Future program, do a month long show and they got to plan the installations and the interactives. It was called “Worms 2: if time were tangible.” Note, there was no “Worms One.” Even diving into their own meme meme-ory, if you will.

They did some great stuff about nostalgia and thinking about like the media that they interact with and making stuff that dealt with what they interacted with as kids versus what they interact with now as high schoolers. And they even had this weird interactive where you could throw worms onto the wall. 

Dale: Real worms?

Nina: Real gummy worms. No one should eat them though. Things like that to be like, let’s think about the stuff that we have and what we want to do and how do we activate different media in our lives? Creativity is coming out of every corner and crevice of that space.

Dale: This might be a loaded question, but is this something they’re not getting in school? 

Nina: I definitely think that they’re not getting what Assemble is providing, which is really like space to be you, right? To experiment and to make new friends, to meet people that you might not meet because you were told to be in a certain classroom sitting next to somebody else.

We’re open to kids who come from so many different learning environments from public school to charter school to private and even like our homeschooler kids, and some cyber kids as well. And just coming together because –One, they all love slime. Two, they love Legos. Three, they’ve definitely love stop motion and how are they making their stories together and making new friends and being able to say this is who I want to be in this space. 

Dale: For a new young person coming in to Assemble, how do you think they understand what it is? This is different than school where you’re often told what to do. Here you’re probably more invited to join something or participate, but not everybody responds to that initially. What am I supposed to do here? 

A Focus on Welcoming

Nina: One is like focusing on how we’re welcoming, right? So making sure we’re saying like, hello, welcome, come on in, let’s get you a snack because everybody knows how to do that no matter where you’re coming from, and then being like, you can draw in the tables, which is also something that there’s examples of other people who’ve done it or are doing it at that time and maybe there’s some other things to play with and to mess with and to tinker with. Then let’s say if it’s after school, we’ll be chilling, we’re hanging out together. There’s also a chill zone with a bean bag and books and Legos and just stuff to make and play with that you might be hanging out there or there might be some iPad time happening and then coming back in and starting an activity altogether. And saying today we’re going to be diving into let’s say like marble runs, for example, and maybe we’re watching a video about this and talking about physics and learning about a really cool inventor, but then we’re like, okay, let’s draw out what we want to make.

Are we ready to make it? What do you need? And then there’s either materials pulled out or let’s ask one of our educators, one of our teachers, like I need this tool that might not be out already– can they go get it? 

We have a space called the danger zone that has the dangerous materials. So if you’re a six year old, you don’t go into the danger zone, but if you’re a high schooler, you definitely go into the danger zone. And then just this continual like making and being like, what do we want to listen to? What are we doing together? And really to like that collective mindset of how do we want to do this together?

We always start off our programs with community agreements too. So thinking like, how do we want to be treated and how do we want others to treat us and our teachers are also signing the same document. So knowing that the students and the kids are working together, even though everyone has different expertise to bring and making sure that we’re all held accountable to the same stuff.

Tell us about your background before starting Assemble.

Dale: I want to go back to the beginning of Assemble, but before I do that, tell me a bit about your own life and, what brought you to that moment when you decided to start this? 

Nina: So I did not study education in school. My own background is from architecture. And so I studied architecture. I got my B Arch from Carnegie Mellon, graduated there in 2007. Then I went to Southern California Institute of Architecture for grad school for their Mediascapes program and graduated in late 2008, just in time for the recession.

So that was great, but at ARTS and CMU, I was very much like, with architecture too, you’re just making stuff all the time. And you’re like, let me make this model. Let me figure this out. I’m going to make a mock up. 

Dale: You’re engaged in making space, right? 

Nina: I do think of Assemble as its own way of doing architecture where it’s like making a social architecture, right for us to come together like it might not be like I have to tell you where the bathroom is right which, Lord knows working in architecture firms back in the day, I did that a lot, or like saying I can tell you what’s in your walls, right? We can see through walls when we’re architects. But being like, how do I want to configure this? And how do we program the flexibility into the space? And really as architects. You aren’t making, you’re never really making it for you, but you’re making something, you’re making a space for folks to make it their own and you need to give enough structure so that people are informed how to behave in certain ways or what rules that they might want to break.

Dale: I think also architects are trained a bit to see the built environment, right? What’s around us which is not all new, obviously, it’s things that have been there a long time. I’d always wish in my mind that kids could see that someone had to create those things. It was another generation, another time, they had different methods and materials to work with, but someone still had to think about making that building. 

Nina: I always like to say though, and it doesn’t have to stop with buildings. Like scale is just one variable, but someone made up the whole world around us. And you can too. So someone invented what our food looks like, what our books look like, what our costumes, our clothes look like, what our technology looks like, let’s imagine what else it could look like, right? There’s certain things that like through evolution, that nature has become what it has become, but it’s in reaction to other things and that can still change. 

Dale: It was 2008, the recession hit, and you were looking for something to do. How did you work your way to conceiving of Assemble and then just making it happen? 

The “I Made It Market”

Nina: Before I left Pittsburgh and moved to Los Angeles for SCI-ARC, I had co-founded the “I Made It Market” with Terry Nardini, which is a indie craft fair that’s still happening today. It was a nomadic market and would pop up in different places. And thinking like, how do we help to support the local making economy? There was things like the Pittsburgh Craft Mafia and there’s Handmade Arcade and those things were happening less frequently and like in specific areas. And we’re like, how do we bring this to different communities? 

I was making wall details at one point in time. Moved on from that, but then people make stuff and sometimes we want to earn a living from these things and thinking about that maker to maker to market kind of mentality and helping folks to learn just a little bit about the economy that way. But had done that. Recession happened after I graduated. 

Re-inventing Learning Spaces

Nina: I should say my thesis in architecture school was all about biological architecture and thinking about how our buildings learn from us and how we learn from our buildings and having these symbiotic relationships that led me to go work at a office that was called Push Architecture and we did a great project for LA USD, the Los Angeles public school system, thinking about now that we have these fancy devices, the phones and the iPads and everything, again, remember it’s 2008-2009, people aren’t going to use books anymore, supposedly, which we know that is not true, but thinking like, oh, this is an opportunity to really reinvent our learning spaces.

So this is how I dove into how pedagogy could be more liberating versus how we’re setting people up to work in factories that don’t exist really. We all know the Sir Ken Robinson– rest in peace, Sir Ken Robinson, but his talks about how our education system is really rooted within conformity, to work in factories, and not about creativity and being able to react to current projects and problems. So worked on a great project for that. My boss then decided to leave the country. And so I didn’t have a job for a while and had the opportunity to go to do some architecture workshops for kids in South Central with a friend of mine who was doing Teach for America and did a whole project of let’s design the classroom of the future. And with that, we are using rulers, you learning about math, building things with toilet paper rolls and like doing the toothpicks and marshmallows and just having them make collages and imagining what could be. 

Dale: I think that’s such an important thing. I hope it’s maybe in some form still around. When I started thinking about maker spaces and stuff I had this idea that we just need to kind of change what a classroom looks like. So it doesn’t look like you sit at a chair in a row and face the front. You want to move, you want to work, you want to do things and go from here to there and be active. I’d hope that it was a suggestion that we could rethink all of school and the physical buildings and the experience of school as a result of those buildings. When you talked about like a chill zone or other things in there, it’s why don’t we have that? Why don’t we have buildings that can respond to the different things that our kids want to do?

Nina: There are some good examples out there now. I will say like it’s been a slow process. It’s such a behemoth, right? Where our learning institutions are so big to make some big changes. And we all know it comes down to what are their funding capacities? And also too are the people in those spaces ready to hold this change and to be uncomfortable and to not expect kids to form a line, and be like, no, let’s make a circle? I don’t know. But beanbags aren’t that expensive and kids love them so much. Even in the classrooms for the future that we were designing, like forever ago in South Central, beanbags were always there. There was also a fire pit in the classroom and I was like, I don’t know if that’s going to work, but we can at least throw that out there. 

Dale: So you did that project and then you eventually got back to Pittsburgh, right? 

Nina: Yes. I had an art collective too and was doing some other interesting, weird stuff and did some art installations and was doing things with coding and all sorts of things. And one thing led to never, and I ended up moving back to Pittsburgh in 2010. Right in time when the snowmageddon was happening. So there was the giant snow storm and I had my bicycle. Didn’t really have much when I moved back.

And just was working many different odd jobs from selling ice cream under the table to making sandwiches. Whatever I could do to pay rent and then was starting to get back into the teaching artist aspect of it. So working with kids through the Carnegie Museum of Art. Then also working with some high schoolers through the architecture school at CMU.

And just kept building on that. At one point in time, I even worked for the Waldorf school. So working with their early childhood, babies and the Waldorf school is such an interesting. What an interesting pedagogy there, where everyone’s making everything. You have to make, you have to whittle your knitting needles, and make the buns that you’re going to eat for lunch.

And so just thinking about being fully a part of a process. And also to how space design is really important about your pattern recognition and building like where things go, how they are put away is like really crucial to how we are developing over time. So things have a space, but they can also have a new place.

One thing led to another and I was going around being like, Hey, I have this idea. I was telling everyone I had a business plan and I didn’t. I had a Google document with some words. And I was like, I want to create this space where people can come together and share what they know, share what they want to create. It’s for grownups and for kids. 

Inspired by Machine Project

Nina: I was really inspired by a space that I had experienced in Los Angeles, Machine Project. 

So I lived right near there and Echo Park, near the lake. And I would go there a lot.

Unfortunately, they sunsetted it, but they have such great information about the whole organization and how you might want to create your own Machine Project now online. So I highly recommend folks to check that out. But it was a storefront where people could come and learn anything. You might learn how to make jam from wild fruit that were growing on the street and or learning how to program in Arduino another day.

 Maybe it’s a poetry fest. There was just like, Hey, we have things to share to each other. And, in rethinking school, thinking like what knowledge do we already hold? And so that’s something that inspired me definitely in having a storefront as well as like how to make a space where people can share the things that they love and know, because we can talk about the things that we love and know forever. And that’s the social learning coming back down to it. 

Kept talking to people in Pittsburgh, kept going to things, just being like, Hey, I want to start this thing. Mind you again, no background in business, like never went to business school. Didn’t know what it was like to start a nonprofit or run a nonprofit. But definitely went headfirst into all of it and just kept going. Got a group of folks to join as the first board. Also to went to things like our local arts council to be like, how do I start something like this?

Finding a Space to Rent

Dale: Do you remember a moment when it was almost like a go, no go, or like you had to decide whether you were going to jump all the way in and do this or not? 

Nina: When we signed the rent, It’s a funny story. I was like having a conversation with other people being like, I’m looking for spaces, blah, blah, blah. I was at a cafe, Quiet Storm, which also doesn’t exist anymore in Pittsburgh. But our original landlord, Ben, he came in and he was like, I’m buying this building and I’m going to put a gallery in it and we’re going to have shows every week. And I was like, Ben, you don’t know what you’re doing. You should totally let me do this.

So for the first year, we helped to do the labor, the sweat equity of getting this space up and running and actually running the space, but we didn’t pay rent, but we just kept accruing debts and then in 2012, we had our first fundraiser where we were able to thankfully get out of that red zone.

And we’ve been in the black ever since. Hopefully we’ll keep it there. 

Dale: Talk about your funding. How have you made this work? Cause it’s really hard. People say with good intentions, Oh, serve this audience or serve youth. And it’s really hard. Schools get, there’s structural funding for schools and that’s, and libraries even science centers have big, organizations to support them.

Starting new things, particularly with this audience is very difficult.

Nina: It’s- it is so hard. I would say do things while you’re young, you have all that energy. At the time I was working like four different part-time jobs. And I was just like, okay, let’s do this. I would go from one job to another job and then I would go to Assemble and then I’d be at Assemble. And just kept doing that. Then I would take on teaching jobs for Assemble and all that pay would just go to pay her rent. Then we started to branch out and brought on some more teachers and so we were paying those teachers and if there’s anything left over that went to go pay rent.

But they did it in a volunteer capacity until for the first four years of its existence. 

Dale: You willed it into being, as they say. 

Nina: Yes, but also too with the sustenance of community. If it wasn’t like, hey, people want this, like my reaction to the feedback that I was getting –people love this.

I like to talk about it as it’s getting that gravity like gravity is so hard to overcome, but once you’re in it, you just have to push a little further and you get a little bit faster. You’re like, how do we keep this moving and have it have its own force? 

Dale: Four years in, something happens so that you can start to pay yourself and others. 

Getting the First Grants

Nina: Actually three years in and this is Dale, where some of your magic gets sprinkled on Assemble. I had the opportunity to go to a conference where I got to meet Paloma. Lopez back in the day. She was the first Executive Director for Maker Education. And she was talking about the Maker Corps program and the Maker Vista program. And so we were able to participate in both the Maker Corps and Maker Vista program, and it’s really the Maker Vista program that helped us to propel into the next level. So like when we started off, we didn’t have any grants. We like barely, like maybe we got like a $500 worth of snacks for the year, things like that and like maybe it was $3,000 there, but nothing to really make stuff and so in 2014, we were able to participate in the Maker Vista program.

One of our Vistas who was working 40 hours a week, right? No one had been working 40 hours a week on Assemble was able to write a grant to the Grable Foundation for $19,000 and we got that grant. That was our first Grable grant and our board decided to transform that grant for a manager, and they were like we’re going to try to make this into a full time director position. And I was like, I would like to apply for this job. And so I recused myself from all those conversations, applied, was very stressed out. And I was like, that was also a point where it was like, if this doesn’t work out for me, right? It’s okay. Like, how do I support this? Because maybe I’m not the best person to lead this, but I don’t think anyone else was going to be the director for $32,000 at the time. But, it’s okay. They did it, and so thinking like, how do we continue to build this? 

Let’s go through this strategic plan. 2016 was wild. I’m just going to throw that out there. One, our lease was up in our old space and we had no home for Assemble. So we rented the space across the street, which is a DIY punk show space called the Mr. Roboto project. Sometimes there was wild things that I found every morning in getting the space ready for camps. But we had our summer camps there and we moved all of Assemble’s stuff into my house. I live in the neighborhood that we’re in, but I don’t have a very big house, but it took up all the first floor and we had to reinforce the floor because there were so many things.

Everyone who worked for Assemble had a key to my house at one point in time. I’ve got examples of what not to do. But at the same time, you gotta keep going. And we also did strategic planning that summer too, which was a lot. 

We were able to move into our new space in 2016, which has just been so wonderful. And that’s within the Action Housing Building. 

Dale: So you struck up a partnership with them to be able to do that. 

Nina: We have pretty good market rate rent, but it’s not anything that’s too high and just locking us into leases that are long term and doable. We’re not just hustling for different spaces. The instability is hard and having something that’s stable is great.

What happened to Assemble during Covid?

Dale: So tell me, this is jumping ahead a little bit, but what happened during COVID? 

Nina: What a wild time. I remember very specifically as things were happening that early March, like everyone was freaking out. What should we do?

Some of our interns got stuck in different countries and they weren’t able to come back from school and everything shut down that week of the 13th. Then we were like, okay, we normally do day camps when there’s no school. How do we get this together to pull something together, work the whole weekend to try to make a week long camp for families to figure out. In the meantime, then everything got shut down.

And we’re like, okay, this is what we have to like, take a moment, not go into heroics and breathe. And so during that time, those last two weeks of March, we’re really like, how do we support the folks that are working for Assemble as well as continue to support our families with like connections to food and things and other technology.

And then in April we launched our virtual programs where April was just like, what can we make with a virtual program from the things you might find in your house. So there were some pillow fort architecture contests, amongst other things, and like some shadow puppets, and we even did soap carving.

 In May, we were able to get it together to get baggies and kits that we delivered on a monthly basis, families either picked them up or we went to kids to do that for our afterschool programs and for our summer camps, for our Saturday craft afternoons, we put little baggies on the window for people to take and we put a QR code to say: Hey, here’s where you find the videos on YouTube.

And we were able to get those videos played by a TV show. That’s what all of 2020 and then spring 21 look like spring and then summer 2021 was we did virtual summer camps and then we did some like 10 kids only in-person summer camps. We do a lot of programs in schools and other out-of-school time spaces. We were doing that just virtually, which is very difficult especially when you’re working with kindergartners to make that happen. Very difficult. We were also able to get a few kids in our community some computers from writing different grants. But it was a continual Do you have food? Do you have the technology you need, like what can we help you with in this time of need? Masks distribution. We’re still actually, we always have like free masks for folks, even though now we’ve become a mask flexible space. But we were wearing masks until this spring really.

Dale: How are you helping kids after the pandemic readjust. There’s a lot of stories about how important the social stuff is for them of reconnecting, being around other people, being, like you talked about those agreements.

Being respectful around each other and working together and those are the things that didn’t get developed as well through Zoom. 

Shifts Post-Covid

Nina: And it has been very obvious to see like the shifts in some of the kids as well as like how kids react to different things.

We all know that social emotional learning is something that we need to focus on, as well as like how are we incorporating trauma informed care, because everyone went through this trauma of the pandemic right and in different degrees. We all had experienced isolation in some way, and some of us more than others.

How are we giving each other space and care for that healing? Something else that our staff has been going through is mental health first aid for youth, which we know there’s a lot of anxiety and other crises that youth have experienced that we can be supportive of, but at the same time, we’re not therapists.

But we can then think, what projects can we create and help to present for youth to then heal through their work, right? Like through that stop motion, what story are you telling that might be something that is actually reflective of your fears and the things that you experienced that you’re like, I need to process this through my making.

Is this a poem? Is it a puppet show? Is it some really wild origami that really, this has helped you like this reminds you of some other experience that you had and making space for that. Even just giving space to be like, we’re going to go outside and play. Let’s go just turn on the bubble machine and have a dance party. 

Dale: You touch on it nicely, but you know that just the power of play and and really this process of creating and doing things, it really can address some of those mental health issues in ways that it’s not actually directly addressing them, but it’s giving kids experiences that integrate their feelings and their mind and put them out there.

So tell me, what are you doing this summer at Assemble? 

Nina: This summer we have eight weeks of camp. We are in week three now. We had story laboratory for our middle schoolers and they got to do an array of different things, including making a mural in our new space.

So they got to use spray paint. Low/ no VOC aqua paint, water based paint with a local artist, Max Gonzalez and Jerome Charles to learn about graffiti and all the things. They also got into some Scratch and some other things. We try to bring in different guest experts all the time.

Last week and this week was all art and architecture. We had some wonderful grad students from Carnegie Mellon from the U Dream program to come and do some dream houses, as well as talking about just like what’s the process and learning about art installations, learning about folks like Jean Michel Basquiat, for example. The first and second graders are doing it this week. They’re also taking a trip to one of the architecture firms down the street from us. So they get to have career connections, with how it’s related to their making. Next week is our mythical creatures and monsters. So we try to have different themes.

There will be a design your own Pokemon in this and hacking stuffed animals. It’s something that we do a lot. So taking stuffed animals apart, putting them back together, maybe there’s a motor, maybe their head spinning around or their arms spinning around and maybe their eyes light up, it’s really up to them.

They can write stories about them too. We’ll do that for the eight to 10, six and sevens, and then we’ve got Steam Camp, so just really all the classics coming out there we’ll be doing that with the eight to tens and six and sevens again, science, tech, engineering, arts, and math, always s blast.

Then we have our gems and geology camp, which is for our fourth to eighth grade kids who identify as girls, non binary youth and trans youth. This camp is super fun and we’re going to take a field trip to the Hall of Gems at the Carnegie Museum of Art. And they’re going to be getting into so many different things from planetary science to just, what can we do with crystals and making jewelry? And then we have our Saturday Crafternoons, every Saturday.


Dale: Crafternoons? 

Nina: Crafternoons! Saturday Crafternoons from one to three. In schools, we will be, we have two programs that two different Pittsburgh public school sites. We’re going to be doing our Afrofuturism curriculum with the kindergarten to third graders where and how our take on Afrofuturism is looking to the past as we reimagine the future while centering folks from the African diaspora.

So learning about different inventors and scientists and folks, as we create all the things we want to see in the world. And we have different zines and other materials that we’ve made for the use along the way and highlighting different folks that are local to Assemble. 

Dale: So a lot of things going on in Pittsburgh. That’s maybe the last thing I want to say. It’s always impressed me that Pittsburgh is such a vibrant maker community. There’s lots of things going on there and there have been for many years in many different places.

We mentioned some of the folks that have been on the podcast, Noel Conover Jonathan Dr. Work. Greg, 

Nina: Greg Behr has been such a champion for everything. Assemble has also been a big part of the Remake Learning network. We’re also part of the Maker Learning Collaborative, which is Nick Shriner from Digital Promise, the lead for that affinity group.

Even though it’s how many years, there’s kids who are going to college now that experienced some of the first stuff that we’ve done. Thinking like how are we continuing this practice just because we’ve done it for the past 13 12 20 years, how do we continue the onboarding, helping folks to take this on, and to continue to run with it and thinking to about like legacy.

Another big thing that we just have started is our ramp up fellowship and thinking like symbol inspired by things like Maker Corps, like how are we helping the next generation of teaching artists, maker educators, informal educators to take this work and make it part of their practice. They might’ve experienced it as a youth in school, but really like, how do I apply it to create learning experiences for others?

And I think it’s that like gradual growth that we’re going to really see that significant change in 50 years. People will be like, Oh yeah, maker education. Duh. I do that. 

Dale: It really is that kind of ecosystem or network. I think that’s what Pittsburgh has tried to foster. It’s hard to do these things on your own and maybe not even worth it.

You have to find other people; you bring in other people; you make partnerships; you figure out how you can work together with others. I think what’s exciting about what you do is. There’s always a sixth grader out there who’s never experienced any of this.

And whether it’s a spinning bot or any of this, it’s new to them and, or a paper airplane, it’s something they’ve never had the opportunity to make and enjoy. And I think that it’s so exciting, to keep giving that gift to the world. 

Nina: It’s so magical.

We were just making spin art machines with motors and batteries and boxes and recycled materials. And and you’re just like, Oh yeah, we’ve done this before, but they’re like, what, and that just to remember, and as an educator, as someone who makes, has made a space, remember folks that are grown up folks, like that wonder is always there, and just because you’re like, Oh yeah, I know how to do this in my sleep. Let’s keep going, pass it off. And how can we get the kids to teach themselves and teach each other? 

Dale: When you’re learning from each other and you see what each other can do, it, it really expands the possibilities for each person. Thank you so much for sharing this walk through Assemble today and in the past. What’s next for you? 

Nina: Oh still working on our ramp up fellowship. So more things I’ve been able to get some partner for work workforce development dollars to apply to that.

So thinking like, how do we can, thinking about funding, but how does it actually get folded into economy, which it does, that’s one big thing. And then another big thing that we’re doing is, pulling folks together for creating a center for teaching artists. When I say teaching artists, of course, that’s like maker educators, but thinking, how are we supporting the folks who might not be in formal learning environments who are doing this work? 

Dale: I wish you the best of luck. And keep going, keep doing. And as I said, the opening it’s amazing. You’ve been at it this long and you’ve been able to not just keep it going, but expand it and serve more kids and have more impact. Congratulations, 

Nina: Thank you so much, Dale. Thank you for all you have done and all you keep doing.

And I hope to see you in Pittsburgh again sometime soon. 

Photos provided by Assemble.

Discuss this article with the rest of the community on our Discord server!

DALE DOUGHERTY is the leading advocate of the Maker Movement. He founded Make: Magazine 2005, which first used the term “makers” to describe people who enjoyed “hands-on” work and play. He started Maker Faire in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2006, and this event has spread to nearly 200 locations in 40 countries, with over 1.5M attendees annually. He is President of Make:Community, which produces Make: and Maker Faire.

In 2011 Dougherty was honored at the White House as a “Champion of Change” through an initiative that honors Americans who are “doing extraordinary things in their communities to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world.” At the 2014 White House Maker Faire he was introduced by President Obama as an American innovator making significant contributions to the fields of education and business. He believes that the Maker Movement has the potential to transform the educational experience of students and introduce them to the practice of innovation through play and tinkering.

Dougherty is the author of “Free to Make: How the Maker Movement Is Changing our Jobs, Schools and Minds” with Adriane Conrad. He is co-author of "Maker City: A Practical Guide for Reinventing American Cities" with Peter Hirshberg and Marcia Kadanoff.

View more articles by Dale Dougherty


Ready to dive into the realm of hands-on innovation? This collection serves as your passport to an exhilarating journey of cutting-edge tinkering and technological marvels, encompassing 15 indispensable books tailored for budding creators.