Lessons from Pittsburgh: Rallying the Local Troops Around Innovation in Education

Lessons from Pittsburgh: Rallying the Local Troops Around Innovation in Education


To the world, Pittsburgh has long been known as a place for blue collars, where the steel industry contributed greatly to our country’s growth. This image is reinforced by the name of its renowned, championship-winning American football team.

But when the local economy took a turn for the worse in the 80s, the city had to reinvent itself. A recent rebranding has them describing themselves as a “City for 21st Century Learners.” After taking a brief jaunt this year before the school year began, I’m happy to report that it’s not hype. In fact, there’s a lot I believe other cities can glean.

At the end of the summer, I joined a few dozen colleagues from around the country for the inaugural Education Innovation Clusters convening, hosted by Digital Promise. Aside from New Orleans and Pittsburgh, delegates from education organizations in New York City, Virginia, Rhode Island, San Francisco Bay Area, Southern California, Raleigh-Durham, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Chicago, Houston, Nashville, DC and Phoenix were in attendance.

We met to exchange regional updates on innovation taking place in education, and to create a framework for building, maintaining and measuring an Education Innovation Cluster (EIC). An initiative from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology, EICs are described as “forward-thinking regions where commercial, academic, and education partners have come together to form an innovation cluster focusing on a specific challenge that their region is uniquely suited to address and solve.”

Here’s why Pittsburgh has it all--and what your city can learn.

A Culture of Collaboration, Not Competition

We were welcomed by many local organizations that had one goal in mind: to share Pittsburgh as a model for education innovation. It was so refreshing to see a city working in concert: one not inhibited by politics or red tape, nor too large and fragmented to make progress--as demonstrated by the over 60 organizations contributing to the city’s learning community.

While there are many groups spurring innovation in Pittsburgh, the following five merit a spotlight--and a visit if you happen to be in town:

  • The Grable Foundation has played prominent a role in funding promising initiatives in Pittsburgh, ranging from startups to school systems.
  • The Sprout Fund helps to get new ventures off of the ground with seed funding, such as Pittsburgh’s higher education lab, Saxifrage School.
  • The Create Lab at Carnegie Mellon does much of the groundbreaking R&D needed to create new products that will revolutionize the classroom. One example is the GigaPan, a panoramic photo platform modeled after NASA’s Mars Rover to share history, geography, culture and literature with kids around the world.

  • TechShop, a membership club for makers, has the facilities for entrepreneurs, hobbyists, and first time DIYers to create physical and digital objects using any type of medium, from wood to 3-D printing.
  • The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh offers the MAKESHOP – a hands on area for kids, parents, educators and other curious types to tinker with simple machines, recycled materials, and other physics projects to tap into the right side of our brains.

Who are the leading five in your city?

A City's Unique History and Culture in Education Innovation

There’s no confusion about Pittsburgh’s identity. It’s a community of hard-working, industrious, creative, well-educated, down-to-earth people (like Mr. Rogers). Being from New Orleans, I believe in the significance of a city’s unique identity. But what I’m more fascinated by is the notion of incorporating that unique identity into your city’s education narrative.

The Maker movement is alive and well, with nearly a dozen organizations dedicated to hands-on learning for kids with real tools and materials. Schools are getting exposure to STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) through programs like Arts & Bots, which offers teachers technical art projects to infuse in their lessons. With Pittsburgh’s rich history in innovating the steel, aluminum and glass industries, it’s no surprise to see the same DNA in these new ventures.

Imagine if every region in the U.S. was known for a certain specialty. And as entrepreneurs and school leaders had ideas for new schools and organizations, there was an easy way for them to identify and relocate to the best place for their venture. This would foster greater collaboration, and reduce competition in an industry that needs us to work together the most: schools.

How can your city’s history and strengths play into its education innovation narrative?

Local Universities as Key Drivers of R&D and Talent

Albeit less per capita than Boston, Pittsburgh is home to more colleges than the average city. Within its broader higher-ed community, a few key players stand out who are actively involved in education innovation.

Carnegie Mellon has created the CreateLab as a space for key thinkers in robotics, engineering, math and design to develop groundbreaking innovations for the local community. We were able to test drive a kiosk called Message for Me, which lets 4 and 5 year-olds update their parents during daycare by taking their own photos and recording their own messages. The messages are automatically sent to up to 5 people of the parent’s choice. The CreateLab has also created satellite labs at regional hubs including Carlow University, West Virginia University and others.

How are your local universities spurring innovation in schools?

A Concerted Effort from Non-Profits

Non-profits are best positioned to facilitate collaboration among for-profit entities that are mission-aligned. Organized by the Pittsburgh Kids + Creativity Network, dozens of organizations in the greater Pittsburgh area come together to support innovation through trainings, promotion, and distribution of new ideas, products and services. For example, the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children (PAEYC) have helped get new products from the CreateLab into the hands of users, and offer training opportunities for teachers in local school systems.

How can the non-profit community in your city be leveraged to accelerate innovation in schools?

These are just a handful of the many promising education initiatives taking place in Steel City. It can be hard to wrap your head around them all, but fortunately the Kids+Creativity Network has created a great resource for staying on top of all the exciting developments.

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