Powered By Comcast

Facing Down the Future with Rec2Tech

September 28, 2016

By Meg Hogan

Rec2Tech transformed five recreation centers throughout the city into places where children used technology for problem solving and expressing creativity.

Not to mention just plain experimenting and learning something new.

While the goal is to promote ongoing curriculum to help kids learn science, technology, engineering, art and math (STEAM) skills throughout the year at these rec centers, the week-long Rec2Tech programming highlighted some amazing possibilities for what can be created with a few of the right tools, the right knowledge and the right partnerships.  

DJ QRX from 1 Hood Media provided music throughout the day at the Rec2Tech Demo Party. Image: Meg Hogan

DJ QRX from 1 Hood Media provided music throughout the day at the Rec2Tech Demo Party. Image: Meg Hogan

The Demo Party, at Schenley Plaza on Sept. 17, served as a family festival of the sorts. While the weather forecast called for rain – not unusual for Pittsburgh – the day turned out to be sunny and perfect for playing with robots, eating lunch and experiencing virtual reality. Here are the highlights from the 2016 Rec2Tech Demo Party.

The Week’s Events

Each of the participating recreation centers had a booth at the Demo Party with a hands-on display for kids and parents alike to play with and learn something new. The rec centers and their events throughout the week of Sept. 12 – 16 included:

  • Warrington Rec Center in Beltzhoover, “Making and Breaking the Web with the Digital Corps
  • Phillips Rec Center in Carrick, “Tech Solutions for Green Living with TechShop Pittsburgh
  • Magee Rec Center in Greenfield, “High-Tech Health with Sisters e S.T.E.A.M. and Citizen Science Lab
  • Paulson Rec Center in Lincoln/Lemington, “Game Design Studio with Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh
  • Ornsby Rec Center in South Side, “Exploration and Expression with Assemble and YMCA

The Demo Party

About halfway through the Demo Party event, more than 300 people had stopped by the tent on Shenley Plaza. “Five sites throughout the week saw anywhere between 15 to 40 kids a day, so we’re looking at about 200 kids total throughout the week,” says Sprout Fund associate Ani Martinez.

Martinez explains how the week helped organizations like the Sprout Fund confirm their suspicions about the digital divide in Pittsburgh. “Even if you have an internet connection, that doesn’t automatically mean a change in a community’s ability to engage with technology or use it to make things or use it as a tool for empowerment,” she says.

This Achilles heel, and ongoing challenge for educators and communities alike, has been identified, so now it can be addressed. “That’s a big part of the digital divide: It’s not just the technology, but also the culture that is around the technology,” Martinez says.

There are decades of research about connected learning that supports that, so I think we can really put it into practice,” she says.

Rec2Tech week, after months-on-end planning, experienced some challenges. “There are always challenges, but I really think our community rec centers deserve more investment,” Martinez says. “Facility improvements, equipment upgrades and internet service delivery is essential to helping these centers to meet the demand and need.”

Martinez continues, “And it also shows that it’s about more than technology. You can’t just put a device in someone’s hand and say, ‘OK, go.’ You need a community – you need people – around it to make sure it’s useful and meaningful.”

The Partnerships

The partnerships forged between corporations, government organizations, nonprofits and businesses are what made Rec2Tech possible. Rec2Tech supporters included Comcast NBCUniversal and the MacArthur Foundation. The event’s partners included the Office of the Mayor, Citiparks, the Department of Innovation and Performance and the Sprout Fund.

Jamie Beechey, Citiparks deputy director, explains how these partnerships and events came to fruition. “About a year ago, we sat down and started talking about how the recreation centers could be a part of the ReMake Learning network and what that would all look like,” she says.

It was sort of like a think tank; there wasn’t really a set of directives or we didn’t necessarily have a set of outcomes,” Beechey says of the big-picture brainstorming that sparked Rec2Tech.

The mayor [Bill Peduto] started pushing and saying, ‘I really want rec-to-tech.’ So we started looking at other cities and Baltimore comes to mind with Digital Harbor,” she says, referencing what’s one of the best-known examples of converting a recreational center into a usable space for the public to learn technical skills that are in high-demand for the workforce. The Digital Harbor project in Baltimore serves a dual purpose: to inspire other cities to rethink how they’re using their existing recreational centers and to prove that evolving rec centers can be done.

We wanted to take some of our centers that could use the influx of technology and see what that would mean for our kids,” she explains.

A child controls one of the hands-on robot exhibits at the Rec2Tech Demo Party. Image: Meg Hogan

A child controls one of the hands-on robot exhibits at the Rec2Tech Demo Party. Image: Meg Hogan

The Experience

For Beechey, the Rec2Tech programming for 2016 was less about the specific skills taught and learned and more about the experience of it all.

One of the things I found most profound was how excited the kids were,” she says. “Sometimes we introduce new programming to kids and it’s just crickets chirping,” she says of some past experiences.

This was kind of the opposite, and I think because much of what was happening was less talk and more hands-on, and it spoke to them,” she says.

This hands-on experience gave some of the kids a whole new perspective of what’s possible; of what they personally are capable of creating. “The games at Paulson [Rec Center], the kids just thought that was the greatest thing,” she says.

She continues, “Children are very young, and they have some sort of digitally formatted game in their hand, and they were on the back-end of that and now understand that ‘I could do this,’ never even considering before that you could create it and giving them the opportunity to see something for their future.”

Making Rec2Tech Accessible

The events during the week of Rec2Tech, and the culmination event at the Demo Party, began a momentum that should be – and could be – sustained throughout the year in the city’s recreational centers. “We’re trying to figure out a way to infuse this into our afterschool program on a daily basis,” Beechey says.

She explains, “We run five after-school programs at these sites anyway. This was kind of just a different twist to it and we’re working with some of our partners to get that every day, at least at one of our sites.”

Beyond the technology integration, Citiparks works on an ongoing basis to connect the many groups – large and small – working to give kids access to the technology and skills they need to enter the workforce, and to help Pittsburgh continue to thrive.

Mostly for us, it’s about connecting to new partners because the city, the municipality, we can’t do this by ourselves,” Beechey says.

She continues, “Sprout Fund and Comcast and MacArthur Foundation, they really assist us in being able to provide this. Plus probably by virtue of having recreation background, not all of our folks know how to deliver this kind of piece, and it helps us to find people who can deliver this kind of program.”

Virtual Reality headsets were available for kids to experience the technology at the Rec2Tech Demo Party. Image: Meg Hogan

Virtual Reality headsets were available for kids to experience the technology at the Rec2Tech Demo Party. Image: Meg Hogan

Martinez, who worked from the Sprout Fund’s side to make this idea a reality, reflects on how to keep the momentum going. “It’s about integrating yourself into the infrastructure of the community. That takes more than one week,” she says.

I think everyone did an amazing job and I think there’s going to be lasting partnerships and I see a bright future. I think the challenge is really ahead of us and not behind us, you just need to make sure you keep going,” Martinez says.

In case you missed it, here’s the back story to Rec2Tech.