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Innovation Week Puts The Spotlight on Pittsburgh Students

April 14, 2017

By Eric Seiverling

Passersby at Nova Place inside Allegheny Center on Pittsburgh’s North Shore on Thu., Apr. 6 may have thought they were playing a simple board game with Perry High School senior Robert Hawkins. But they actually received a Spanish lesson.

And those who sat and watched a film with Perry High School freshman Tamyah Epperson didn’t expect to have their eyes opened to the city’s homeless community.

But thanks to Pittsburgh’s second annual Inclusive Innovation Week and Comcast’s willingness to provide 24-hour free wi-fi to the lobby of Nova Place, high school students across the city were able to showcase their class projects and demonstrate to the public the power of digital technology.

The week-long event is a partnership between Comcast, The Buhl Foundation, and Nova Place to promote individuals and organizations who use technology to collaborate, research and solve problems, and share their stories. Last year’s program saw 63 events across 13 neighborhoods.

“Our focus is to do more cross-curricular projects based on digital learning instead of just giving the students worksheets and making them listen to a teacher talking,” said Justin Riddle, lead STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Math) instructor at Perry High School, as he helped Hawkins and Epperson interact with visitors at Nova Place.

“The students are able to to be placed in higher-level electives and internships,” Riddle continued.

Modeling their project on the popular board game The Game of Life, Hawkins and his classmates developed an interactive Spanish language board game that enabled participants to not only learn Spanish words on the board, but also to hear sounds from the game emanating from a computer connected to the game through a device called a Makey Makey.

Perry High School freshman Tamyah Epperson shows the film documentary she and her classmates produced showcasing Pittsburgh Playback Theater's “Walk On By” workshop on homelessness. Credit: Eric Seiverling.

Perry High School freshman Tamyah Epperson shows the film documentary she and her classmates produced showcasing Pittsburgh Playback Theater’s “Walk On By” workshop on homelessness. Credit: Eric Seiverling.

A Makey Makey is a plug-in device that uses a grounder clipped onto a participant’s finger and allows everyday objects – such as a game board – to act as a touchpad or keyboard. When a player lands on a square on Hawkins’ game, a specific sound, like a cash register ringing, is played through the computer’s soundboard.

“Technology comes pretty easy to me,” Hawkins, 17, admitted during a break between games. “When I got my first cell phone, I had to learn how it worked. I guess you could say my brain is constantly updating itself.”

For Epperson, her film project – a documentary on the Pittsburgh Playback Theater’s “Walk On By” workshop on homeless people – hit close to home.

“My friend and his mother lost their home and had to live in a shelter,” Epperson, 15, said while showing her film on an electronic tablet. “Most people think homeless people are dirty and they sleep on benches, but it’s not always the case.”

Walk on By” is a multi-disciplinary art program by the Pittsburgh Playback Theater, an improvisational acting group, that highlights the lives of homeless people in Pittsburgh and sparks dialogue about the issues surrounding homelessness.

During the filming of the workshop, Epperson was the B-roll camera operator whose shots intercut with the main footage, providing alternative viewpoints and action. While filming the workshop only took a few hours, Epperson said editing the footage took two weeks.

I love how it turned out,” she said.

Both Hawkins’ and Epperson’s efforts didn’t go unnoticed to those who stopped to chat and participate in the their projects.

We like to say our children don’t care about things or aren’t motivated enough, but this just shows how much these kids care,” said Buhl Foundation Project Management and Outreach Manager Amber Farr after watching both students at work. “Let’s highlight the youth and the work that they’re doing.”