Photo courtesy of Melissa Butler

 

By Alyse Horn

At Pittsburgh Allegheny K-5, 810 Arch Street, children are being taught to think outside the block.

Circuit Blocks that is.

Circuit Blocks are components used in the Children’s Innovation Project, which started the development at the school in 2010.

CIP is a program that focuses children on “creative exploration, expression and innovation with technology,” according to the website.

The children experiment with technology using the components, which are made especially for little fingers, to explore and understand electricity and simple circuits hands-on.

Along with the components, children also bring in objects from home to open up and poke around, such as toys, radios and telephones.

When the program first started it was only applied to Melissa Butler’s kindergarten class, one of the directors who founded the project. Since 2010 it has expanded to the entire kindergarten and first grade, and is on pace to expand into the rest of the school.

Butler said that currently one second and one third grade class are enrolled in the program, and next year the entire second grade will be participating.

Jeremy Boyle, assistant professor of Art at Clarion University of Pennsylvania and resident artist at Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab, is the other creator of CIP. Boyle makes all of the components for the children.

“One thing that is unique about our classroom materials is that they have been designed iteratively over the past four years through our direct experiences in the classrooms with children,” Boyle said.

In the beginning of the program Boyle said ideas were turned into prototype materials that were then put under trial and error from the children’s interactions with the components.

“We have been focused on making the materials reliable, easy to use and they all follow a very clear visual system of understanding,” Boyle said.

Boyle uses local and sustainably sourced wood to make the components when possible, which Boyle and Butler both believe makes a difference.

Butler said during a lesson, the pace is very slow so it is ensured that each child understands the core concepts of the components at hand by focusing their language on cause and effect, and observational drawings.

“It allows the children to go much deeper with their understandings,” Butler said.

Connections to other content areas such as writing, arts, vocabulary, mathematics and social studies are made, strengthening and extending children’s learning, according to the website.

“Creative inquiry leads to critical inquiry,” Butler said. “So if we can provide opportunities for children to be creative in their expression, they can learn to be more critical about things in the world.”

Boyle said he and Butler met in 2004 when Boyle was a resident artist at the Mattress Factory.

“We began working together on project-based arts integrated projects in her classrooms at that time, first at Knoxville Elementary School and then at Pittsburgh Faison,” Boyle said.

Then in 2010, Boyle said he was Resident Artist at CMU’s CREATE Lab and interested in exploring technology learning with young children, so he contacted Butler again.

“Melissa and I began working together and this became the foundation for what would become the Children’s Innovation Project,” Boyle said.

CIP is a project of CMU’s CREATE Lab. Pilot funding for the project came from SPARK, a program of The Sprout Fund. Project partners also include Carlow University School of Education, ASSET STEM Education, The Fred Rogers Center at St. Vincent College, Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, among others. CIP is part of the Kids+Creativity network, according to the website.

More information on the Children’s Innovation Project can be found at cippgh.org/site.

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Photos courtesy of Melissa Butler