Smart Cities: What is the Secret to Pittsburgh’s Innovative Mindset?

Pittsburgh skyline in artistic abstract watercolor background

Justin Aglio

The City of Pittsburgh will proudly celebrate its 200th year anniversary on March 18, 2016. In the last 200 years, Pittsburgh has continuously reinvented itself by demonstrating an innovative mindset. In 1911, Pittsburgh was the nation’s 8th-largest city in America, accounting between a third and a half of country’s steel output. Near the end of 20th century, the area shifted its economic base to education, healthcare, finance, and technology including opening the world’s first Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. Through embracing the startup community, innovative educational models, equality across the region and health, Pittsburgh shows no signs of slowing down.

What is the secret to Pittsburgh’s innovative mindset? Is it the secret sauce on McDonald’s Big Mac sandwich that was invented in the Pittsburgh region in 1967? I argue that the secret to Pittsburgh’s innovative mindset is its people. The people of Pittsburgh are an unique blend of intelligence, hard-work, and resilience – including August Wilson, Andy Warhol, Gene Kelly, Rachel Carson, Thomas Starzl, Jonas Salk, Kenny Clarke, Perry Como, Billy Porter and Roberto Clemente, just to name a few.

But there was one person that captured innovation more than any other in Pittsburgh’s history. This educator captured Pittsburghers’ strength to change and adapt while also capturing hearts. He was the person who invited us into his home from 1968 – 2001. Fred Rogers, creator and star of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, first came into our living rooms in 1968. In the very first episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood on February 19, 1968, Mister Rogers asked a question that is at the center of innovation, “How do you feel about new things?” His response to that question a few minutes later was, “Change is good”.

Fred Rogers used an innovative technology, television, to disrupt the way that knowledge was transferred to students. This innovation spirit continues to flow throughout Pittsburgh and disrupt education through its ecosystem of organizations and people. In 2014, Pittsburgh became the first U.S. city to win the Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Award. A pivotal force behind this award was the Kids+Creativity initiative – now called the Remake Learning Network – a collaborative ecosystem of people, projects and organizations working together to reinvent learning in schools, libraries, museums, after school programs, community centers and online.

How is this education ecosystem supporting the Pittsburgh Innovation Mindset? A list of some of Pittsburgh’s established innovative educational organizations that work collaboratively as part of the Remake Learning Network are as follows:

  • Center for Creativity is housed at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit and connects the region’s diverse and creative resources with educators and administrators as they infuse arts and technology in creative and inventive ways into the curriculum. Over the past six years, the Center (with help from the Grable and Benedum Foundations) has provided over $4 million in grants to help nearly 70 public school districts in the region create remarkable learning experiences for students. The Center is the region’s go-to creativity-hub for preK-12 educators.
  • Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh provides innovative museum experiences that inspire joy, creativity and curiosity. MAKESHOP® is a space for children and families to make, play and design using “real stuff”— the same materials, tools, and processes used by professional artists, builders, programmers and creators of all kinds.
  • Carnegie Science Center inspires and entertains by connecting science and technology with everyday life. In addition to providing valuable scientific experiences, Carnegie Science Center engages in outreach programs that serve Pittsburgh’s diverse community.
  • PAEYC supports high-quality care and education for young children from birth until age nine across 10 counties in Southwestern Pennsylvania.
  • Zulama Games creates information, systems and tools that inspire life-changing educational experiences for students and their mentors.
  • Fred Rogers Center enriches the development of current and emerging leaders in the fields of early learning and children’s media by supporting the professional advancement and mentoring of the next generations of Fred Rogers.
  • League of Innovative Schools: Avonworth, Elizabeth Forward, and South Fayette
  • Carnegie Mellon University, including its Community Robotics, Education, And Technology Empowerment Lab (CREATE Lab) which explores socially meaningful innovation and deployment of robotic technologies, and it’s Entertainment Technology Center, which works with schools and other nonprofits to add meaningful gamification to the learning process
  • The Consortium of Public Education is working to ensure that all children in our region start school ready to learn and graduate from high school prepared for lifelong learning, careers and citizenship. Through its Forum for Collaborative Leadership and Innovation, The Consortium convenes to support multi-disciplinary teams of educators with research, coaching and other resources to pursue systemic improvements in their schools and districts.
  • Schell Games is a full-service game design and development company, which specializes in creating transformational games and innovative, interactive experiences.
  • Assemble is an open physical space in an urban neighborhood in Pittsburgh. They unite artists, technologists, and makers with our neighbors of all demographics.
  • The Sprout Fund has been a key steward of the Remake Learning Network. They bring the community together through large and small scale events, as well as offer catalytic funding to bring innovative ideas to life.

In addition to Pittsburgh’s established educational leaders, Pittsburgh has also seen new and emerging organizations and schools of Innovation:

Pittsburgh is an exciting place to work and play. It is no wonder why Pittsburgh was named one of the Most Livable Cities in the World and is often referred as KidsBurgh.

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Justin Aglio is the Director of Innovation at Montour School District. Follow Justin on Twitter, @JustinAglio.

Guest Author

Getting Smart loves its varied and ranging staff of guest contributors. From edleaders, educators and students to business leaders, tech experts and researchers we are committed to finding diverse voices that highlight the cutting edge of learning.

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Ed Jones

If only we could push the Ohio border to just east of Pittsburgh.

I regularly cross the river to visit the Burgh's education innovators, consider them great friends. When I'm not at an EdCamp or Hive event, I'm prowling the CMU campus to see what's new in Machine Learning or the Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging. And if, along the way, a local artist doesn't stir you, the landscapes and architecture always will.

For all that, an obstacle intrudes. Pittsburgh is still stuck in PA, a state not known for legislative quickness and legal adaptability. For K12, this is everything.

What could be accomplished if Pittsburgh's edu-money and edu-talent could work in the environment of Ohio's innovative laws?

Here, HS students have the option to 'check out' of any or all of their district-provided classes. Mr. Smith isn't reaching you on Geometry? You can replace his class with one of your choosing. Have advanced Oboe skills but are still required to take a musics basics class? You can simply write a personal plan to replace it. Want to learn from Khan Academy, the local arts center, a calculus MOOC, a national robotics competitions, an innovative online course in forensic science, or full stack web programming? In Ohio, you can do any of these and more for full credit toward high school graduation.

Imagine what Pittsburgh's innovation money and talent could do in an environment like this. Imagine if the Remake Learning Network started experimenting in an environment where credit requirements are so open, and learning options are in no way limited by district personnel.

In such an environment, the opportunities for K12 innovation explode. The "Expanded Learning Ecosystem" includes far more people and resources. New revenue resources even surface. And it's democratic, not limited to a few lucky advanced schools.

We can't even imagine what learning would look like after a few years of innovating under this approach. That being the case, it behooves us to somehow start doing it.

Alas, when I head to EdCamp Pittsburgh next week, I'll see the innovators and their innovative funders; but I'll leave the innovative regulatory environment on this side of the river.

carol wooten

This gives a quick overview of our amazing city as a great place for innovative, curious, design thinkers of all ages!

Jordan Lippman, PhD

Justin, thanks for mentioning my two companies and for highlighting some of the amazing things PGH has to offer. I am a transplant from NJ who spent 10 years in Chicago before landing in PGH and I could not be happier raising my three children here.
I am inspired by the talent of the Remake Learning network members I have met since leaving academia to start Interactive Story Adventures ( three years ago - and my new venture Project Playground this year. Pittsburgh has a unique mix of innovative educators, world-class learning science researchers, technology innovators, progressive foundation support, passionate community organizers, and superb informal learning resources. It is an exciting time to be in Pittsburgh!

Even more exciting times lie ahead because the Remake Learning Network has begun to embrace the burgeoning startup community with initiatives like Start-up Weekend Education, the Thrival Festival, and the forthcoming Remake Learning EdTech Refinery.
Cheers to all,

Josh Knauer

While I agree wholeheartedly with the premise and many of the examples of innovation you've raised, I think it's important to note that there are significant differences in innovation and educational achievement along racial and income lines. I would love to see Pittsburgh aspire to become a shining example where all ships rise. We're off to a good start, but we've got a long way to go before we can claim victory.

Patrick Crawford

Imagination, creativity, and innovation can be learned and nurtured. Our educational systems must integrate the skills, knowledge, and attitudes necessary for successful innovations into daily practices. The programs and schools mentioned in the article are excellent examples how it can be done. The challenge is to move from the current industrial age model of education to a new system that embraces individualism and innovation.

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