Bedford Dwellings, located in the Hill District, is one of the nation’s oldest housing communities. It’s also where, for four weeks in the spring, there was a lively group of middle school students engaging in computational puzzles, taking apart desktop computers and using virtual reality headsets once a week after school. This is due to an innovative partnership between the University of Pittsburgh’s Hill District Community Engagement Center, School of Computing and Information, School of Engineering and the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh to pilot a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) program for community youth. This project hopes to introduce students to STEAM, bridging a gap that exists in communities like the Hill District and creating pathways for underrepresented populations to have experiences in this field.
The students’ passion and excitement for these sessions was clear: there was an audible liveliness as the participants pushed to finish puzzles first, excitedly yelled out questions and ideas, and gained increased confidence in their ability to use this technology effectively—one student even began to solve the puzzles faster than some of the graduate students. Kirk Holbrook, director of the Community Engagement Center (CEC), asked a student at the end what he learned. The child responded “Everything!” This was after he had spent four weeks learning about computers, how to take them apart and put them back together. There was visible growth in his confidence and a desire to continue learning.
The impact goes beyond just the students living in the Hill, it also touches the lives of those from the University who are involved in a profound way. At the center of the action during the sessions, chatting away with the students, racing to solve puzzles with them, was Kenrick Fernandes, a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Computing and Information. He had the opportunity to design this program in collaboration with his colleagues and community members. For him, this was a great way to get out of the “research box” and see how technological education can play out in a community setting. Kenrick told us, “The mission of those pursuing technology research is to have an impact on society’s quality of life and this experience was a great opportunity to understand the many dimensions of that impact. The emotional and mental challenges of participating in these opportunities can be a powerful source of motivation.”
Though the sessions have come to an end, this engagement is far from over. City of Pittsburgh Housing Authority Chief Community Affairs Officer, Michelle Sandidge, told us “Having this opportunity on site gave our young residents the opportunity to participate in learning about something they might not have been able to experience elsewhere and having it on site eliminated barriers and made it easy for them to attend and enjoy themselves. We are looking forward to continued events in partnership with the CEC and other University partners that benefit our residents.” Building on the success of this pilot, the goal is to continue these programs in the future, and when the Hill District CEC finds its physical home, it will have a STEAM Studio that will provide opportunities for learning for youth and adults in the broader Hill community, a concept developed by Hill residents. Until then, the Hill District CEC will continue these on-going engagements around STEAM in the community by expanding their work to local schools, while still engaging with partners like the Housing Authority of Pittsburgh to bring opportunities to their residents and beyond. These programs will not only bridge the STEAM gap that exists in communities like the Hill District and create pathways for underrepresented populations, it will also give the University powerful opportunities to bring their knowledge into the community and learn from the community in return.