Carnegie Mellon University
August 10, 2015

Children's Innovation Project

children's hands

In 2010, a question was posed in Carnegie Mellon University's CREATE (Community Robotics, Education and Technology Empowerment) Lab, "What might innovation with technology look like in a kindergarten classroom?"

Artist-in-residence Jeremy Boyle and teacher-in-residence Melissa Butler answered with the Children's Innovation Project.

The program encourages children to learn about technology through hands-on exploration of electronic toys and components. The youngsters disassemble, repurpose and reconfigure, empowering them with new understanding.

"We view technology in essentially the same way you'd think about empowerment through art," said Illah Nourbakhsh, professor of robotics and CREATE Lab founder. "We believe technology is a raw material that children can use just like they'd use crayons to express themselves and explore the world."

Nourbakhsh explained that the CREATE Lab is dedicated to helping communities — from climate scientists to Ugandan villagers — to see the power of how they can be innovative with technology to improve their lives.

"We believe technology is a raw material that children can use just like they'd use crayons to express themselves and explore the world." — Illah Nourbakhsh

 "The Children's Innovation Project aligns with CREATE Lab's focus on technological fluency that supports children to be producers, not consumers of technology," Boyle said.

Boyle's background as an audio artist helped him co-develop the program.

"Jeremy realized that the technology he uses for audio art can really open up windows of learning for children," Nourbakhsh said. "He wants to show them how to be truly innovative — a special word because just downloading an app to your iPad and using it is the antithesis of innovation."

child's diagram

The Children's Innovation Project has been growing for the past five years at Pittsburgh Allegheny K-5 in Pittsburgh Public Schools where Butler teaches. Boyle describes kindergarteners opening electronic toys with screwdrivers, first graders inventing switches and second graders making more than one light glow with a single battery block.

"Without fail, every year I get parents with tears in their eyes who tell me they never realized their kids were capable of this level of insight," Nourbakhsh said.

He points out that true to CREATE's mission, the Children's Innovation Project is meaningfully sustainable, as its development happens directly with public school classroom teachers who integrate the work into their daily practices and then share it with others.

Other notable child-focused CREATE initiatives include "Arts & Bots," in which grade-schoolers build and animate robotic creations; "Hear Me," where kids inspire social change through media, and "Message From Me," in which young children send pictures and recordings of their daily experiences to their parents' cell phones. This was so successful it rapidly expanded from five pilot schools to every head start program in the surrounding county.

The team is particularly grateful to be at CMU.

"The only way the CREATE lab can exist is with graphic designers, artists, teachers, software and hardware engineers all working together," Nourbakhsh said. "Everything we do has to be soup to nuts — it's all work at the boundaries of many disciplines."

"Only here could we have access to students and faculty from all these different world-class disciplines in one place."