TechShop youth programs switch gears as closing looms

A grant was supposed to keep 50 Homewood students in the shop through the fall. Now, 100 students are going to summer camp.

tech shop
mj slaby / the incline
MJ Slaby

Leaning over the table as he worked to add vinyl-cut numbers to the sleeves of a t-shirt, Isaiah Smith said the NBA-themed shirt he designed is “the best thing” he’ll make at TechShop’s summer camp.

“I can’t wait to show it off,” said the rising eighth grader, who usually spends the summers playing sports but came to this camp to “have fun building things and do things I don’t normally do.”

Next to him, Aysaiah Thomas cut out a DC Comics design from sparkly silver vinyl. An aspiring animator, the soon-to-be high school junior saw the camp as a way to learn skills for college.

On the other side of the shop, younger students learned to use the laser cutter, making wooden boxes and plastic fidget spinners. All around, members of the shop worked, too. Erin Oldynski, who specializes in business development and community engagement for TechShop, weaved around people on her way to set up for a meeting.

“Look at this,” she said, eyeing the activity. “Can you believe they want to close?”

Looming over the buzzing summer camps is a May announcement from TechShop corporate that the Pittsburgh location is closing. Members and staff have pulled together efforts to save it, earning an extension on a funding deadline and moving the closing date back a month to the end of September. But beyond that, the future is still unclear.

Corporate timed the closing in part “to not impact our very full youth STEAM summer program,” TechShop CEO Dan Woods wrote in an email to members. But just as the plans aren’t set for a future maker space, the youth programs are in limbo too.

“It’s really sad because we’ve quadrupled the number of students in the summer camps since 2015,” Oldynski said. The shop opened in 2013, but in 2015, year-round youth programs started full force.

Education programs are something that potential funders and partners ask about often, Gadsden Merrill, TechShop Pittsburgh general manager, told members earlier this month.

Plus, a new grant-funded program was going to keep 50 students — including Isaiah and Aysaiah — from Homewood in the shop beyond the summer. Now that’s not an option.

‘Building a makerhood’

Earlier this year, TechShop and Bible Center Church received a $50,000 grant from the Richard King Mellon Foundation to have 50 students from Homewood spend more time at the maker space that’s so close to their neighborhood.

“We want students to get the exposure,” said Stephanie Lewis, Director of Educational Initiatives for the church’s Oasis Project, adding that even learning the terminology around the shop is a good step for students as they think about their futures.

The plan was for 50 students to attend a week of summer camp, eight weeks of after-school programming and Saturday work sessions. The funding also allowed Bible Center Church to help with transportation. The only requirements were for students to be eight to 17 years old and live in Homewood, Oldynski said.

Between the Maker’s Clubhouse and Maker’s Place at the church, the YMCA and the University of Pittsburgh Manufacturing Assistance Center, Homewood is “building a makerhood,” said John Wallace, senior pastor at Bible Center Church and a Pitt professor. But there’s expertise and tools at TechShop that students wouldn’t see elsewhere, he said.

“TechShop takes it to a whole other level,” Wallace said.

The closure announcement, however, meant the grant-funded program had to change. Instead of 50 students going for a longer period of time, now 100 students will each attend a week of summer camp.

“We weren’t planning on doing summer camps that far into August, but now we’ll have to do them all month basically,” Oldynski said, adding she’s been reaching out to schools to recruit more students. The change brings the total number of students in camps up to 250 for the summer.

Although the grant will now help more students, it also means the impact has changed, she said. “It’s unfortunate in a way because we could have had longer term engagement with the students” and they could have worked with the tools more, Oldynski said.

Jayla Patton, lead STEAM instructor at TechShop, said camp lessons will be the basics of the laser and vinyl cutters, as well as needed computer skills on Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop and 3-D modeling software, Tinkercad. The goal is to get students to problem solve and not be afraid to experiment, she said.

“I want them to be able to say, ‘I’ve done this before,’” Patton said.

Also part of the grant was a requirement to document student work. Carnegie Mellon University graduate student Kevin DeLand is researching ways to help students document their work and reflect on the process. The documentation would give students a portfolio for applying to schools or jobs, Oldynski said. It was also a project that could have been long-term at the shop, she added.

“There are so many exciting things in the works that we’ll see what happens to,” she said.

Maker future

It was on a recommendation that Renard Smith, Isaiah’s dad, and Tanisha Thomas, Aysaiah’s mom, learned about TechShop’s summer camps and scholarships.

“I’d vaguely heard about it,” Thomas said, admitting she thought it was more about woodworking. If she knew more, Thomas said she would have sent Aysaiah there sooner.

The summer camp exposes her to multiple skills that will help her in her future career, Thomas said, adding that her daughter wants to work in animation, but needs more skills than drawing.

“I’m really am excited for her,” Thomas said adding that the opportunity to work on machines that expensive at a young age is “a blessing to me.”

Oldynski said TechShop’s Bakery Square plaza location in Larimer can be “a bubble” so people don’t always know TechShop is there. Or there is sometimes a misconception that it’s not for them, she added.

But she said a recommendation to a parent from a person they trust makes the buy-in much easier. And once a parent of a potential scholarship student comes in the door for a tour, “I haven’t had a single parent say no,” Oldynski said.

Smith said he was was impressed with the exposure to tools and the ability for kids from the city to make informed decisions about science and technology.

Even though it’s close to Homewood, transportation can be a barrier, hence why the Bible Center Church helps with transportation, Lewis added, but echoed Oldynski and said once parents hear about the scholarships, the answer is “absolutely.”

Both Smith and Thomas said they’d continue to send their child to TechShop if the current location stays open. Smith said he’d be open to send Isaiah to a future version of TechShop or a similar maker space in another neighborhood, but Thomas said it would depend.

Right now, Aysaiah takes one bus. “I don’t want to send her somewhere where she has to take two buses,” Thomas said, adding that’s especially a problem during the school year when it gets darker earlier.

As plans for a future version of TechShop continue, Oldynski said a location change could really impact the accessibility for Homewood students and others. Her hope for the future version of the maker space is a place that “engages people who are historically and systemically left out.”

“The STEAM movement in schools is happening, but it’s happening more in the affluent white communities” so it’s not on the radar of everyone, she said, adding that scholarships are key to making a space financially accessible to youth and to under- or un- employed adults.

A maker space like TechShop brings together different people, she added. There can be an eight-year-old from Homewood next to a retired engineer next to a person working on a loom next to a teen.

“Where else do you see that?”