Days before the hands-on education festival Remake Learning Days kicks off in Pittsburgh next week, the city will host some 400 educators from around the globe for Project Zero’s Perspectives conference.

Founded in 1967 at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, Project Zero began as a way to “understand and enhance learning and thinking in the arts” and now advocates for creativity in learning environments as well as the importance of the maker movement in student understanding.

This year’s conference, running May 12 and 13, will take a look at three key areas: Encouraging Creativity and “Maker Thinking” in Children; Making Learning and Thinking Visible; and Teaching for Understanding.

Much of the credit for the conference’s selection of Pittsburgh goes to Dr. Jeffrey D. Evancho, Project Zero programming specialist at Quaker Valley School District. Day one of the conference will take place at Quaker Valley Middle School, while day two will occur at the Cathedral of Learning and Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History. (A pre-conference day will be held at Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh on Thursday.)

Seven years ago, Evancho was an art teacher at Quaker Valley when the school district was faced with a problem: most of the middle school students walked to school, and after dismissal, they would frequent nearby businesses and create a bit of a nuisance, as schoolchildren are wont to do. The local business owners approached the school district with their concern.

The teachers and administrators decided the solution was after-school programming, and Evancho, with help from colleagues, started an after-school arts program. “I wanted to create a space where students can function like artists,” he says, where their work would be “taken as seriously as math or language.”

Within a few years some 150 students were participating in his and other after-school programs, becoming members of things like the philosphy club. “It looked like a school within a school,” he says, except the children were staying late simply because they enjoyed the subject matter.

Evancho, then a graduate student at Pitt, studied the issue and found that participating students represented the school’s demographics as a whole: despite popular perception, Quaker Valley cuts across 11 municipalities whose children represent both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum. (18.4 percent of the student body is on a free or reduced lunch program.)

In 2013, Evancho and colleagues at Quaker Valley headed to Harvard to attend a weekend summer seminar with Project Zero. Since 2015 Evancho has held 10 mini-conferences to show regional educators the benefits to be gained from treating the arts and creative endeavors as serious cognitive pursuits, and how the maker movement can be used to facilitate such learning.

Of the 80 or so speakers set for the event, a dozen organizations affiliated with the Remake Learning Network are scheduled to present, including representatives from the South Fayette and Hopewell school districts to the Homewood Children’s Village. Evancho singles out Gregg Behr and Sunanna Chand of Remake Learning for helping Quaker Valley become a hub where new programs can be tested, evaluated and then shared with the Pittsburgh region at large.

“Remake Learning has created a culture that showed us all the value of collaboration,” says Evancho. “I think it’s really helping us drive new, innovative models moving forward.”

Interested in attending? Registration for the conference is still open.

Brian Conway

Brian Conway is a writer and photographer whose articles have appeared in the Chicago Tribune and local publications. In his free time, he operates Tripsburgh. Brian lives in the South Side.