Ilana Diamond

Director, AlphaLab Gear

That collision is just what they’re talking about these days at AlphaLab Gear, says Ilana Diamond. As director of the hardware spinoff of AlphaLab, Pittsburgh’s nationally recognized startup accelerator, Diamond is at Ground Zero, trading investment for equity — and an eight-month program where ideas are mentored in all disciplines — carpenters to CEOs, sculptors to software engineers.

In a large, open space, all wood floors and windows, artists to entrepreneurs are very much engaged. Here, a kiosk for 3D printing — make it work, make it usable, above all, make it attractive. There, a shoe insert that captures energy to charge cell phones. Or a thermoplastic molding machine. Or a phone case equipped with a 120-decibel assault alarm.

“Game changers?” Diamond asks. “Start with the idea that we help people get ready to manufacture. And that anything they can create can be funded and manufactured here, within 100 miles of Pittsburgh. I always say, ‘we’re from Pittsburgh. We build stuff.'”

Even more exciting about AlphaLab Gear, she says, is its summer camp for neighborhood kids. In the heart of East Liberty, they troll for teens who want to become entrepreneurs or engineers. Under AlphaLab Gear tutelage, the teens spend three hours a day making things (welding, wood working, and the like), three hours learning entrepreneurship (business models, funding, and so on.)

“They’re in the community,” Diamond says. “They’re really engaged.”

Cathy Lewis Long of the Sprout Fund. Photo by Peter Leeman.

Cathy Lewis Long of the Sprout Fund. Photo by Peter Leeman.

Cathy Lewis Long

Executive Director and President, The Sprout Fund

Youth engagement, The Sprout Fund’s Cathy Lewis Long agrees, is what it’s all about.

“Pittsburgh builds off a spirit of innovation,” she says. “We think about pathways. We have a willingness to work together, to test new things, to work outside the box, to deliver dividends.”

On her plate now — the game changer — is the Pittsburgh Kids+Creativity Network.

Calling on regional leaders, youth workers, engineers, artists, et. al., they’re asking what sets of tools will people need for the future? “What will drive the body of knowledge,” Long asks, “what innovative spaces and knowledge sharing?”

The goal, she says, is learning not education. The latter, Long says, is school, and institutional. The former, is personal and holistic. “Learning doesn’t end at 3:00,” she says. “Learning does not end with a degree. Learning is lifelong.”

And it’s all-encompassing, academic, peer, and social. “We’re working to support connective learning,” she says, “to harness resources in the community, to create relationships without school-connected activities.

“The next step,” Long continues, “is credentialing this informal learning.”

One way is with digital badges, indications that capture competency, skills, and knowledge. “If employers need a particular set of skills, we can create that pathway. That will mean more access and equity than traditional education. Which is especially good for kids who spend a lot of time out of school. Especially for such 21st-century skills as digital literacy.

“The great part of this,” Long adds, “is that it meets kids where they are. It sparks their imagination and provides learning experiences they need to succeed.

“Pittsburgh can become a national — an international — leader in this,” she adds. “Re-Imagining classrooms — the intersection of tech, science, and art. It’s a game changer.”