Hill District CEC Introduces Digital Inclusion Efforts for Pittsburgh

A child in a black and gold sweatshirt reaches for a board on a tableThe City of Pittsburgh has been making a name for itself as a science and technology hub, and with more tech comes more digital career opportunities. Today, more than eight in 10 middle-skill jobs require digital skills.

“We know that a lot of jobs now require more tech skills than ever. In this COVID-19 environment, it’s almost a necessity to be competitive in a growing economy,” said Kirk Holbrook, director of the Community Engagement Center in the Hill District (CEC), part of the University of Pittsburgh.

To help meet demand, the CEC has launched multiple initiatives promoting digital inclusion for Pittsburgh-area residents from underrepresented populations, including adults and school-aged students. For high school students, Holbrook said these initiatives aim to increase interest in careers relating to science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM).

“We’re looking at creative ways to blend together different concepts. It’s not only technology and sciences; it’s also getting creative with the STEAM acronym,” said Holbrook. “The ‘e,’ for example, stands for engineering, but it could also be entrepreneurship, entertainment or environment. By combining these concepts, you can really think of innovative ways to deliver different activities, to expose youth and adults to STEAM, but also to build skills that are transferable to the workforce.”

In the works and on the horizon

This spring, the CEC launched STEAM studio spaces in close partnership with Remake Learning, the Hill Community Development Corp (CDC), Partner4Work and Pitt’s Center for Creativity. The year-long planning process also resulted in nine STEAM Studio seed grants, each awarding up to $5,000 to fund collaborative teams of community organizations and Pitt faculty and staff.

Get involved

LevelUp412 offers more information about the classes. The Hill District CEC also offers programs and services for Pittsburgh residents and students.

Local organization School2Career received two STEAM Studio seed grants to work on a student entrepreneur competition for early 2021 and a showcase for community health care workers. School2Career is also engaged with other Hill District CEC programs, such as introductory workshops that teach high school students coding with Python, a computer programming language, and skills needed to work in IT support.

“Twice a week, they’re meeting with Pitt staff to learn computer coding. In a virtual world, it’s exciting to offer these quality programs,” said Karla Stallworth, program director for School2Career, which is part of the Oakland Planning and Development Corporation. “A lot of city schools typically don’t offer Python for youth, for example. The CEC has been really getting the community involved and hearing the community’s voice as to what is needed in the Hill District and surrounding areas.”

While introducing people to computer coding and programming may seem like a daunting task, the classes offered through the CEC don’t require any prior computer programming experience and are bringing education and fun together.

“We want to contextualize the technology in a way people want to use it. We also want to make sure the ecosystem of the tools they use are all covered and connected,” said Alka Singh, director of experiential learning for Pitt’s School of Computing Information, a partner of the Hill District CEC. “We actually don’t use terms like ‘coding concepts’; we say things like, ‘We’re going to move this character on the X/Y coordinate,’ because we recognize that’s what students are taught in school. We’re demystifying what coding is.”

Programming for everyone

In another effort, the CEC, Hill CDC and LevelUp412, are offering online classes that teach digital skills to K-12 students, as well as workforce development skills and courses for senior citizens. The classes are being taught virtually for now.

One example offering is for Pittsburgh-area youths between ages 8 and 10. The course, called Sweet Sounds of Coding: Learning to Code Through Music, uses the online platform EarSketch to mix music using code. Fourth graders from Miller African Centered Academy are taught through interactive lessons by instructors from Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering.

A man in a striped blue shirt with a gold tie and dark jacket“We don’t want students to see this as something scary, but rather as something they can do,” said Sommer Anjum, a PhD student in Pitt’s Department of Bioengineering.

“Programs like this are not necessarily part of a traditional curriculum, so the students are excited to do something a little different,” added Maria Jantz, also a bioengineering PhD student at Pitt and another course instructor.

The Hill District CEC is also helping close the digital divide by providing computer devices and internet access to help with coursework delivery.

“We’re trying to remove those barriers and support participants within our program,” Holbrook said.

Looking ahead, Holbrook said the Hill District CEC will continue these digital inclusion efforts, among others, as the CEC moves to a permanent home in the historic New Granada Theater building at 2007 Centre Ave. Pitt will lease about 10,000 square feet of the development for the CEC after construction is complete.

The space will realize the planning work of the Hill CDC’s New Granada STEAM in 2016 project, which sought to repurpose portions of the theater into a regional hub of STEAM activity.

“These are the exact type of partnerships we aim to foster through the Community Engagement Centers,” Holbrook said.