Infusing a Neighborhood with Science and Creativity

Assemble creates opportunities for young people to make things that inspire and empower.

A s school budgets shrink, arts education is increasingly targeted as a place to cut funding. Yet as we prepare young people to join a workforce where creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking are essential to success, experiential learning that emphasizes imagination and design thinking has become more important than ever. Assemble picks up where schools leave off, offering free and open learning opportunities that integrate the arts, technology, and science in ways that blur traditional boundaries between disciplines.

Part gallery, part art studio, part makerspace, Assemble offers a range of dynamic activities, from Saturday Crafternoons with make-and-take projects to monthly Learning Parties where kids can try their hand at art-making, conduct scientific and technological experiments, have conversations with experts, and more.

Assemble is a community space for art and technology: Throughout the year they host Learning Parties where kids connect with experts.

Assemble was founded in 2011 by Nina Barbuto, an architect and Pittsburgh native who returned home after working in Los Angeles, where she also participated in a research project focusing on arts and learning environments. Inspired by her West Coast experiences and committed to increasing access to arts and technology opportunities for girls and underserved youth, Nina established Assemble in the Garfield neighborhood of Pittsburgh, a community in transition whose residents are predominantly African-American.

Assemble also reaches kids across Pittsburgh through its many partnerships. Working with more than 20 organizations, Assemble takes its STEAM and Maker educational programs on the road, sharing programming with kids in all corners of the city. Still, Assemble stays firmly rooted in its community, offering a safe and nurturing space to hang out, get free afterschool homework help, or try something new at the monthly Youth Maker Nights.

“In informal learning spaces like Assemble, imagination drives invention. If you can dream it, you can make it.” — Tara Tiger Brown, Founder, LA Makerspace

By teaching kids science and technology in hands-on — sometimes messy — ways, Assemble demystifies the creative process. Kids get their hands dirty while they learn, whether they’re gluing LED lights to a cardboard bridge or spinning a clay pot on a pottery wheel. Assemble maintains a low barrier to entry for its programs: most require no pre-registration, and nearly all are free. In this way, Assemble works as an “on-ramp” to deeper learning and provides more opportunities to develop skills.

The organization runs its workshops by hiring educators, technologists, and working artists on a contract basis, relying on Maker Corps VISTA and Board members for institutional support, and even enabling teenagers to teach younger students as peer-mentors.

These educators work with students like Daijah, Ashanti, and Cheyenne, middle school students from the neighborhood. Following a summertime shooting at a nearby playground, the girls found a safe and welcoming place at Assemble, where they’ve since become a fixture. The girls have yet to miss a Saturday Crafternoon event, and they recently built a prototype for an LED lighting system that could make their neighborhood parks safer places for kids.

by Adam Reger

Assemble Saturday Crafternoons: Promoting hands-on learning and community engagement for youth through free, drop-in workshops with local makers and community partners.

By the Numbers

In 2014, Assemble served more than 1,700 Pittsburgh youth through sustained programs and held more than 900 dedicated program hours.
Collaborating with 20 local organizations, Assemble worked with 35 makers, technologists, and artists to directly serve students at seven local schools.

Network In Action

Catalyze: Program research informs program design.

Through their participation in the Remake Learning Network, Assemble connected with the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Learning in Out-of-School Environments (UPCLOSE), an academic unit that studies informal learning programs. Through the support of the Grable Foundation, Marti Louw, then a design researcher at UPCLOSE, conducted a year-long fellowship at Assemble, working closely with staff and mentors to study how parents and adult caregivers seek and choose learning opportunities for young people, and then they co-designed strategies for improving family engagement in supporting youth interest in making and creative technology.

Person of Interest

Nina Barbuto

Nina Barbuto is the founder of Assemble, a community space for arts and technology where kids can drop in for homework help and dive into their own creative projects.

We have so many resources in this town, and a lot of them are just in those ivory towers. At Assemble, kids get to meet real scientists and see that scientists aren’t just white guys with crazy hair and glasses.

After moving to Los Angeles to pursue her career in architecture, Pittsburgh-native Nina Barbuto took a temporary position on a research project focusing on arts and learning environments. Inspired by her West Coast experiences and committed to increasing access to arts and technology opportunities for girls and underserved youth, Nina established Assemble in the Garfield neighborhood of Pittsburgh, a community in transition whose residents are predominantly African-American.

To help build a bootstrapping community space, Nina has partnered with members of the Remake Learning Network like robotics instructors from Carnegie Mellon to leverage local expertise and design researchers from the University of Pittsburgh to evaluate and improve programming.

For More Information

If you’re interested in learning more about Assemble, contact Nina Barbuto.

Downloadable Materials

Online Resources

  • An online community for youth centered on learning, making, and sharing what they’ve made; members earn patches for completing challenges.
  • Assemble — Educational Philosophy: An overview of Assemble’s principles and reasoning.
  • Machine Project: A storefront space in Los Angeles that hosts free events and serves as an informal educational institution.
  • Learning Space Toolkit: A free resource for planning learning spaces; developed by the North Carolina State University Libraries.
  • Center for Youth Program Quality: A Michigan organization committed to helping programs enhance the experiences they provide for youth.

Related Remake Learning Network Partners

  • Hilltop YMCA Creator Space: An out-of-school space designated to teach STEM (Science, Engineering, Technology, and Math) concepts to local youth through making.
  • The Maker’s Place: An entrepreneurship, science, technology, engineering, art and math focused out-of-school time program in Pittsburgh.
  • Allentown Learning and Engagement Center: a collaborative effort of the Brashear Association and the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh that offers after-school and summer programs as well as health and wellness information, career and literacy programs, and other assistance.
  • Artists Image Resource: An artist-run, nonprofit printmaking studio whose purpose is to integrate the creation of fine art printwork with innovative educational programs.
  • Center of Life: A faith-based community empowerment organization whose mission is to provide families and youth with life-skills, education, training, and resources.
  • Irma Freeman Center for Imagination: an arts and green energy community center that hosts art exhibitions, classes, and outreach programs for youth and adults.
  • Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild Youth & Arts: Arts and career training center whose mission is to educate and inspire urban youth through the arts.
  • Millvale Community Library: A community-serving library that hosts weekly maker nights and other programs to engage and enrich the out-of-school time of Millvale children and youth.
  • The Pittsburgh Project: A Christian nonprofit community development organization that hosts service camps, youth development programs, and provides community outreach and services.

About the Remake Learning Playbook

This is a case study from the Remake Learning Playbook, an ambitious effort to open source the “project code” for learning innovation undertaken by Pittsburgh’s Remake Learning Network.

We’re eager for your feedback! We’ve released the Playbook on Medium so readers can share feedback and help inform the field. Please add comments, notes, suggestions, and questions throughout these chapters to help us make the Playbook as useful as possible.


Table of Contents

photo: Ben Filio for The Sprout Fund