Geek Out

Digital learning labs convert consumers into creators

September 10, 2012

Utah Lambert (left) and Jonathan Manning use the new laptops available for checkout at Anythink Brighton in Colorado.
Utah Lambert (left) and Jonathan Manning use the new laptops available for checkout at Anythink Brighton in Colorado.

Teenagers are natural and voracious media consumers. But new research suggests that teens can learn more effectively in hands-on projects where they can be creative and think critically.

The Institute of Museum and Library Services and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation made $100,000 grants this past November to eight libraries and four museums to plan and design their own digital learning labs where teens can hang out, mess around, and geek out. In the process, these young patrons learn to create media rather than just consume it.

“Libraries and museums are part of reenvisioning learning in the 21st century,” said Susan Hildreth, director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). “They are trusted community institutions where teens can follow their passions and imagine exciting futures.”

“We aim to be a launching point in the science, technology, engineering, and math pipeline of future scientists, mathematicians, and engineers to fill 21st-century global economy jobs,” said Christie Lassen, director of public relations for Howard County (Md.) Public Library, one of the grant recipients.

Mentors are key

The grant program was inspired by Chicago Public Library’s YOUmedia, a space where teens create game podcasts, record music, perform poetry, and produce an online literary magazine. Naturally, it’s a technology-rich space. But as appealing as that technology is, it’s not the most important element.

Earlier this year, the IMLS and MacArthur grantees visited YOUmedia to confer with one another and see how teens use the space in person. “Not one of the students talked about technology,” said Debbie Willms, deputy director of St. Paul (Minn.) Public Library. “They all talked about their relationship with their mentors. It was a real eyeopener for us.”

YOUmedia recruits artists in fields of interest to its teens to serve as mentors, said librarian Taylor Bayless of Chicago Public Library. Those mentors also receive training through DePaul University’s Digital Youth Network in how to teach and work with teens.

Libraries and museums are part of reenvisioning learning in the 21st century. —Susan Hildreth, director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services

Other grantees have taken the mentorship lesson to heart. At San Francisco Public Library, planning for the learning lab is still underway, but the library has already hosted programming classes taught by employees of Twitter, whose offices are nearby. Nashville (Tenn.) Public Library has tapped existing relationships with a spoken-word artist and a software developer for its steering committee.

“I think that our patrons have always looked to the library to have collections and computers, but they love the idea of having staff that would help them use the tools in a more robust way,” added Tricia Bengel, emerging technology administrator at Nashville Public Library.

Teens also learn from one another. Angela Brade, chief operating officer and director of Howard County Public Library’s HiTech project, has observed that even teens who don’t know each other work well together in a library learning lab environment. “They are very good at sharing and collaboration,” she said. Since receiving the grant, the library has started hosting mentor-led technology sessions, but she has already promised three teens the opportunity to present sessions on their own passions.

Outreach needed

“I don’t think you can do librarianship without an outreach component,” said Crystal Faris, director of teen services at Kansas City (Mo.) Public Library. The library’s plans involve a partnership with a local science museum where the lab will be housed. But for teens in the city who don’t take advantage of that museum and wouldn’t feel comfortable there, Faris said she hopes to incorporate a mobile component into the library’s learning lab.

St. Paul Public Library also plans a mobile component, although the importance of relationships between teens and the library staff has made that a challenge to define so far. “We don’t want a bunch of strangers just bringing a bunch of machines to the library buildings,” Willms said.

While new relationships have to be formed to ensure the success of the digital learning labs, in many cases new skills need to be developed as well. Stacie Ledden, communications manager for Anythink in Adams County, Colorado, said the library has instituted plans to train staff on their own content creation skills this fall so they will be able to help customers when the lab opens next year.

St. Paul Public Library is examining how staffers, particularly those working in the new digital lab, can become fully confident in working with teens. “We’re continually reminded that they’ll have the most frequent relationship,” Willms said.

The Chicago model

Many grantees have also used the grant as an opportunity to let adolescents shape the library. The Free Library of Philadelphia held an engagement summit with teens and youth organizations that the library feels embodied best practices for working with young people.“They want to be listened to, opportunities for dialogue, social opportunities, and a place of their own,” said Vice President of External Affairs Sandy Horrocks. In San Francisco, Public Relations Officer Michelle Jeffers said that 80 teens applied for the 15 spots on the project’s teen design board.

“YOUmedia has been very honest,” added Stacie Ledden. “You can set your plans, but the community is going to make it what they want it to be.”

That notion has required some transition for Chicago Public Library, Bayless said. “You have to make a few cultural shifts,” she admitted, including policies about food and noise level. And because YOUmedia connects students with the library as a whole, those changes start to seep into the rest of the library. “It can start on the road to greater institutional change.”

The 400–500 Chicago teens who visit the space each week have made good use of the opportunity, though. “They’re connecting with professionals in fields they’re interested in”—in some cases on a national level, Bayless said.

Earlier this year they participated in “What’s Going On … Now,” a project from the Kennedy Center in which teens remixed Marvin Gaye’s album What’s Going On to reflect similarities and differences between the now of today and that of 40 years ago, when the album was released. Winners performed in Kansas City, and one of the Chicago teen poets was invited to perform onstage with Grammy winner John Legend. YOUmedia teens also helped to design an educational bus that went with Lady Gaga on her Born This Way Foundation tour. That work involved both business and creative work; the adolescents had multiple conversations with the foundation’s senior advisor David Washington.

Many of YOUmedia’s projects have demonstrated significant longevity as well. Library of Games, YOUmedia’s gaming podcast, has been running for more than three years. YouLit, the center’s online literary magazine, is going strong after more than a year and a half. “The programs with longevity developed from teens saying they wanted to do something or demonstrating their interest,” Bayless said. “Don’t develop programs without talking to teens first and determining the needs of teens who will use the space.”

Variety in approaches

While the ultimate goal of creating a space for teens to engage with technology and use it to create is pretty consistent among grantees, the precise form that each library’s plans are taking varies widely.

Anythink plans to repurpose the existing teen space at its Wright Farms branch, with minor construction this winter leading to a March 2013 launch. Ledden said the library has been working to “figure out how the project is scalable and how it fits into what the library is already doing.” Anythink plans to adapt some of the library’s existing Sidekick volunteer program into its teen mentorship initiative, and it will build on existing hands-on programming, such as Battlecars, in which participants put remote-control cars through obstacle courses to compete against one another.

Columbus (Ohio) Metropolitan Library has started “Teen Columbus” in partnership with four other institutions—the Columbus Museum of Art, the Center of Science and Industry, WOSU Public Media, and the Wexner Center for the Arts. “We’re building a web, rather than a central hub and spokes,” said Helene Blowers, the library’s digital strategy director. She said that three or four of the partners will likely have a physical learning lab location initially and that the model allows for new locations to be created in the future.

The Free Library of Philadelphia’s plans include a space dedicated to teens at its Parkway Central Library and six hot spots throughout the community that provide computer training, job search help, and basic literacy assistance. “They’re meant to be outside the library walls in neighborhoods where people don’t necessarily go into a public library,” said Sandy Horrocks. Gena Seroogy, the library foundation’s director of grants and foundation giving, added that these hot spots serve as a loose model for the lab by providing “a supportive environment where teens can experiment,” particularly those who are reluctant users of the library.

Howard County (Md.) Public Library received a gift of space adjacent to its Savage branch when the business that had occupied it relocated. The branch is already using that space for its HiTech lab, although construction to adapt and improve the space won’t begin until next year. “We’re looking at this as a STEM lab,” said Christie Lassen. Angela Brade said that sessions the library has hosted on music, multimedia, and 3D design have averaged more than 50 attendees, and she expects those numbers to grow when the library begins offering sessions on a more stable schedule.

Kansas City (Mo.) Public Library has formed a new partnership with a museum, Science City at Union Station. “The first challenge is recognizing the different missions and trying to realize how those missions can align enough for a partnership,” said Crystal Faris. Both organizations want to serve teens, but as Science City has to generate revenue to sustain its facility, Faris said that service won’t look exactly like it does at the library.

Nashville (Tenn.) Public Library plans to create a primary learning lab in its downtown facility adjacent to an existing teen space, said Tricia Bengel. The system is building two new locations and renovating a third, and hopes to incorporate learning labs into those facilities in some fashion, as well as creating a mobile lab.

St. Paul (Minn.) Public Library is planning a new physical space, which broke ground in July for a planned opening in the fall of 2013. “The building is a new concept, a co-located parks and recreation center and library,” Willms said. Within that new building, services between the two departments will be fully merged.

San Francisco Public Library plans to design a space within its existing library building for the learning lab. But Teen Services Specialist Jennifer Collins said that the library will also follow a hive model, in which the library will have “a network of learning institutes, formed around events that provide fun learning opportunities for youth” at locations throughout the city. The library was also planning to get a sound booth that can be taken from branch to branch this summer.

IMLS will announce the winners of a second round of grants late this fall. Much has been written in recent years about the importance of libraries as a venue for patrons to create rather than just consume media. These digital learning lab projects are working to ensure that when teens need a place to support their creative efforts, a library is the first thing that comes to mind.

GREG LANDGRAF is a freelance writer in Chicago and former associate editor of American Libraries. His first book, Citizen Science for Families, is scheduled be published by Huron Street Press in spring 2013.



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