Tag Archives: Learning Labs

With New Learning Labs, Teen Programming at Local Libraries Goes Digital

There’s some good news for libraries—and library patrons. The bleeding appears to have stopped. Library budgets—although not growing—are at least not shrinking any more, after years of tough going.

The recession slashed the budgets of most public libraries in the nation, leaving them struggling to maintain services, including the higher-cost digital services that community residents have come to rely on. E-books, internet connections, and 3D printers are the “World Book” set of years ago—the expensive, scarce resource that libraries provide when families cannot.

For many libraries, those kinds of services have become harder to fund. States cut funding to libraries by more than 37 percent from 2000 to 2010, as a recent Stateline article reports, “forcing libraries to rely more heavily on local funds.” Throughout the nation, local governments shoulder approximately 85 percent of the costs of public libraries. The federal government picks up a small tab, amounting to less than 1 percent of the total budget. But even those funds decreased. In Pennsylvania, federal funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services—which provides leadership through research, policy development, and grant making—declined from $6.31 million in 2010 to $5.49 million in 2014.

However, as Stateline reports, funding cuts appear to have ceased. Budgets are leveling off, if not growing, which is welcome news.

Photo/ Ben Filio

Pittsburgh’s libraries are at the forefront of innovations for kids and families, and teens in particular. The Labs at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh (Labs @ CLP) joins 23 other Learning Labs nationwide to advance hands-on, interest-driven learning for teens, focused on digital media and tools. This fall, with funding from the Cindy and Murry Gerber Foundation, the East Liberty branch will create a space for teens to cultivate their digital and creative skills.

The Learning Labs’ core philosophy is that youth are best engaged when they’re following their passions, collaborating with others, and being makers and doers as well as consumers of technology and information.

The 24 Labs have spent the last few years planning for their launches, building partnerships with other organizations in their respective cities and involving teens in the planning and design processes. In Nashville, Tennessee, for example, teens worked directly with architects planning the Lab space. Other Labs have been piloting programs that build teens’ creativity and problem-solving skills.

Teens in the Learning Lab in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, for example, used geocoding and mapping tools to tell the story of their city’s rebirth following the devastating tornado in 2011. The Learning Lab there is a partnership between the Alabama Museum of Natural History and the Tuscaloosa Public Library. Libraries excel in storytelling, and the museum is a federal and state repository of maps on the campus of the University of Alabama. Combine the two, and you have story mapping. In this case, the teens combined urbex-ing—urban exploration of buildings, often abandoned or decaying—with geospatial tools, coupled with mentors from the university’s geography department, to tell the story of the role of destruction in a city’s renewal.

The result was “another way to look at the history and story of our city,” said Lance Simpson, a teen services librarian at Tuscaloosa Public Library.

In the San Francisco Bay area, the Learning Labs focus on media making and teen voice for social justice. KQED Public Radio, the San Francisco Public Library, California Academy of Sciences, and the Bay Area Video Coalition are all collaborating to help teens tell their stories.

In Kansas City, Missouri, Learning Lab is preparing teens for future jobs in the area as a leading employer, Hallmark, expands into digital storytelling. The partners in the Lab—the Kansas City Public Library and Science City at Union Station—focus on coding, digital storytelling, videography, and other digital tools. The skills will prepare teens to enroll in new digital storytelling degrees at Johnson County Community College and the University of Missouri.

In Pittsburgh, the Learning Lab at East Liberty branch will feature a freestanding music studio and a variety of digital tools and software. It will also offer workshops with practicing artists, technologists, and other experts, said Corey Wittig, the Learning Labs director. During the summer, they’ll be offering a two-week photography course with Pittsburgh Filmmakers Youth Media Program.

During the school year, the Lab at East Liberty offers diverse programming, focusing on a different subject each week, from audio production, to graphic design and printmaking, to photography and videography. Teens’ ideas and interests are what guide much of the programming, explained Wittig. Staff mentors help students build their confidence in skills, such as using a vinyl cutter or a video camera, and more expert teens work on their own projects as well. Other Learning Lab sites in the city focus on gaming or host open jam sessions, among other options.

WESA, Pittsburgh’s local NPR affiliate, visited the East Liberty library branch last month, just a few days after school let out. They found teens engaged in an ancient Egyptian design workshop. Carnegie Library Teen Specialist Andre Costello said workshops like these are helping change our vision for how we think about libraries.

“Before we thought of them as a pantry, whereas now we’re thinking of them more as a kitchen,” he said. “So rather than taking the information home and just using it there, you can actually use the library as a place to create.”

Why Makerspaces Give Kids Space to Fail, and Why That’s a Good Thing

My second-grader cries when he needs help with his math homework. He’s good at math. And with ease, he has been able to handle most of the homework that’s come home under the new Common Core math curriculum. But when the answers don’t come easily, he gets upset and doesn’t want to try. The idea that you have to get things wrong a few times, sometimes many times, in order to get to the right answer is not a lesson he’s yet learned.

He’s only eight, but as a parent, I hope he’ll have more opportunities to get the answer wrong, and to have to find his own way, as he grows older.

Experts like Angela Duckworth, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania who studies the importance of “grit,” says these are experiences my son will need in order to develop the kind of higher-order thinking skills necessary in our rapidly changing world. Duckworth defines “grit” as the “tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals.”

Duckworth says she’s seen lots of very smart kids who don’t know how to fail. “They don’t know how to struggle, and they don’t have a lot of practice with it,” she said.

Tom Hoerr, an administrator at the New City School in St. Louis, recently told NPR his goal is to make sure “that no matter how talented [students are], they hit the wall, so they can learn to pick themselves up, hit the wall again and pick themselves up again, and ultimately persevere and succeed.”

Teaching our kids to work hard and to stick with something even when they keep hitting that wall is no easy task, as a parent or as an educator. It’s tough to watch and to resist the urge to make things easier for them.

It’s not making mistakes, but how kids react to the “wall” that matters.

Makerspaces, popping up in schools, libraries, and museums, may be one cool place to teach kids this perseverance. With the unstructured time and materials they offer for kids to work on their own projects, solve problems together, and try things out over and over again, makerspaces can be an exciting laboratory.

The tinkering that’s going on in the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh’s MAKESHOP, for example, allows kids (and adults) to experiment with wood, circuitry, a needle and thread, or old technology that they can take apart and  put back together. Kids get ideas, but things usually don’t go right the first time.

This trial and error (emphasis on the error) is another extension of exploration and experimentation. Kids try things, without the pressure of a grade or a big red mark on their paper. Instead, in this environment, where everyone is working and failing, they’re freer to say, “Oh this didn’t work out, how can I make it work?” It’s not making mistakes, but how kids react to the “wall” that matters. It’s all about turning that initial ding in one’s confidence into a chance to learn. That’s ultimately empowering and it’s special.

Kylie Peppler is an assistant professor of learning sciences at Indiana University, Bloomington, and the head of the Make to Learn Initiative. She’s studying makerspaces, including the one at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, to see what they have to teach us about learning.

“The act of construction externalizes what kids know,” she said in an interview last year, “and allows them to reflect on the designing and action. The externalizing of your ideas is really productive for learning and connecting with other people.”

The Institute of Museum and Library Services recently announced a new partnership with the children’s museum to help build the capacity of other libraries and museums around the country to develop these spaces. Under the new grant, the children’s museum will be working with the North Carolina State University Libraries, Exploratorium, Chicago Public Library, and Maker Education Initiative to provide museum and library professionals with tools and resources, in addition to professional development.

At the New York Hall of Science, one of at least 10 learning labs across the country that allow teens to experiment with technology in a hands-on way, teens use tools ranging from band saws to 3D printers to create solutions for community problems. Recently they saw a problem in their neighborhood in Queens and designed a solution. It’s a common scene in cities: older women pulling their groceries or packages home in a two-wheeled cart. But in Queens, getting home often means taking the el and lugging that cart up to the platform, one step at a time. The teens thought they could design a better cart.

They set to work designing a better wheel—one that pivots for easier ascent. With the guidance of mentors, the teens created a prototype with dowels and tape and cardboard and a wheel of an existing cart, learning valuable skills about trial and error, critical thinking, and collaboration along the way. And who knows—maybe a patent in the future.

Are these types of spaces the key to get kids thinking for themselves? Facing another night of tears and math homework, I sure hope so.


Creating Spaces That Engage Teens: A Q&A with Amy Eshleman

This week, dozens of innovators from more than 15 cities are converging on Pittsburgh for a two-day session on Learning Labs.  

Learning Labs are unique spaces in libraries, museums, and other cultural sites designed by and for teens. At their core are youth themselves, whose interests and input drive the programming. The spaces feature a range of digital media tools that are designed to inspire teens to become creators and makers, not just passive consumers, and in doing so find their own voice and inspiration. Learning Labs are inspired by YOUmedia, teen learning spaces that opened at the Chicago Public Library in July 2009, as well as spaces in Miami, New York, and Washington, DC.

We sat down with Amy Eshleman, who led the Chicago Public Library team that created YOUmedia and has been integral to Learning Labs from their start in 2012.  She is the program leader for education at the Urban Libraries Council and is helping to spearhead the expansion of Learning Labs to more than two dozen cities nationwide, including Pittsburgh.

The Pittsburgh Learning Lab is housed in the Carnegie Library’s main library as well as three neighborhood libraries. The Labs, based on the principles of YOUmedia, are getting underway now. Young people are helping plan how the space will be integrated into the rest of the library and the city’s Hive Learning Network.  

Remake Learning: What are three words that describe a Learning Lab? 

Amy Eshleman: I’d say teens, interests (because their interests are the focus), and powerful (because when you bring teens and their interests together and provide a space for them to learn, pretty powerful things can happen).

Why are Learning Labs so important to libraries and museums today? 

Amy Eshleman

Amy Eshleman

Libraries and museums have always embraced their role as important parts of the learning ecosystem in cities. The connected learning principles behind Learning Labs have given libraries and museums a roadmap for engaging youth in relevant new ways and provided them the opportunity to own the learning space in a new way.

Learning Labs focus largely on using digital media to engage youth as creators, not just passive viewers. How do libraries and museums fit into this plan?

Libraries and museums are incredible hubs in their communities for information and lifelong learning. They house a combination of great spaces, really smart educators and librarians and collections. Combine those strengths with digital media tools, and Learning Labs can be a really powerful way to reach teens.

Libraries, for example, have always been great as safe and democratic spaces to hang out. Teens come to do their homework, socialize and get on a computer. Hanging out is really critical still, but now there are different opportunities to engage in a library or museum after school—ways to tinker and explore interests, and go deeper with their own learning.

What sets Learning Labs apart from other after school programs in libraries or museums? 

I absolutely think it’s that these spaces put youth at the center, engage skilled and caring adult mentors to support youth, and are built on robust research and designed to support that.  If someone walks to a Learning Lab space, they’ll see kids having fun and playing video games, or maybe taking part in a workshop. But there’s so much more to it than that. As you peel back the layers of the onion, you start to understand that the teens have created the learning pathways for themselves and how engaging that is, and how it can be a bridge between in and out-of-school.

What makes these spaces a success?

As we know from the last two to three years in the incubator spaces (Chicago’s YOUmedia; ArtLab+ in Washington, DC; DreamYard in New York and Miami at the Miami-Dade Public Library), you can build incredible spaces and fill them with lots of great new media tools, but what makes these spaces so relevant and successful are the relationships teens build with their peers and the adults in the space—mentors, staff, and others.

What kind of shift has this entailed for library and museum staff in places that have launched a Learning Lab?

I think it’s a bit of a shift for libraries and museums, which have always been places of expertise and recognized authority, to now start having folks who visit museums and libraries create and build content and artifacts which then can become part of the collections or experience of the library or museum. That’s a shift—but an important one that we have to make to remain relevant in the 21st century

Even the physical space is a shift. Learning Labs are loud, social, collaborative spaces. And that’s not the traditional view of libraries or museums. But this is the way folks learn now: they work collaboratively, iterate, show work they’ve done, try and fail and try again. It’s a really powerful way to learn and gain the higher-order skills needed to succeed in life. And a physical space that promotes that approach is just going to look and feel different.

Also, the type of people organizations hire to work in these spaces is a shift. Libraries and museums are now hiring artists, makers, and musicians. And in many ways, the adults are the learners as well as the teens. Adults do have a level of expertise, but the exchange is different—it’s much more interactive and less top-down. It can evolve over a span of time, rather than be a one-off exchange. And the adults are working together with the teens to help them gain some expertise that they care about.

What about institutionally? Did starting a Learning Lab in Chicago affect the Chicago Public Library more broadly?

Photo courtesy: CLP South Side

Making movies at the CLP South Side

Yes, it absolutely provided the library with the opportunity and responsibility to own the learning space in a different way. We always knew we were a critical part of the education fabric in the city, but the process of creating and operating YOUmedia [Chicago’s Learning Lab] was transformational. We know that kids’ learning never stops, but before YOUmedia, we weren’t really building on what teens were learning in schools in a way that was relevant and came from them. Now that happens in a more robust way. Starting YOUmedia also changed the conversation for us internally and externally around our staff and their professional development, partnerships, our library spaces, and our role in the learning ecosystem of Chicago.

I read a story today about summer school programs that are blending traditional teaching practices (reading aloud, for example) with trips to museums, script-writing sessions—in effect a kind of laboratory for new, more engaging instructional ideas. What can Learning Labs teach us about engagement? 

Many Learning Labs are still in an early stage of development, but we’ve learned a lot about teen engagement even as these spaces are evolving because they’ve nearly all incorporated innovative and authentic ways to engage youth in the planning and design. In Nashville and San Francisco, for example, the public libraries have youth working side-by-side with architects to design what their space will look like. Teens have ownership and a voice from day one. That’s really important to engagement, we’ve found. If you meet teens and talk to them about the things they care about, they’re going to engage in a way that they haven’t before. It’s very powerful and the kids are amazed. They’ll say, “They asked us about what we want to do in the space and they listened!” They can’t believe that the adults would care about what they thought and actually incorporate their ideas into the design of the space.

You were integral to YOUmedia’s start in Chicago, the original Learning Lab. What’s the key lesson you learned there that is valuable for other spaces? 

I think to be as flexible as possible. Be willing to try something that you haven’t tried before and partner with people you haven’t partnered with before. Pittsburgh has already established a set of great partnerships with the Hive and the Kids+Creativity Network, so partnering is part of their DNA. Those kinds of partnerships can make the learning experience for youth really dynamic.

And speaking of Pittsburgh, isn’t it cool to be a kid in Pittsburgh at this moment?  

Yes! You are doing amazing stuff. Pittsburgh was one of the first cities to visit Chicago after YOUmedia opened and say, “This can work in Pittsburgh and we’d love to be part of, and add to, this conversation.” Pittsburgh has become an incredible source of inspiration for all of us lucky enough to do this work.

This is exactly what we hoped would happen—cities would take these design principles and go out and make something relevant and make them their own. That’s been a joy to watch and be a part of. We’re so excited to be bringing the Learning Labs teams from all across the country to Pittsburgh because we know they’re going to be inspired when they meet folks and see your spaces. Just more great examples to take back to their own cities and remix and reimagine for their own work.