The digital publication of the Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC)

Learning Labs: Transforming Youth from Digital Consumers to Creators

By Margaret Glass
From Dimensions
March/April 2013

Today’s youth grow up in a digitally networked world. With cell phones, laptops, and tablets, via social media platforms, videos, and podcasts, they connect to each other and to their world like never before. Yet with only a few exceptions, the digital signal gets dropped at the door when teens go to school; youth get most of their exposure to new digital media outside of school.

This reality raises some important questions: How do youth learn to move across the digital landscape, choosing tools and platforms? Who are the adults that help to mediate this experience? What about teens in communities with a persistent digital divide? How do young people transition from being passive consumers of new media to becoming innovative thinkers and doers?

These are some of the questions behind the Learning Labs in Libraries and Museums, a program funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the (U.S.) Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). The Urban Libraries Council (ULC) and ASTC collaborate to provide technical assistance to grantees and to help them form a national network.

The goal of the program is to support museums and libraries as vital community institutions where youth can explore their interests while developing 21st-century skills like critical thinking, creativity, and collaboration.

Since the Learning Labs program was announced in 2011, there have been two rounds of grant competitions that have resulted in 24 grants to museums and libraries across the United States. These awards support the planning and design stages for Learning Labs, intended to engage middle and high school–aged teens in youth-centered, interest-based, mentor-led, collaborative learning using digital and traditional media. This article provides an overview of the Learning Labs program to date, including a summary of related research and some snapshots of current projects.

From research to practice

The Learning Labs is a research-to-practice program, drawn from the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning (DML) initiative, which was established in 2006 to study the ways in which digital media are changing how young people learn, play, socialize, and participate in civic life. The research of Mizuko (Mimi) Ito of the University of California, Irvine, is central to the design principles behind the Learning Labs. Interviews and observations derived from a three-year ethnographic investigation of over 700 youth led Ito and her research team to identify three modes of participation that describe how teens engage with each other and with digital media.

“Hanging Out” describes the desire of teens to be with and socialize with their peers. Often when today’s youth get together, this contact involves digital connections—browsing social networks, instant messaging, or texting. “Messing Around” marks the beginning of a more deliberate engagement, perhaps purposefully seeking information on a specific activity, experimenting with something new, or starting to customize digital experiences. “Geeking Out” describes a more intense, focused mode of engagement. Interests become specialized, teens develop expertise in digital skills, and they may join or create social groups around these domains. Geeking out can include equally intense commitment to more traditional, offline pursuits.

These modes of participation, collectively termed HOMAGO, correspond to the kinds of learning contexts anticipated at a Learning Lab. Following the example of YOUMedia at the Harold Washington Public Library in Chicago, Learning Labs try to include physical spaces that accommodate the modes of HOMAGO and are equipped with digital and traditional media to support youth’s self-directed learning.

The programs-in-planning encompass science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM); language, visual, and graphic arts; video and audio production; spoken word projects; maker spaces; and virtual worlds. But while activities may vary, the underlying design principles of these labs should be consistent. They are expected to include active experimentation and production, and be networked with other learning contexts within a community. Programs should be driven by the interests of the youth participants and relevant to them and their peers, yet linked to their intellectual growth and academic success.

Mentors are another key element to supporting learning in these spaces. The core set of characteristics for mentors includes expertise in new media, social/cultural capital as creators in their own right, basic pedagogy skills, and, perhaps most importantly, the ability to connect to and inspire youth while respecting their voices.

This set of design features firmly embeds the Learning Labs in Connected Learning, a broad model of learning emerging from the MacArthur Foundation’s research and related investments in a suite of programs including YOUmedia sites, including in Chicago; at ARTLab+ at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; and at the North Dade Public Library, Miami, Florida); pioneering schools like Quest2Learn; and the Dreamyard Project, a community-based arts education provider in the Bronx in New York City.

Meet the Learning Labs

Distributed across 18 states, the 24 Learning Labs will reach youth in inner cities, suburbia, medium-sized cities, and rural communities. Each site will serve its community’s unique needs while following the basic design principles of the program. (A full list of grantees is available here.)

By the numbers, 15 sites are led by libraries and nine are museum-led. However, this simple summary masks the rich array of partners collaborating in these projects. Museums (13 of which are ASTC members) include science centers and art, natural history, and children’s museums. Other partners represent colleges or universities, public broadcasting affiliates, parks and recreation departments, school districts, afterschool and out-of-school organizations, and youth advocacy groups.

In many ways, this program is an especially good fit for science centers, capitalizing on their strengths as places for visitor-centered, hands-on, social learning in a technology-rich setting. In other ways, participating museums are stretching themselves in new directions. For example, while many science centers engage youth through employment training, dedicated teen spaces, like those presented in a Learning Labs model, are rare in these institutions. In addition, Learning Labs provide new opportunities for museums to work more closely with libraries and community partners, actively include youth in the planning and design of new programs and spaces, and engage adults as mentors in new ways.

What are these projects up to now? Learning Labs grantees have an 18-month period of funding to plan and design their facilities, based on their proposed ideas. Each site is on its own trajectory with respect to piloting and implementing activities, training mentors, and seeking support for post-grant sustainability. Grant funding for the first cohort of sites runs until the end of June; the second cohort of awardees officially began on January 1. Because of this timetable, and the nature of these as planning grants, summary statements made about these sites now would be premature. Nevertheless, it is possible to spotlight a couple of public examples.

A hive pop-up in San Francisco

The Learning Lab project at the San Francisco Public Library involves a team of partners: San Francisco’s California Academy of Sciences, KQED, and the Bay Area Video Coalition. While details of the physical space at the San Francisco Main Library are still in progress, the Learning Labs team held its first collaborative public event—the San Francisco Hive Pop-up, a two-day maker/hacker media jamfest for teens—in October 2012 at the Ortega Branch Library.

The “Hive” label for this event comes from the fact that it involved a range of organizations—including such diverse partners as the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, WritersCorps, and the Children’s Creativity Museum—united by a focus on youth and digital media. This model is similar to the Hive Learning Networks in New York and Chicago, also supported by the MacArthur Foundation. All of the activities were transportable and installed on site for the event—hence the “pop-up” description.

The project’s Youth Advisory Board decided the theme (“Save the Earth”) and directed the kinds of activities to feature. These activities blended traditional creative skills with technology components, unified under an environmental message. Youth had the chance to experiment with video editing, claymation, 3D printing, and webpage development, and many participants uploaded videos of their creations to Tumblr.

The event gave the lab’s core team the chance to try out some new activities with their targeted youth, and helped to build relationships with other cultural organizations serving youth in the San Francisco area. A blog post about the Hive Pop-up by KQED’s Matthew Williams is available here.

A virtual lab in Pennsylvania

The Da Vinci Science Center in Allentown, Pennsylvania, has a unique environment for its Learning Lab. The Virtual Studio lives on an educational island on the NewWorlds grid, a virtual world similar to Second Life, but with content appropriate for youth. The grid is open to Pennsylvania school students and teachers.

A pilot program took place in this virtual space during June and July of 2012, with a group of 15 teens participating in the Healthy YouthPeer Education (HYPE) summer camp at nearby Muhlenberg College. Youth entered the Virtual Studio, created their own avatars, learned how to build architectural structures, and designed their own digital art creations. These installations are three-dimensional constructions that include photos, images, or other digital representations following the theme “The Best Part of Me.” A webinar recorded in December 2012 provides a “flythrough” visit to the Virtual Studio, with closeups and verbal descriptions of some of these digital artifacts (available here.)

Next steps for this site involve drop-in afterschool events hosted at the Allentown Public Library, another project partner. This will provide an opportunity for a broader range of teens to experiment in the Virtual Studio, as well as to participate in additional activities of their own design. The location of the library, on the walking route between a large high school and residential areas, promises a high level of visibility and use by local teens.

How do science museums fit into today’s landscape of digitally mediated experiences for youth? The Learning Labs program allows participating grantees to explore this question, using the partnerships and resources they develop in the course of their planning periods. As they adapt to meet the unique needs of their own communities, Learning Labs in Libraries and Museums may provide new models for teen engagement, recognizing the challenges youth face as they connect to each other, identify and pursue their interests, and seek to become lifelong learners in today’s digital world.

Additional Resources

The DML Research Hub’s DML Central (resources about digital media and learning). an affiliate website of the DML Research Hub, with community resources about Connected Learning.

Ito, M., et al. (2013). Connected learning: An agenda for research and design. Irvine, CA: Digital Media and Learning Research Hub.

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Reports on Digital Media and Learning, including:

Margaret Glass is ASTC’s program manager for professional development. David Smith (Da Vinci Science Center), Matthew Williams (KQED), Puja Dasari (California Academy of Sciences), and Jon Worona and Jennifer Collins (San Francisco Public Library) contributed to this article. U.S. science centers and museums are invited to participate in a related project, the National STEM Video Game Challenge.


About the image: The New York Hall of Science Learning Lab in Queens hosts “teen hangouts” in the institution’s new Cognizant Maker Space. Here, Jon Santiago (standing) from HTINK (an educational services cooperative) advises teens on Arduino programming.

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