Coming Soon To A Museum or Library Near You: 21st Century Learning Labs

December 11, 2012
Kelsey Herron

Common Sense Media
San Francisco, CA
CATEGORIES Digital Citizenship, Digital Literacy, Students, Tools

The Institute of Museum and Library Services and the MacArthur Foundation recently announced the second round of this year’s winners of the national competition to design 21st century “Learning Labs” in museums and libraries across the country. Learning Labs are special spaces created solely to engage middle and high school-aged youth in interest-based, youth-centered, collaborative learning that is led by trained mentors. The sites couple digital media tools with exploration and hands-on learning to inspire teens to be creators, not just consumers, of media. Programming also inspires an interest in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

This particular project awarded 12 organizations--five museums and seven libraries--$1.2 million to plan and design their labs. Grantees are managed by the Urban Libraries Council and the Association of Science-Technology Centers, and are required to participate in sponsored activities that help provide networking and technical assistance.

An earlier grantee, the Multnomah County Library and the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland, OR, for example, together created a Maker Center where local teens can tinker with digital and other tools to create and learn. The teen advisory council is integral in designing the programming, and the Maker Center is aligning with “Ninth Grade Counts,” an effort to help youth navigate that important transition into high school, a point where far too many youth disconnect. Other partners in the effort include the Multnomah Youth Commission, TechShop, and Oregon Mentors.

The cooperation and coordinated planning across youth-serving organizations is deliberate—and an integral aspect of “connected learning,” an emerging theory of learning that joins three aspects of teens’ lives—their peers, their academics, and their interests. Connected learning is realized when a young person is able to pursue a personal interest or passion with the support of friends and caring adults, and is in turn able to link this learning and interest to academic achievement, career success or civic engagement.

The programs are also anchored in research by University of California Professor Mizuko Ito on how kids learn in the digital age. Based on interviews with more than 700 youth, Ito identified three stages of learning with digital media:

·       “Hanging out” with friends in online social spaces and networks, like Facebook

·       “Messing around” and tinkering with digital media---everything from making videos to posting pictures on Flickr

·       “Geeking out” in mentor-guided workshops or online groups that allow them to dive deep into their interests

This learning process served as the concept behind the design of YOUmedia in the Harold Washington Public Library in Chicago, which in turn has sparked the movement to build similar sites nationwide and to ultimately create a network of well coordinated out-of-school spaces for kids to continue learning and exploring, while connecting what they learn back to the classroom.

The Learning Labs initiative, which was spearheaded in fall of 2010 as a response to President Obama’s “Educate to Innovate” campaign, has announced two sets of grant recipients each year since its inception. To date, there are now more than two dozen Learning Labs nationwide.

Application deadlines for next year’s grants have not been announced as of yet, but there are a list of guidelines provided by the Institute of Museum and Library Services available online. Applicants are expected to include prototypes based on current research about youth and digital media, and will be evaluated by education experts as well as museum and library management.

YOUmedia has also provided a website of resources and toolkits for those interested in creating their own “connected learning” spaces.

The importance of youth-centered spaces, where adolescents have access to trained professionals and new technologies, has proven to be widely successful. Director of the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences Susan Hildreth explained, "Because of the expertise and content we have to offer, museums and libraries are uniquely positioned to offer young people meaningful learning experiences that link to science, art, and technology. With caring mentors and skilled professionals on staff to guide teens in their exploration, Learning Labs help youth express themselves and hone their skills in a safe environment."

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