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Libraries and Museums Become Hands-On Learning Labs

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Earlier this month, we covered the Fayetteville Free Library's new Fab Lab, the public library's plans to build a "makerspace" where library patrons could gain hands-on experience using 3D printers and other tools and could take programming and "shop" classes.

It's part of a larger movement to rethink and re-imagine what a public library will look like and what functions it will serve. While many people do see libraries solely as book repositories, it's clear that the library is much more than that. For many, it's an important community center and a place that offers access to digital tools and media.

A new competition sponsored by the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has just announced 12 winning libraries and museums that will receive $1.2 million in grant money help push the boundaries of what these institutions look like, specifically helping to create facilities that are better "learning labs" for teens.

The idea was inspired by YOUmedia, a teen learning space at the Chicago Public Library's downtown center. YOUmedia provides teens with access to thousands of books. But it also contains over 100 laptop and desktop computers -- machines that are equipped with various media creation software -- as well as an in-house recording studio with keyboards, turntables and a mixing board. YOUmedia also provides classes and connections to mentors so that teens can learn how to use the equipment.

Recognizing the importance of museums and libraries as sites for hands-on learning, the MacArthur Foundation and IMLS-sponsored competition plans to take the YOUmedia model and spread it nationally. The hope is for the new learning labs to serve as places where teens can explore science, technology, art, and literature -- not just to not just to read about it -- through building and making.


New teen learning labs will be built in San Francisco, CA; Thornton, CO; Columbia, MD; St. Paul, MN; Kansas City, MO; New York, NY; Columbus, OH; Portland, OR; Allentown, PA; Philadelphia, PA; Nashville, TN; and Houston, TX.

In Portland, for example, the Multnomah County Library will team up with the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) to build a Community Maker Center. The city's Teen Advisory Council is helping plan the design and operation of the Maker Center with other local partners that include the mentor-based workshop TechShop and the robotics program FIRST.

The St. Paul Learning Labs Project will bring together the city's public library with its partners at the St. Paul Parks and Recreation Department to create a new facility, as well as a mobile lab and an online portal. Twenty-five percent of St. Paul's population is under age 18; 72% of its student population qualifies for free or reduced lunch; and 36% are English language learners. The new teen learning spaces will provide a safe and resource-rich environment for at-risk youth to "hang out, mess around, and geek out."

The New York Hall of Science in Queens plans to create a Digital Making program within its new Cognizant Maker Space. The program aims to boost teens' interest in STEM topics through programs that will encourage them to work with music, video, and games. The New York Hall of Science has been the site of the New York Maker Faire, and as such, the new learning lab will tap into a larger community of makers and builders to help act as mentors and resources for the teens.

While the grant recipients all plan on building different sorts of programs that meet community needs and match community resources, in general the emphasis is on providing a free and open community space for teens to explore digital media and technology -- and to do so on their own terms. This sort of informal learning can hopefully foster creativity and experimentation and offer both STEM learning and play that doesn't always happen in schools.

It's that element -- "as informal learning institutions" -- that OMSI's David Perry, Director of Museum Education points to with the Portland project, one that combines the library and museum's respective strengths in engaging teens and creating hands-on experiences. "Digital media and production tools are changing the way people, especially teens, interact with each other and the world around them," says Perry, and it's now more libraries and museums are thinking how to foster learning experiences for their teenage visitors.

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