Library and Science City Win Grant to Build Learning Lab for Teens

Like many great brainstorming sessions in the history of public libraries, it began with librarians gathered around a blackboard, pizza and drinks on hand. But, unlike most, it ended with the awarding of a $100,000 grant.

One night this past July, Youth Services librarians Crystal Faris, Jamie Mayo, and Kim Patton gathered in the home of their colleague Mary Thompson to form a plan that would rock Kansas City teens' world.

They imagined a place where community teens could access digital media production tools and software and create original content that showcases their imagination capabilities. All the while, the teens would be learning new skills with new technology.

Or, as cultural youth anthropologist Mizuko Ito famously put it, a place for "hanging out, messing around, and geeking out."

In June 2011, the Institute of Museum and Library Services put out a request for proposal for the creation of mentor-led, interest-based, youth-centered "Learning Labs" in libraries and museums around the country. The grant would be funded by IMLS and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation as part of President Obama's "Educate to Innovate" campaign.

The Chicago Public Library's YOUmedia center was the rough model for the concept. Housed in the Harold Washington Library Center, YOUmedia connects teens with books, computers, and a variety of media creation tools to encourage them to think critically, be creative, and build 21st century skills. (Inside tip: Library Director Crosby Kemper III visited YOUmedia earlier this year and liked what he saw.)

Faris and her fellow librarians saw, in the grant, a major opportunity to boost the Library's teen services while providing a valuable resource to underprivileged teens.

"We have some amazingly creative teens at the Library," Thompson says. "This project would expose them to tools and resources they wouldn't have otherwise and give them an outlet to express their creativity."

Looking for a partner in the project, the Youth Services team approached Science City in Union Station. With its strategic location amid ethnically diverse neighborhoods, accessibility via the bus system, abundance of interior space, and reputation as a youth-oriented learning center, Science City would be an ideal home base.

The proposed lab will be located in Union Station, just outside of Science City. There will be no charge to teens to use it.

Also included in the joint proposal was a mobile Learning Lab that would travel between Library branches, schools, and other agencies, interfacing with teens and raising awareness of the lab in Union Station.

"By going out to the branches, the mobile lab is like a rallying point, bringing us all together," Thompson says.

Further sweetening the deal was the imminent addition of Google Fiber gigabit-speed internet to Kansas City's infrastructure in 2012.

The grant was announced on Nov. 17, 2011. The Kansas City Public Library and Science City stand alongside 11 other world-class winners, including Houston's Museum of Fine Arts, the San Francisco Public Library, the New York Hall of Science, the Free Library of Philadelphia, and Colorado's Anythink Libraries.

The grant period is set for 18 months. In that time, Faris will launch the mobile lab, hire a project coordinator and several part-time, teen employees, and work on the prototype lab in Union Station.

In the long term, organizers intend to find additional funding for a larger Learning Lab at Union Station with more technology, additional staff, and extended hours.

"We want to turn our teens from media consumers into media creators," Faris says.

Let the geeking begin!

-- Jason Harper