Coming Soon: A Digital Learning Lab for KC Teens

The planning has officially begun. The grant secured by Crystal Faris, Jamie Mayo, Mary Thompson, and Kim Patton to design a digital media "learning lab" for Kansas City teens is in full swing.

Thanks to these enterprising librarians' efforts, last November the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced that the Kansas City Public Library, in partnership with Science City at Union Station, would be one of 12 organizations in the U.S. to receive $100,000 in funding to plan and design a "learning lab" for teenagers and high school students.

Modeled after the YOUmedia center at the Harold Washington Library in Chicago, the lab will encourage teens to use digital media technology such as social networking, video games, and audio/visual media production to create, collaborate, and widen their world in ways that they typically aren't able to in the traditional classroom.

But before a lab can be built, plans must be laid.

"The essence of this grant is R&D," says Andrea Ellis, the Library's digital media lab project coordinator. A native of Kansas City, Ellis holds a Master's in Communications and Film Production from the School of Education at NYU. Before moving back to KC two years ago, she worked in training and outreach at Arlington Independent Media, a public access TV outlet that serves the Washington, D.C., area.

"This is such a rare gift," Ellis says. "It allows us to play and figure out what we want to do. I've done other federal grants before, and usually you're implementing and then trying to figure out what worked and what didn't."

Over the next 18 months, Ellis will work with our youth services librarians and representatives from Science City to develop a prototype for a lab in Union Station and a mobile lab to travel between branches.

"It's a cool opportunity we haven't had before to be a part of the cutting-edge research in 21st century learning in museums and libraries," says Jamie Mayo, Central Youth Services manager.

Part of that research incorporates the HOMAGO model developed by University of California researcher Mizuko Ito. Short for "hanging out, messing around, geeking out," HOMAGO teaches that teens learn best when given a safe space in which to play, learn, create, and interact.

Watch a video about Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out

So how will the Library and Science City get local teens geeked?

Answering that question is what this year's grant is for.

Involving Our Teens

In addition to providing the funds to hire Ellis, the grant will allow Faris, Mayo, Ellis, and other planning committee members to travel to three training workshops, in Chicago, San Francisco, and DC.

Money will also be invested in equipment such as laptops, cameras, and software for use in hands-on testing with teens.

The grant will also be used to recruit and compensate a Teen Advisory Board whose members will assist with the R&D process and conduct teen focus groups.

"These will be competitive, paid positions," Mayo stresses. "It's important to show that your talents can garner you money."

Applications for membership on the board will be distributed at the first major lab-related event, the Teen Summit on August 25 at Union Station.

The Summit will invite around 40 teens from the Library's service district to check out potential spaces in Science City and discuss what they want from the lab.

Soliciting feedback from teens, after all, is a crucial part of the process.

"The essence of this is that it's safe for teens and meets them where their interests are," Ellis says.

Finding out those interests will be a major task for Ellis and her colleagues (including those on the Teen Advisory Board) in the coming months.

Building a framework for financial support is important, too. When the planning grant expires in June 2013, more funding will be needed to build the lab. That money may come from an implementation grant, corporate sponsors, or other sources.

"The grant allows us to create a solid plan that we can use to seek funding for the physical lab at Union Station, so including sustainability in the plan is vital," Faris says.

For now, Faris and Ellis remain excited.

"It's a movement," Ellis says, "and it's exciting to be a part of a movement that's having a positive impact on teens and youth in Kansas City."

About the Author

Jason Harper is the web content developer and social media manager at the Kansas City Public Library.
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