This post is part of a series where the YALSAblog takes a closer look at Learning Lab grantees from museums and libraries to learn how they engage middle and high school youth in mentor-led, interest-based, youth-centered, collaborative learning using digital and traditional media.” To read more about the context of the Learning Labs, visit the first post in the series here.
HiTech

Today we will read about HiTech, a Learning Lab with the Howard County Library System, MD from Christie Lassen, Director of Public Relations, christie.lassen@hclibrary.org.

KC: If you have named your Learning Lab, can you share what you are calling it?
CL: We call our popular STEM education initiative for teens HiTech. The upbeat term plays on the words high and technology, conveying that we incorporate cutting-edge teaching methodologies into our curriculum.

HiTech also associates the initiative with Howard County Library System (HCLS) because the term begins with Hi, HCLS' logo, which communicates friendliness (as in “Hello, and welcome!”). Separately, the logo's letter “H” stands for Howard County Library System, while “i” stands for specific words (e.g., inform, instruct and interact), which, combined, comprise our mission: high-quality education for all.

The HiTech logo, which mirrors components of the HCLS logo, also includes a tag line: The Road to a STEM Career.

KC: What is the target age for your Learning Lab?
CL: The HCLS team designs the HiTech curriculum and venues for students ages 11 to 18.

KC: What makes your Learning Lab unique?
CL: HiTech teaches cutting-edge science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education via project-based classes that include computer programming (Python and Javascript, 3D animation, nanotechnology, music/video production, e-books, game apps, cybersecurity, and robotics.

Leveraging the best technology, teaching tools, and experts to deliver a top-quality STEM education experience, HiTech incorporates an innovative methodology that blends instruction with experiential learning and peer-to-peer communications.

HiTech's curriculum comprises four modules: Interact, Improvise, Invent, and Instruct (the Academy). Each module incorporates progressively greater levels of instruction. The first three modules deliver guided, self-paced learning opportunities, while the fourth incorporates more structure.
1. Interact Students experience music, video, computer games, and mobile apps by listening and playing.
2. Improvise Students experiment with digital music, videos, game design, and computer graphics.
3. Invent Students learn specific STEM professional methodology and terminology in conjunction with products. Projects in this module have included the design and build of weather balloons, robots, hovercrafts, an e-book (titled “Chapters of Civility,” the book is available from iTunes and Google Play), and a mobile game, Escape from Detention!, that has been downloaded 6,000 times across the globe and is also available from iTunes and GooglePlay.
4. Instruct (Academy) The HiTech Academy, which is under development, will be tailored towards teens interested in pursuing higher education in STEM subject areas. The Academy will immerse students in an educational journey that will include:
 Interactive classes that cover foundational skills within the disciplines—taught by HCLS Instructors, HiTech partners, student mentors, and consultants on the following topics:
o 3D design, Animation, and CAD Drawing
o Python, PHP, C++, and Javascript
o Cybersecurity
o Green Energy and Related Technologies
o Nanotechnology
o Infectious Diseases
o Robotics
o Technology of Fashion
 SAT testing guidance and core curriculum skill development
 Field explorations that include site visits to STEM work environments, including interviews with industry professionals (e.g., NASA, NSA, Owens Science Center, Proctor & Gamble, and Under Armour.
 Attendance at one of several college-sponsored STEM camps (e.g., University of Maryland A. James Clark School of Engineering, Howard Community College, Howard University.
All HiTech students receive certificates (e.g., “HiTech Class of 2013 Certificate of Participation”), along with a transcript of classes completed, at the annual HiTech Expo.
The Urban Libraries Council (ULC), a membership association of leading public library systems in the U.S. and Canada, named Howard County Library System a 2013 Top Innovator for HiTech. In announcing the award, ULC President and CEO Susan Benton said, “On behalf of the ULC community throughout North America, I congratulate Howard County Library System for being selected as a 2013 Top Innovator. HCLS staff are commended for setting the pace for growth, change and innovation in the field.”

KC: What theoretical framework are you applying to help inform the design and activities in the space? How, if at all, does Connected Learning play a role?
CL: The goal of HiTech is to teach students the critical skill sets needed for 21st century careers. With this as our goal, we then develop a curriculum that is engaging and fun for the students. The projects-based teaching is a crucial component of our overall methodology. Our students take great pride in, for instance, engineering a functioning robot, publishing e-books which are then available via iTunes, releasing mobile game apps that are downloaded worldwide, and launching a weather balloon.

Further, HiTech falls under A+ Partners in Education, a comprehensive partnership between and among Howard County Library System, Howard County Public School System (HCPSS), and Howard Community College (HCC) that improves student academic success. Replicated in numerous jurisdictions across the country, A+ is successful due to key partnership components, which include:
o Every HCPSS school, and each HCC department, is assigned an HCLS branch and liaison.
o Each student receives an HCLS card through school registration.
o Kindergarten field trips to HCLS are part of the HCPSS' curriculum.
o HCLS instructors teach A+ Curriculum classes at HCLS branches, and in the schools.
o HCPSS and HCLS collaborate on curriculum and signature events.

KC: At the heart of most learning labs is the concept of community. How do you anticipate your Learning Lab creating community where it didn't previously exist in the same way before?
CL: HiTech has strengthened our existing partnerships (e.g., A+ Partners in Education), and has expanded others (e.g., our partnership with the University of Maryland (www.umd.edu) for our Enchanted Garden, our outdoor teaching venue that centers on health and environmental education), and has established new ones (e.g., with University of Maryland, Baltimore County).
The initiative capitalizes on Howard County's advantage as home to a number of major STEM-oriented employers and higher education institutions, with many providing leadership and guidance as members of the HiTech Board of Advisors, including Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, Mindgrub Technologies , Northrop Grumman, University of Maryland's A. James Clark School of Engineering, the Maryland State Department of Education, the Howard County Public School System, Howard Community College, and UMBC Joint Center for Earth Systems Technology.

KC: What advice are you taking into consideration in approaching this project-either from libraries/other organizations who have completed or are in the process of similar projects, your own experience, or otherwise?
CL: HiTech benefits from four advisory groups:

1. Teens. Based on feedback from surveys completed by teens, we design a curriculum that will be engaging for this age group. For instance, when we learned that our students were interested in 3D animation, our instructors learned Blender, the open source, cross platform suite of tools for 3D creations. Our instructors then taught a series of classes that immediately filled to capacity.

Similarly, survey responses indicated that one group of students was not interested in STEM subjects. Reasons included, “We are interested in fashion.” What was our response? We explained to the students that their favorite six-hour lip gloss was actually chemical engineering, as was their favorite outfit made from wrinkle-free material. We then designed the hit series of HiTech classes called “The Technology of Fashion,” which included how to use Illustrator. The students thoroughly enjoyed the classes. Many have also discovered interests in classes in our other tracks.

2. HCLS HiTech Team. A knowledgeable team of HCLS instructors and experts contribute to all components of HiTech, meeting regularly to assess, modify, design, plan, etc., the curriculum.

3. HiTech Partners. Working closely with our HiTech partners, we infuse their ideas into the curriculum. Our partners include:

 Columbia Association
 Howard Community College
 Howard County Public School System
 Mindgrub Technologies
 University of Maryland Baltimore County Joint Center for Earth Systems
 University of Maryland's A. James Clark School of Engineering
 Voices for Change

4. HiTech Board of Advisors. The HiTech Board of Advisors meets twice each year, providing advice and feedback on both the curriculum and the HiTech Expo. The Board includes STEM-oriented employers and higher education institutions listed in the previous question.

KC: What components will make your Learning Lab a Learning Lab?
CL: All HiTech components contribute to its tremendous success. Students have attended HiTech classes 3,500 times since enrollment opened in June 2012 after six months of planning (the initiative began in January 2012).

Most notably, HiTech delivers STEM education that students clearly enjoy, especially the ability to learn a 21st century skill and then apply it immediately. For example, students engineered a weather balloon, built it, launched it, tracked it as it rose 30,000 feet and traveled 150 miles before landing in the Atlantic Ocean off the Jersey shore, retrieved it, then analyzed the data.

HiTech weather balloon classKC: What types of activities and/or technology do you anticipate being a part of your Learning Lab?
CL: For our upcoming series of HiTech classes, in addition to repeating the most popular classes, we will add a series in each of the following areas:

 Building Renewable Energy
 Genetics: Biology and Nanotechnology
 Hovercrafts: Basics of Engineering and Physics
 Wearable Technologies
 Advanced Robotics
 Gamification
 Augmented Reality

KC: What are your plans to keep the Learning Lab dynamic, fresh, and moving forward?
CL: While we plan to expand HiTech to each of our six branches, HiTech is headquartered at the HCLS Savage Branch & STEM Education Center. This venue is currently under renovation. When the branch reopens in the fall of 2014, it will feature a dedicated space for HiTech that will include:

 Two 750 sq. ft. flexible meeting rooms/classrooms (with projectors, movable tables for laptops)
 Additional classroom space
 A state-of-the-art sound booth
 An audio/music room
 A genius bar (for laptops)
 State-of-the-art computing and printing station
 A vending café area
 A reading area with splashy colors and fun furniture
 Quiet study rooms
 Laptop counter overlooking an outdoor courtyard

KC: For libraries or similar organizations that haven't received funding to build their dream Learning Lab, what suggestions do you have where they can start to get ideas or create a similar experience?
CL: We would recommend beginning by developing a vision for your curriculum, then engaging partners from nearby institutions, especially the schools (K-12, colleges and universities). In addition, seek sponsorships from community donors and Friends organizations. Finally, stress the STEM components of any new education initiative you are considering.

Here are three links to some videos:
• HCLS HiTech STEM Lab - 3D Robot Rendering
• HCLS HiTech STEM Lab - Visual Overview
• HCLS HiTech STEM Lab - The STEM Instructors

Here is a link from a WebJunction webinar that took place in August; Where Teens and Technology Meet: Engaging Teens With Digital Media

About Kelly Czarnecki

Kelly Czarnecki is a Teen Librarian at ImaginOn with the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library. She is a member of the YALSA blog advisory board.

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