St. Paul Learning LabThis 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.

Today we will read about a Learning Lab with the St. Paul Public Library, MN from Marika Staloch, Youth Services Coordinator, marika.staloch@ci.stpaul.mn.us.

KC: If you have named your Learning Lab, can you share what you are calling it?
MS: We have not yet named our Lab. Our Learning Lab project has a mobile lab component that has morphed with a program named Createch, so we may use that name, but hope to get more teen input before naming it.

KC: What is the target age for your Learning Lab?
MS: Currently, we are targeting 9-12 graders, but we understand the complexities of having a teen-only space. We are looking to be flexible, and perhaps offer middle school hours on weekends.

KC: What makes your Learning Lab unique?
MS: We are partnered with Saint Paul Parks and Recreation Department. This unique partnership allows us to reach a different demographic of teens than libraries can reach on their own. We are building a combined Parks and Libraries space, and our Learning Lab will be next to the basketball courts.

KC: What theoretical framework are you applying to help inform the design and activities in the space?
MS: We were lucky enough to hear Mimi Ito speak to us about her HOMAGO theory early in our planning. We changed our framework drastically from ‘what kind of technology do we need' to ‘how can we create a welcoming space to encourage hanging out and messing around with technology'. We visited YOUmedia in Chicago, and saw a panel of teens that reshaped our vision as well. When asked, “What's one thing someone building a Learning Lab should take away from what you do in Chicago?” They all answered, “Hire great mentors.” These were teens that had the coolest technology, the greatest gadgets, and yet not one of the 12-15 of them mentioned technology.

KC: How, if at all, does Connected Learning play a role?
MS: It plays an essential role. We are focusing on our teens, the learners. We are connecting teens through their interests, to mentors and peers that share those interests. We hope those mentors and our connections with their teachers help connect these interests to academics. We will strive to keep current technology available to teens so that they can have hands-on experiences and develop first-hand knowledge of tools they may need to be successful in their future career and life.

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?
MS: Our learning lab is being built in a neighborhood that lacks a lot of these resources. Lately, youth violence has plagued the East Side of Saint Paul. We hope to create a positive community where teens can take pride in their neighborhood, and also have the resources to share that pride and work toward bettering their community.

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?
MS: It's all about relationships. Work on developing relationships with teens in the neighborhood. Find staff to be mentors in the space who reflect the community, and have a solid understanding of youthwork. Build relationships with your community, your partnering organization, your colleagues, neighboring schools, higher educational institutions, and key decision makers in your community. Prototype early and often. Don't work on a plan without also making a prototype. We started small mobile labs to see what our Learning Lab may be like. At first, I felt they were nothing alike - however, the mobile labs have uncovered a need for an institutional shift in the way we think of service to our teens. We learned through the mobile labs that we must offer a persistent space at a persistent time for teens. We are learning what kinds of professional development we may need to offer, for educating around new technology and around youthwork skills.

programKC: What components will make your Learning Lab a Learning Lab?
MS: We will offer hands on access to technology that teens can not access at home or school. We will have mentors to help guide and connect teens to resources to enhance their passions. We started very small, with accessible technology. As we expand, we are incorporating more maker activities into the lab. We've invested in a couple of computerized sewing machines, Cameo Silhouette cutters, video cameras, Makey-Makeys, and Spheros due to mentor and teen participant interests.

KC: What types of activities and/or technology do you anticipate being a part of your Learning Lab?
MS: We hope to remain interest driven, listening to both the teens, and the mentors who are working in the space. We will have a recording studio, a suite of laptops and resources to share what's on the laptops. We will have gaming equipment. We will have STEM resources, and through our partnership with the Science Museum of Minnesota, know of several activities that spark teens interests. We hope to have mentors in engineering fields who inspire the purchase of CNC routers, 3D printers, and CAD software. Right now, we have an idea of what's out there, but are waiting to purchase technology so it doesn't get outdated before we open.

KC: What are your plans to keep the Learning Lab dynamic, fresh, and moving forward?
MS: Currently, the plans are to keep listening. Listening to the teens, their interests, and their passions. Listening to the staff, as they continue to grow into this new role. Listening to the community, and the changing needs of the workforce. We had teens from our Teen Tech Crew host Digital Justice Jam community listening sessions where they asked participants what could make the community a better place. From that, we are trying to implement a social justice element into many of our activities. This digital citizenship focus has added a depth and importance to the work.

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?
MS: Much of what we've started so far is doable on a small budget. If you can spare the staff, you are set. Our first Createch mobile lab was 5 iPads, one Macbook, and some speakers. We have been able to generate quite a few activities and a lot of interest around hanging out by simply putting this technology in a room once a week with a caring, supported staff member.

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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