This week, dozens of innovators from more than 15 cities are converging on Pittsburgh for a two-day session on Learning Labs.  

Learning Labs are unique spaces in libraries, museums, and other cultural sites designed by and for teens. At their core are youth themselves, whose interests and input drive the programming. The spaces feature a range of digital media tools that are designed to inspire teens to become creators and makers, not just passive consumers, and in doing so find their own voice and inspiration. Learning Labs are inspired by YOUmedia, teen learning spaces that opened at the Chicago Public Library in July 2009, as well as spaces in Miami, New York, and Washington, DC.

We sat down with Amy Eshleman, who led the Chicago Public Library team that created YOUmedia and has been integral to Learning Labs from their start in 2012.  She is the program leader for education at the Urban Libraries Council and is helping to spearhead the expansion of Learning Labs to more than two dozen cities nationwide, including Pittsburgh.

The Pittsburgh Learning Lab is housed in the Carnegie Library’s main library as well as three neighborhood libraries. The Labs, based on the principles of YOUmedia, are getting underway now. Young people are helping plan how the space will be integrated into the rest of the library and the city’s Hive Learning Network.  

Remake Learning: What are three words that describe a Learning Lab? 

Amy Eshleman: I’d say teens, interests (because their interests are the focus), and powerful (because when you bring teens and their interests together and provide a space for them to learn, pretty powerful things can happen).

Why are Learning Labs so important to libraries and museums today? 

Amy Eshleman

Amy Eshleman

Libraries and museums have always embraced their role as important parts of the learning ecosystem in cities. The connected learning principles behind Learning Labs have given libraries and museums a roadmap for engaging youth in relevant new ways and provided them the opportunity to own the learning space in a new way.

Learning Labs focus largely on using digital media to engage youth as creators, not just passive viewers. How do libraries and museums fit into this plan?

Libraries and museums are incredible hubs in their communities for information and lifelong learning. They house a combination of great spaces, really smart educators and librarians and collections. Combine those strengths with digital media tools, and Learning Labs can be a really powerful way to reach teens.

Libraries, for example, have always been great as safe and democratic spaces to hang out. Teens come to do their homework, socialize and get on a computer. Hanging out is really critical still, but now there are different opportunities to engage in a library or museum after school—ways to tinker and explore interests, and go deeper with their own learning.

What sets Learning Labs apart from other after school programs in libraries or museums? 

I absolutely think it’s that these spaces put youth at the center, engage skilled and caring adult mentors to support youth, and are built on robust research and designed to support that.  If someone walks to a Learning Lab space, they’ll see kids having fun and playing video games, or maybe taking part in a workshop. But there’s so much more to it than that. As you peel back the layers of the onion, you start to understand that the teens have created the learning pathways for themselves and how engaging that is, and how it can be a bridge between in and out-of-school.

What makes these spaces a success?

As we know from the last two to three years in the incubator spaces (Chicago’s YOUmedia; ArtLab+ in Washington, DC; DreamYard in New York and Miami at the Miami-Dade Public Library), you can build incredible spaces and fill them with lots of great new media tools, but what makes these spaces so relevant and successful are the relationships teens build with their peers and the adults in the space—mentors, staff, and others.

What kind of shift has this entailed for library and museum staff in places that have launched a Learning Lab?

I think it’s a bit of a shift for libraries and museums, which have always been places of expertise and recognized authority, to now start having folks who visit museums and libraries create and build content and artifacts which then can become part of the collections or experience of the library or museum. That’s a shift—but an important one that we have to make to remain relevant in the 21st century

Even the physical space is a shift. Learning Labs are loud, social, collaborative spaces. And that’s not the traditional view of libraries or museums. But this is the way folks learn now: they work collaboratively, iterate, show work they’ve done, try and fail and try again. It’s a really powerful way to learn and gain the higher-order skills needed to succeed in life. And a physical space that promotes that approach is just going to look and feel different.

Also, the type of people organizations hire to work in these spaces is a shift. Libraries and museums are now hiring artists, makers, and musicians. And in many ways, the adults are the learners as well as the teens. Adults do have a level of expertise, but the exchange is different—it’s much more interactive and less top-down. It can evolve over a span of time, rather than be a one-off exchange. And the adults are working together with the teens to help them gain some expertise that they care about.

What about institutionally? Did starting a Learning Lab in Chicago affect the Chicago Public Library more broadly?

Photo courtesy: CLP South Side

Making movies at the CLP South Side

Yes, it absolutely provided the library with the opportunity and responsibility to own the learning space in a different way. We always knew we were a critical part of the education fabric in the city, but the process of creating and operating YOUmedia [Chicago’s Learning Lab] was transformational. We know that kids’ learning never stops, but before YOUmedia, we weren’t really building on what teens were learning in schools in a way that was relevant and came from them. Now that happens in a more robust way. Starting YOUmedia also changed the conversation for us internally and externally around our staff and their professional development, partnerships, our library spaces, and our role in the learning ecosystem of Chicago.

I read a story today about summer school programs that are blending traditional teaching practices (reading aloud, for example) with trips to museums, script-writing sessions—in effect a kind of laboratory for new, more engaging instructional ideas. What can Learning Labs teach us about engagement? 

Many Learning Labs are still in an early stage of development, but we’ve learned a lot about teen engagement even as these spaces are evolving because they’ve nearly all incorporated innovative and authentic ways to engage youth in the planning and design. In Nashville and San Francisco, for example, the public libraries have youth working side-by-side with architects to design what their space will look like. Teens have ownership and a voice from day one. That’s really important to engagement, we’ve found. If you meet teens and talk to them about the things they care about, they’re going to engage in a way that they haven’t before. It’s very powerful and the kids are amazed. They’ll say, “They asked us about what we want to do in the space and they listened!” They can’t believe that the adults would care about what they thought and actually incorporate their ideas into the design of the space.

You were integral to YOUmedia’s start in Chicago, the original Learning Lab. What’s the key lesson you learned there that is valuable for other spaces? 

I think to be as flexible as possible. Be willing to try something that you haven’t tried before and partner with people you haven’t partnered with before. Pittsburgh has already established a set of great partnerships with the Hive and the Kids+Creativity Network, so partnering is part of their DNA. Those kinds of partnerships can make the learning experience for youth really dynamic.

And speaking of Pittsburgh, isn’t it cool to be a kid in Pittsburgh at this moment?  

Yes! You are doing amazing stuff. Pittsburgh was one of the first cities to visit Chicago after YOUmedia opened and say, “This can work in Pittsburgh and we’d love to be part of, and add to, this conversation.” Pittsburgh has become an incredible source of inspiration for all of us lucky enough to do this work.

This is exactly what we hoped would happen—cities would take these design principles and go out and make something relevant and make them their own. That’s been a joy to watch and be a part of. We’re so excited to be bringing the Learning Labs teams from all across the country to Pittsburgh because we know they’re going to be inspired when they meet folks and see your spaces. Just more great examples to take back to their own cities and remix and reimagine for their own work.