A Rapid Tour of Chicago Youth Spaces for Digital Learning

I was in Chicago recently for the Museums and the Web conference. Between sessions I ran around the city to meet with my colleagues in museums and libraries who were willing to share their youth spaces and how they’ve been designed to support digital learning. (Interviews will follow in subsequent posts). Below are a few highlights from each location.


I began at the Field Museum, with Eve Gaus, their Digital Learning Manager. (For my full interview with Eve please go here). Two years earlier I had visited with Eve to visit her educational space and learn more about their programs. This visit we talked about what they’d learned in the intervening years and their plans moving forward. Below is a panoramic photo of their room (click for a larger image):

Classroom at the Field Museum

On the left is a white board, created through special paint directly to the wall, which spreads from their southern to their western wall. The western wall also contains their video screen. The northern side has digital equipment, like two 3D printers and computers, and windows that look out towards the lake. The eastern wall are cabinets and such. In the middle are tables and chairs. The entrance is from the south, from within an exhibit space, and the door has big glass windows so people can look in. The room has a clean design and feels airy and bright.

The majority of the museum’s programming have come through highly structured long term programs that delved into various science topics of interest to the Museum and its scientists. After successful programs in which youth developed soundscapes, produced videos, created mobile experiences, and more, the next step for the Field is broadening access to the space, turning it from long-term engagement into more of a drop-in space, both for Chicago youth and family’s visiting the museum. In one scenario, a Chicago teen might drop into a program that runs the same time every week but is designed to support her to only attend a handful of sessions. In another scenario, a family visiting the museum might “drop off’ their teen for a few hours, who’d be attractive to a wide-range of just-in-time, interest-driven, hands-on activities (the adjectives are my own).

The shift from “classroom” to “clubhouse” model takes inspiration from many places (which will be explored in the upcoming interview with Eve) but worthy mentioning here is the HO-MA-GO framework. Standing for “Hanging Out, Messing Around, Geeking Out,” this direction in youth learning spaces comes from the title of the 2009 book summarizing  the seminal research project led by Mimi Ito. The study identified these three modes of learning that could be observed amongst young people using digital media. The framework became the basis of the development of YOUmedia (see below) and has inspired youth spaces in museums and libraries around the country.

What this means for the Field is that their programs have weighed heavily on the geeking out side – which means working with youth who want to go deep into content and media production. Moving forward, the Field will be exploring how to speak to those more interested in messing around – the science content and digital tools have already peaked their interest and they want to “play around” with them and see where they go – and hanging out – such as for those more motivated by the social possibilities and/or are still developing their own science and media interests.

And one of their professional partners, and sources of inspiration, is the Shedd Aquarium.


When you compare the different learning spaces at the Shedd – the traditional classrooms and their relatively new Teen Learning Lab (which literally share a wall) – you can see the type of transition the Field is hoping to experience.

The classrooms

The Teen Learning Lab

The Shedd classroom on the left looks like something you might see in a well-equipped school (and resembles in part a cafeteria). The Lab on the right (which once looked like the photo on the left) is completely different. A fuller image can be seen below (click for a larger image):

Teen Learning Lab at the Field Museum

Starting on the left, we first see a table and some 3D printers. We then move on to a giant white board wall, shelves of books and materials and desks (I think those are actually the desks of the staff who work there, but I might be wrong). The middle and right side are the different types of chairs and tables youth can use to hang out, socialize, read, research, do work, or whatever. Their art from various projects populate the walls and the room is colorful and bright.

The Lab takes inspiration from both HO-MA-GO and the ideas of Connected Learning. The later, in short, is what HO-MA-GO grew into when its underlying pedagogies were stripped from being tied to physical spaces and adapted for a wide range of formal and inform learning. It focuses on young learner’s peer culture, their personal passions, and their opportunities to combine the two to plan for their future. It has a strong focus on learning through doing and producing, cross-generational learning (such as mentors), and building connections across different sites of learning.

As a result, the Lab at the Shedd doesn’t offer what one usually expects from an after school provider, which is regular programs one can join, led by educators or facilitators following lessons plans or workshop designs. Rather, teens drop in, explore the resources, and pursue their own interests. It is very much a place for self-motivated teens. I came to think of it as a graduate research center, but for teenagers. People help each other out – both peer to peer and staff with peers – and the Shedd gets to learn the interests of those they serve as the passions of the youth emerge and take form.

One of the reasons both HO-MA-GO and Connected Learning is so strong as a framework for the Field and the Shedd is because Chicago houses YOUmedia, the first physical instantiation of the idea.


YOUmedia Chicago opened in 2009. It transformed a 5,500-square-foot space on the ground floor of the main branch of the Chicago Public Library. It has spread to an additional 10 locations around the city, with one more scheduled to open this summer  (4 middle and 7 high school) and, through the Learning Labs programs, to more than two dozen museums and libraries around the country.

When it first opened, the room – one, long open space — was split into three sections, one for each modality within HO-MA-GO. The tables were arranged accordingly – for example, beanbag chairs in the hanging out section and tables with chairs, more like a classroom, in the geeking out section. The floor was painted different colors to represent the different areas.


Tan-colored “hanging out” section. (click for larger image)

But from day one, the youth did everything everywhere. Now, five years since opening, YOUmedia has been refreshed not only with a new coat of paint but also a design that incorporates how youth use the place. For example, TV monitors, tables and chairs have wheels, so they can be more easily moved, and the classroom tables have been replaced with curved tables that encourage collaboration and socializing (along with bigger screens).

When it opened the library brought down its teen media collection from upstairs, and circulation increased 400 percent. They are pleased with their traffic – around 60-65 per day during the school week, closer to 50 per day in the summer. But the space is so much more than just books. They leave all sorts of equipment out – and visibility they learned is key to it being used. Lighting equipment. Backdrops. 3D printers. Art supplies. Vinyl cutters. And so much more.


Red-colored “messing around” section. (click for larger image)

There are alcoves where youth can have some privacy, and even a recording studio room, but they find teens often like to congregate closer to where the adults are… but not too close. The teens treat all adults, who all wear name tags, the same, whether staff, mentor, or volunteer. But the mentors, from the start, are a key component of YOUmedia.

All mentors both run programs and support teens, and all are professional artists. Their focus is building relationships with the teens and running programs that build their digital skills. They are trained in how to initiate contact with youth and how to sustain those relationships. When I was there one was playing Magic: The Gathering with a group of boys. Those relationships are often what begin a youth’s interest, following the expertise of the mentor. Mentors also receive training in boundary setting and social emotional skills.

Programs lead by the mentors need to look different. They require a low barrier to entry and then mentors follow-up with the youth to support any new interest that may have developed. Mentors might also then connect youth to artists they know. It’s a very organic process.


Brown-colored “Geeking out” section. (click for larger image)

Youth are free just to hang out, mess around with most of the material and tools in the room, or participate in scheduled programs. The programs might earn them a certificate that allows them to use more advanced tools or participate in their collective projects, such as their podcast series and let’s play gaming videos.

They found many youth didn’t have the big picture of all the opportunities available. As a result, now, they offer showcases of mini workshops so teens will have a sense of all going on, not just enter and make a bee-line to their friends.

Below is video of me walking through the space.

So after visiting three different but related spaces – one about general sciences and culture, one about marine biology, and one on creative expression  – I was inspired, with many ideas to bring back to NYC. But did I have enough? No way. I hoped to add one more to my trip tomorrow, but I didn’t want to wait to post this. So if I don’t collapse and actually make it to the final site tomorrow, I look forward to adding it to this post. Until then, if you have places you think I should visit – whether in Chicago or elsewhere – please let me know in the comments section below.

About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
This entry was posted in Practice and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.