How to Design a Youth Space With Youth: an interview with the Shedd Aquarium’s Wade Berger

This is my third and final interview in a series exploring learning labs in Chicago Museums (the first focused on The Field Museum and the second on the Art Institute of Chicago). In this edition I interviewed Wade Berger, in Spring of 2015, who manages the Teen learning Lab at the Shedd Aquarium. Back in 2013 I spoke with Wade about their use of Minecraft (The Shedd Aquarium, Minecraft, and Virtual Piranha); now we chat about the teen space he runs and how museums can be places for teens to both hang out and geek out on science.

Hi Wade. So please tell us, where exactly would one find the Teen Learning Lab within the Shedd Aquarium.

Well, we actually have an Aquatic Education Center, which is a space underneath our galleries in the aquarium.

So this particular room we are in right now, what is it called?

It’s a Teen Learning Lab. This space was designed by teens for teens. Its a free space to make new friends, work on projects and explore careers in aquatic science.

What do the old style classrooms look like, which I see are still in use down the hall?

Those are like your more traditional spaces which we have for our school field trips and our registered programs; this space is designed to be a drop-in space – teens can just show up, they don’t have to tell us they are coming in ahead of time, and we offer after school hours, weekend hours and summer hours.

Traditional Classroom at the Shedd Aquarium

What is something people might notice when they first walk in, something that they might not be expecting?

The colors, the furniture, all of these things are really non-traditional for a classroom, and they are picked out by teens. We had teens that went through style guides and went through catalogs and picked out the furniture, picked out the color schemes, picked out the technology as well. And they also helped us lay out the room – we had the teens come in and help us move stuff around.  So it’s bright, and colorful. We have teen projects all over the places, including several wall-mounted murals–which our teens designed with the help of our exhibit fabrication team.

Teen Learning Lab at the Shedd Aquarium

What’s also awesome about this space is the amount of technology that we have, including traditional pieces of technology used in aquatic sciences or marine biology and even a 3D printer. We also have Google Glass and other cutting edge technologies, such as high-end Macs, video-editing software,  and podcasting equipment that we allow teens to use for their projects.

And how does the institution set learning goals and how do you adapt them here?

We have a group of staff at Shedd that are part of a Learning, Planning and Evaluation team.  They do research narratives and they study trends in informal and science education. From this work, they put together a Shedd-wide Learning Framework which is outcome based.  So we have sub-outcomes for several skills, knowledge and attitudes related to science, such as one about teens understanding the role of stakeholders in a project.

So we have those pieces, which help us shape our projects, but then we also follow along with the Connected Learning principles of shared purpose, interest-driven learning… which really helps keep Teen Lab shaped by the teens’ projects and what they are interested in.  So as much as I might want to build a workshop about anything in particular, typically what happens is we say to teens “What do you want to learn about?” and we build workshops around their interests.

And then we also take the HOMAGO framework and integrate it into the space.  So we are a safe space for kids to do homework, to hangout with us to do their school projects, to find that passion that is a little bit more than what they might get at a school or even at the library or those kind of spaces too.

And what are some ways you have not just been inspired by and adapted those learning theories but modified them and changed them to meet your own needs here?

One of our Learning Framework outcomes is about teens becoming interested in a topic, and being curious to know more, and actually knowing how to learn more. And we have found that we have a lot of teens who are really curious about technology and how to learn more about what they are interested in through that technology, which is sort of combining Connected Learning and using production-centered topics and projects to get teens interested in something they might already have some ideas about, like invasive species or something like that.  And now we have a space to explore how they can use technology to fuel their strategies for learning, like when a teen comes to the Teen Learning Lab specifically to start learning how to use Arduino’s and they build upon that initial desire by building a complete underwater robot.

As you are moving into the end of this school year, what are some changes you are looking forward to exploring next year?

We have a new mentor program coming around built around bringing in mentors from every department in the building. We have to train them about how to mentor and how to talk with teens and how to have conversations and look for outcomes. Typically our mentors have wanted to lead a workshop or come down and run a lecture. While there are great learning opportunities through workshops and lectures, we are actually starting to implement a different mentality for mentors where they get to use the lab as a space to do work that they haven’t had time to work on, or to start new projects they always wanted to start but didn’t have the resources that we have here in the Teen Lab.  They know that they might get interrupted while they are working on that project by the teens; I am looking forward to hearing the question, “Can I help?” and having teens talk through the projects a mentor is working on and it being really organic from there.

Before we end, please share more about where your space fits within the broader ecology of youth spaces around Chicago.

So we have a hangout space here in the Teen Learning Lab. And then the Field Museum, obviously, has a hangout space. And Adler Planetarium now does as well; they have hangout nights on Wednesday nights.  We have all talked about how we can talk with teens about hanging out on the museum campus. We are looking at important questions like, “How do we share the idea of hanging out at a museum or at a cultural institution or an aquarium?”. As a cohort here in Chicago, we are exploring opportunities where teens don’t have to come because we have a workshop going on. They can come to do their own thing and figure out their own project and figure out what’s next and be ready for the next opportunity and the next step in their career pathway, wherever it’s available.

But they have to do that first step of coming in and hanging out.

 

About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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