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Teens huddled around a bank of computers at the Nashville Public Library on a recent afternoon might have appeared to be engaged in mindless video games. Instead, they were utilizing Minecraft as a tool to re-envision an East Nashville housing community.
The project was created by Vanderbilt graduate student Ty Hollett as a pilot for a new public library makerspace called Studio NPL. Teens helped envision and design the flexible connected learning space that, once fully operational in January, will encourage immersion in participatory learning activities from poetry slams to performance videos to computer modeling.
Their guides will be mentors such as Hollett — cool, caring adults with subject matter expertise and technological know-how. The big idea is to help young people become makers and creators of content rather than just consumers of it.
Studio NPL is part of a broad movement that is redefining the role of public libraries in civic life and upending traditional notions of what it means to be a literate citizen, explained Kevin Leander, associate professor of teaching and learning. Leander is part of the NSF-funded Spatial Learning and Mobility (SLaM) team at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of education and human development. He also worked with the teens through the design process for the maker space.
The Studio NPL project fits neatly into Peabody’s research agenda around connected learning and digital learning. SLaM, led by Rogers Hall, chair of teaching and learning, focuses on how new uses of space can support learning and mobility for youth across both school and community settings.
“[rquote]The library is a wonderful partner as we begin to think about designing spaces for learning at the level of the entire city,” Hall said.[/rquote] “As the Music City, Nashville has a rich history of American roots music and civil rights activism that we would like to leverage when creating new learning spaces for kids.”
“The ideas around connected learning and digital learning are really expanding the reach of what the library does and how it serves the community,” agreed Leander, who has been involved with Studio NPL since its inception. “And librarians are in touch with the people of the city in a way that’s pretty powerful.”
Librarians have become facilitators of new learning technologies and skills, said Tricia Bengel, NPL’s technical services administrator. “From the time when Ben Franklin first started public libraries,” she noted, “we were every man’s place of learning, the place to close the literacy divide.”
Now libraries are working to close technology gaps that are barriers to literacy in the information age, providing public access to computers, the Internet and the skills to use them. Schools have been slower to adapt curriculum to bridge the digital divide and often have less flexibility.
“Libraries have a sense that, in this day, they aren’t as constrained as teachers, who are super well-meaning but get really constrained by national and state agendas for testing regimes. Librarians are often able to circumvent that and get more involved in learning,” Leander explained. Libraries have the opportunity to serve as a hub, connecting families and communities, schools and universities, he said.
It was Bengel who learned of MacArthur Foundation grants to be designated for teen learning centers. She knew the Nashville Public Library would be a good candidate for a start-up: NPL already had a relationship with Metro Nashville Public Schools through the Limitless Library partnerships and an active after-school teen area. And the city had an education advocate in Mayor Karl Dean.
But she needed an academic perspective to lend insight into the methodology and creative educational tools available around connected learning. That’s where Leander came in.
“We called him out of the blue and asked if he’d be willing to work with us on the grant for the next 18 months,” Bengel said. Once the implementation phase was complete, continuing support came from a public/private partnership between the library and the Nashville Public Library Foundation.
“[lquote]Vanderbilt has been so incredibly wonderful about taking all of the theory they’ve been thinking about and helping us make it practical and employing it to see results with the kids,” she said.[/lquote]
Leander recruited Hollett who, with support from the Nashville Civic Design Center, adapted the video game to enable teen designers to re-envision one item on the Metro Development and Housing Agency’s list: James A. Cayce Place.
The teens have been working both collaboratively and remotely. Some focused on just one building for long time periods, while others delved into large civil engineering projects such as a transportation system, Hollett said.
During the course of the pilot project, Hollett observed the teens drastically changing the way they connect with their community while increasing their digital literacy by using multiple tools and information sources.
“There’s a big push in schools for kids to be college and career ready,” said Hollett, a former high school English teacher. “But what does it mean to actively participate in your community, in changing your community, and to have that be just as central to the learning process as college or career?”
He cautioned that after long days at school, it is important “not to colonize these new spaces with just more schooling” but with innovation. The library is working to do just that with help from many stakeholders around the city, including Anode, a digital design firm, and Southern Word, which conducted poetry workshops, slams and other performances. Those were recorded and uploaded to YouTube.
The library hired a new coordinator for the teen area and launched a search for a coordinator for the new maker space. Leander, Hollett and others at Vanderbilt continued to be involved in envisioning creative uses for the space, all the while keeping in mind that it’s not a traditional learning environment but a place where teens drop in on their own.
On a recent afternoon, Yiaway Yeh from the Mayor’s Office of Innovation showed a group from the Boston Mayor’s Office around the new space, while Hollett demonstrated the pilot. Libraries and classrooms no longer are places for passive learning, Yeh told the group.
“We’re looking at the way kids are learning and trying to change the model, not just put it into a fancy new package,” Yeh said. The grand idea, he said, is to create a generation of civic-minded problem solvers.
“For me,” Leander said, “the takeaway is figuring out how to tap into what’s meaningful to people so that literacies that are already a part of their lives, or could be latent and need more emphasis, get supported and really born out.”