Building Connected Communities: A Digital Media Lab for Teens

Ed. Note: Every day, nonprofits and community leaders do inspiring work to help their neighbors build digital literacy skills, get access to affordable computers and more. From time to time, we’ll invite some of these organizations to share a bit about their work on our Google Fiber blog; a few weeks ago, we heard from Arts Tech, and today we’ll hear about a Kansas City Public Library program that teaches digital media skills to local youth. Both Arts Tech and the Library’s new Digital Media Lab are supported in-part by the Kansas City Digital Inclusion Fund. The Fund has just announced an upcoming deadline for next year’s grant applications, so if your nonprofit is interested in learning more or applying, visit the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation’s website.

When you think about libraries, you may think of books stacked on shelves and quiet spaces to work. You can definitely find those in the Kansas City Public Libraries; but for more than a decade, we have also been adding digital resources. There are hundreds of computers, usually packed with folks reading the news, checking their email, or looking for jobs. And each week, we offer classes on computer and Internet basics. We started these efforts in part to address the “digital divide” — 25 % of Kansas City residents do not have the Internet at home, others don’t use the web at all, and many who do have access are not sure how to use it to their best advantage.

That is particularly true for youth. Often referred to as digital natives, they are not intimidated by technology. Yet we’ve seen that many teens either don’t have Internet access at home, or they have no idea how to translate their interest in digital media into personal and/or professional opportunities for growth. This lack of access and knowledge directly impacts their workforce readiness, since almost all jobs today require some level of expertise with digital resources.

So we asked an advisory board of teens how we could help them and their peers learn more about digital technology. With their feedback, and with funding from the MacArthur Foundation and the Kansas City Digital Inclusion Fund, we built a new program — the Kansas City Digital Media Lab (KCDML). KCDML teaches teens high-tech digital skills, and provides them with resources and a platform to find their voice and share their stories.

We opened KCDML at our North-East and Southeast library branches last month, and our teens dove right in. In their first project, they shot and edited personal videos using images they captured in the library. Next, they figured out how to use 3D printers to make Mother’s Day gifts. And in another project, we’ve started teaching teens how to code, focusing mostly on website development, game design, and app creation. (Did you know that the number of computer programming jobs in the U.S is expected to jump 30% from 2010 to 2020? Compare that to the average growth of all other U.S. jobs which is predicted to be just 14%. What a useful skill to pick up at your local library!).

Working on these projects and playing with fancy tech gadgets is cool — but the real opportunity for teens is that they get to work with and learn from a great group of adult collaborators. Kansas City is an amazing intersection of tech and creativity. We are a growing tech hub, and businesses in the KC area employ over 34,000 “digital storytelling” jobs — which means that, in addition to our dedicated library staff, we have a number of professionals who are willing to share their expertise in storytelling, coding and more with our youth.

Of course, while this opportunity for 1:1 learning is incredibly valuable, we also want the KCDML to be a place where teens can “geek out” and play on their own — spending time on what is most interesting to them. The idea of freedom within the space, and ownership over the instruction, is an important part of our lab. It gets noisy...It gets messy...But there is interest-based learning, project creation, and growth happening on every level. So far we have gotten great feedback from both the youth and the adults in the space, so we know we’re on the right track. Moving forward we’ll invite even more like-minded Kansas Citians to come out and be a part of the journey. We’ve got a lab, we’re going mobile, and we have a great group of participants and adult collaborators. We are looking forward to a summer full of noisy, geeky, excited exploration!