Jackie Moore began her robotics program as a way to spark interest in math and science with her own children. But then she took her idea to youth outside of her home, developing an out-of-school program for youth who previously have had no exposure to robotics. Her program has been running for several years and has produced motivated youth who have taken their knowledge to participate in robotics competitions. Jackie recently took her innovative thinking further by coming up with a program that also looks to meet youth where they hang out: the mall. With support from Hive Chicago, Jackie launched The Level Up learning space in the Ford City Mall to provides hands-on opportunities for youth to transform their hanging out time from socializing with friends to social learning. Youth get to make or “hack” items that are interactive, intelligent, or kinetic. Jackie says,
Teens are already hanging out in the malls and looking for something to do. Exposure to unexpected learning opportunities engages them initially through the surprise factor. Creating interactive items keeps them engaged because it empowers them to do something THEY control. By taking the learning experience to where there are already spending their time, not only do you encounter youth in a more relaxed and open state of mind, but continual engagement is easier because they have already solved the logistical problems related to traveling to a learning space.
Learning in a mall?
The teen space offers workshops, classes, and open creation time. They are supported by knowledgeable mentors and youth (virtual and in-person) from a variety of organizations who aid in facilitating the learning experience. But teens are mostly on their own, working on challenges and getting advice as needed. Their achievement is defined as ‘leveling up,’ a reference borrowed from the gaming community. Projects are hands on and chosen by the teens who receive learning through a variety of media (digital, print, and 3D design). Activities range in their required time to complete (from minutes to ones requiring multiple visits), but all projects result in youth utilizing animation, interactivity, or adding intelligence to their final products. Teens are given access to a closed social network space where they can share their creations through photos and instruction through podcasts or webinars. Jackie adds,
Very few affordable informal opportunities exist (none so far in Chicago) for teens to learn how to produce physical interactive items, even though the interest in the subject is high. There are even fewer places that are low cost or free where teens can drop in to learn without committing to a ‘program.’ The opportunities that do exist are generally designed to serve teens already connected to an institution. Therefore, youth who are not already connected to a program have little to no access. Placing the learning space in the public spaces of a mall and allowing the content to change based on the desires of the network members’ currently engaged in the offerings, makes it not only open to the community, but creates a unique learning environment.
Through connections with other organizations within the Hive Chicago Learning Network, The Level-Up learning space will develop projects with ideas from other science-focused learning organizations, such as the Museum of Science and Industry.