Penny Sebring and Chuck Lewis discussed the MetaMedia youth center made possible by a gift from the Lewis-Sebring Family Foundation. Photo Courtesy of McGaw Y

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 MetaMedia, a partnership among the McGaw YMCA, Youth Organizations Umbrella (Y.O.U.) and Northwestern University, symbolically broke ground for a new state of the art, youth-centric space at McGaw Y on Oct. 29. The Lewis-Sebring Family Foundation has donated $1 million to construct and support the start-up of the center.  

The space is designed to provide an innovative learning environment for middle-school youth to engage with peers and mentors. It will provide out-of-school programming and access to advanced technology, music, video production, creative design and additional tools and networks. Youth may also stay connected through an online social learning network.

 Northwestern University’s FUSE program which connects youth to real-world STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts/Design, and Math) tools and practices will be one of the programs offered at MetaMedia. FUSE is a student interest-driven learning model created by Dr. Kemi Jona, Research Professor, Learning Sciences and Computer Science and his colleague Dr. Reed Stevens, both at NU. The program engages pre-teens and teens in STEAM topics, while fostering adaptive problem-solving, creativity, self-directed learning and persistence. The FUSE program is being offered at Evanston Township High School.

A key part of MetaMedia is it will be guided and shaped by students’ interests.

Chuck Lewis, chairman of the Foundation, said there were three sources of inspiration for MetaMedia. First, the space on the first floor of McGaw Y was previously used as a place where middle school students congregated, and it was no longer being used. Second, he said, “Our family is very interested in collaboration between major players in town. We think that is critical to the youth of our community.” Third, he cited Penny Sebring’s research at the Consortium of Chicago School Research – a 2011 report titled, “YOUmedia Chicago.”

He said, “Youth should be driving what goes on here, but with some intervention by mentors,” whom he added should be supporting the youth’s interests and not acting “top down.”

Ms. Sebring’s research studied the YOUmedia program, a digital learning initiative for about 400 high school students housed at the Harold Washington Library in downtown Chicago. About two-thirds of the high-schoolers were African Americans, and at least 75 percent lived about five miles from the library. The program is an example of “connected learning,” which incorporates students’ interests, peer culture and academic content, she said. Students may decide to write poetry, learn music, design games or delve deeply into digital technology. Adults are available as mentors.

Several conclusions of the report are that relationships, particularly between youth and adult mentors, are crucial in engaging teens toward productive growth. Additionally, peer relationships and an emerging sense of community among the teens served as a potential force that drove teens to engage with digital technology in new ways so they felt comfortable to explore their interests and express themselves.

A key aspect of the YOUmedia program is it attempts to “meet youth where they are” in terms of interests and skills. “Mentors shifted away from an adult-structured model of teaching and activity design towards a model that was more closely tied to what teens wanted to learn and how they wanted to learn it,” says the report. “Everything is designed around the motivation and interests of today’s increasingly tech-savvy and social oriented networked teens.”

The benefits that the teens reported from YOUmedia are the personal connection with mentors, widening of their horizons and options for careers and the feeling that they are important members of a community. Most reported improvement in academic skills, school work and communication with adults.

“Bar none,” Ms. Sebring told the RoundTable, the kids who participated in YOUmedia “absolutely love it.”

Ms. Sebring presented her research on YOUmedia to approximately 80 Evanstonians on March 6, 2013, at an event sponsored by McGaw Y and Y.O.U. Bill Geiger, former chief executive officer of McGaw Y, and Seth Green, executive director of Y.O.U., discussed whether, how and in what form a similar program could come to Evanston.

The MetaMedia program housed at McGaw Y is an outgrowth of that discussion and many subsequent discussions. The design of the space at McGaw Y and the program model draw on lessons learned from the YOUmedia program in Chicago.

Ms. Sebring said the MetaMedia program will offer valuable out-of-school experiences for young people, where they have a chance to develop their own interests, a chance to follow their passions and a chance to be guided by mentors.

 “We are excited for the opportunity to create a space at the McGaw YMCA where future leaders will attain the support, skills and experiences needed to transform their lives and their community,” said Mark A. Dennis Jr., chief executive officer of McGaw Y. “We are grateful to the Lewis-Sebring Family Foundation for conceiving of this project, and for their investment in our youth.” 

Mr. Green said, “We truly believe this space will deeply engage and excite the minds of our youth, and enable us both to engage new youth and to increase our impact among those we already serve.”

MetaMedia was “designed for students by students,” said Monique Parsons, chief operating officer of McGaw Y. Speaking to the Lewis-Sebring family she said, “I hope you realize your investment will transform lives and change the community.”