This summer at the McGaw Y’s MetaMedia Center, students in Foundation 65’s summer camp draw figures on computers, which will later be printed in three dimensions.RoundTable photo

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Nothing is permanent at the McGaw Y MetaMedia Youth Center except the walls and the center desk – and the commitment for middle-schoolers to have a safe and protected place to explore, learn and create with state-of-the art computers, iPads, recording equipment, cameras and more.

“The students’ desks are on wheels. All of this is a movable, transferable space – sometimes a workshop, sometimes a circle, sometimes a U-shape. And kids can write on the wall. It is truly a middle-school space,” said Sarita Smith, director of youth initiatives at the McGaw Y.

“Building this space took a lot of work – a lot of commitment – having a vision and following through,” said McGaw Y Chief Operating Officer Monique Parsons of the 3,000 square-foot former middle-school lobby on the building’s first floor.

The center has two large rooms and several smaller studios, where young teens and preteens can experiment with videography, coding, fashion design and sewing, 3-D printing and poetry composition – either in classes or on a drop-in basis.

McGaw Y staff members are on hand to answer questions about technology, media, processes and the like. Any of them can be a mentor or ad-hoc counselor on a day that a kid just wishes to talk.

No adults except staff are allowed in the center during MetaMedia hours. Here HOMAGO reigns: the integration of digital arts, exploration and cultural learning and identification. Or, as a middle-schooler might put it: Hanging Out, Messing Around and Geeking Out.

Not having parents hover around their children in the center allows the kids more freedom to explore. “When the parent leaves, the kids will drift from space to space. It allows them to feel ‘I’m in this safe, protected environment, and I can explore,’” said Ms. Parsons.

MetaMedia was developed in partnership with the McGaw YMCA, Northwestern University’s Office of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) Education Partnerships, and Youth & Opportunity United (Y.O.U.). The Lewis-Sebring Family Foundation donated $1 million to construct and support its startup.

A main concern of the Foundation was that MetaMedia be accessible to all children without financial barriers, said Dr. Penny Sebring. In an interview with the RoundTable, Dr. Sebring said, “We thought it was very important to make [the center] attractive to families with less means. Researchers have shown that top quartile-income families are investing a lot more resources in their kids. In Evanston we have some families with less means.”

Varied Environments For Digital Learning
“Learning occurs in many different spaces, including museums, afterschool programs, churches and home,” DYN says. YOUmedia Chicago provides one way to help kids who may not have home advantages to expand their “learning ecologies.”

Cultural anthropologist Mizuko Ito is a Professor in Residence at the Humanities Research Institute at the University of California, Irvine. For more than a decade she has been studying the way youth interact with many types of media – computers, digital cameras and 3-D printers, for example – and how those interactions affect their learning, communication and other habits.

In “Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media,” part of the The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning, Dr. Ito wrote that this younger generation of digital-learners is “immersed in new digital tools and networks [and] … engaged in an unprecedented exploration of language, games, social interaction, problem solving, and self-directed activity that leads to diverse forms of learning. These diverse forms of learning are reflected in expressions of identity, how individuals express independence and creativity, and in their ability to learn, exercise judgment, and think systematically.”

Dr. Penny Sebring’s research at the Consortium on Chicago School Research (CCSR) at the University of Chicago, in particular a 2013 report on YOUmedia Chicago, helped provide a framework for MetaMedia. YOUmedia Chicago is a space in the Harold Washington Library supported by the DYN in partnership with other Chicago agencies.

The introduction to that report describes a model for what Dr. Ito and other researchers call “connected learning.” The model “attempts to optimize learning by bringing together three spheres that are often disconnected in the lives of young people: interests, peer culture, and academic content.”

Dr. Sebring said, “Connected Learning says that if students are really going to learn something, the activities have to be interactive; that it’s valuable for students to collaborate with peers and adults; and the activity should have some relations to academic content. … Connected Learning very much informs what they are doing at MetaMedia.”

Meeting Kids Where They Are
To accommodate these new types of learning, creativity and expression, the staff at MetaMedia will “meet kids where their interests lie,” said Ms. Smith. The very uniqueness of the space itself was in part responsible, said Ms. Parsons. “It put pressure on staff to be just as innovative. We know how to develop programs from A to Z. What this space has done is allowed us to develop programs for the kids as they come. You need staff who will think outside the box: How do we pick up on their interests? How do we expand their interests? …What we did was have [the kids] come to the table and say, ‘This is what we want,’” she added.

In addition to the major partnerships with Y.O.U., the Evanston Public Library and Northwestern University, Ms. Smith said, “MetaMedia also allows collaboration between counselors and kids. Every day the staff members are pulled so much. The kids are always calling them to come help. That relationship piece is critical – and lovely.”

That relationship is a part of connected learning. “The measure of success for us,” Dr. Sebring said, is that kids “would be gaining confidence in social skills and other skills and improving social skills with peers and adults.” She also said, “We value diversity – economic and racial. MetaMedia is a place where kids from different schools can come together: King Arts, Nichols, Haven, Bessie Rhodes and Chute.”

Since MetaMedia opened in March, 700 kids have visited the center. “Jesse Chatz, [outreach specialist at the McGaw Y] and I have the goal of getting every middle-school student here,” said Ms. Smith.

Ms. Smith said she and her colleagues are still working on transportation options for students during the school year. “Our goal is to link up with teachers for recommendations about whom to bus to MetaMedia and also to provide information about CTA buses,” she said.

MetaMedia is located on the first floor of the McGaw Y, 1000 Grove St. During the school year it is open 2:45-7 p.m. Monday-Friday and 1-7 p.m. on Saturday. On early-dismissal days and school holidays, it opens at 1 p.m.

In the great room about 15 students are intent over their projects in a large area of the spacious main room at MetaMedia, working with iPads and 3-D printers. The camp, sponsored by Foundation 65, is co-taught by middle school media arts teachers Nichole Nava from Nichols and Sherri Kushner from Chute.

This year, as last, the kids were able to experiment with 3-D printing. “We are trying to expand what kids are able to do,” said Ms. Kushner, as she pointed out to visitors students working at various stages of a project: Some were rescaling their free-hand drawings to iPads, from which they would then be printed in three dimensions. Others were “storyboarding” the characters they had drawn: making the arc of a story from beginning, through action or conflict to resolution. A final project for some would be a stop-action animation film using their “Claymation” characters, she added.

The week before, students were printing themselves. Renee Neumeier, Young Adult Services supervisor for the Evanston Public Library, brought her team to the camp to demonstrate full-body scanning and printing.

“We showed them how to do the scans and how to modify them, and then we printed them out,” said Ms. Neumeier.

Students in this camp are applying mathematic and literary principles, Ms. Kushner said. “Core curriculum math and arts standards involved, in the measurements, scaling and drawing figures, and communication in storyboarding a story … learning the art of storytelling. All these are supporting the core curriculum through technology.”

Ms. Kushner said some middle schools and the Evanston Public Library have free 3-D printing. “Kids can take what they have learned in school in Media Arts and come to MetaMedia after school to edit their music. They can follow up with the FUSE [Northwestern University’s drop-in science challenges] at the Library on weekends.”

All these things, Ms. Kushner said, will help the students “be able to communicate more effectively.”

In another large space in the main room, a different type of learning – more relaxed at first glance, as students loll on pillows scattered on wide stair-stepped tiers. They are composing poetry.

Instructor/navigator Sam Carroll oversees the group, talking to them about poems and poets, their feelings and their creations.

“Their writings are critiqued, Mr. Carroll said, “not graded or judged.” Every workshop starts with free-write. “I ask how they are, what’s going on; try to lead them to poetry. Sometimes we just talk – that’s where the mentoring comes in.”

Mr. Carroll said he helps the kids see poetry as another avenue for anger – so there will not be physical violence.

“I try to encourage them to be as free as possible,” Mr. Carroll said. Although the result “sometimes is an angry work, I would rather have [anger or violence] in an angry work rather than out there [on the street],” he said.

In these types of experimentation with words, based on the kids’ own feelings and experiences, Ms. Smith said, “We try to sneakily teach techniques that they can use in life and in school – using words, for example, instead of physical violence.”

In the coding lab, lead instructor Sam Phillips shows 10 students of varying backgrounds the ins and outs of making a video game. “We want kids who may have the skills but no one even knows this … or kids who may not have the opportunity outside of school [to use this type of technology].”

Gaming “creates a fun and sticky interface for kids – sneakily teaching code skills” as they build the game. As an example, Mr. Phillips said that one of the students wanted to break down a door in the game he was creating; as it stood, the character could strike only once. “He had to learn ‘looping’ so the character could attack the door more than once to break it down.”

Even though they are from different backgrounds and few knew each other before, the kids “formed [ad-hoc] clans or teams. They help each other,” Mr. Phillips said.

The Loft and MetaMedia: Complementary Hangouts

It is almost a chess knight’s move from MetaMedia at the McGaw Y and the Teen Loft at the Evanston Public Library – a quick walk for a teen. MetaMedia is a space designed for middle-schoolers; the Teen Loft is for kids in grades 6-12.

The Teen Loft has been around for almost a decade, and MetaMedia is the new space on the block. Both places offer workouts and challenges for kids interested in science and digital media – programs designed in response to kids’ interest. Kids can hang out, complete hands-on projects or study in a quiet place. Both host Northwestern’s FUSE program (see accompanying story on page 15).

“We definitely try to see that our programs are complementary,” said Renee Neumeier, Young Adult Services supervisor at the Library. Both The Loft and MetaMedia aim to provide a safe place to challenge young minds.