At Savage library lab, teens get turned on to technology

Christian Cooper, 13, teaches himself two songs on the guitar by using the computer.
Christian Cooper, 13, teaches himself two songs on the guitar by using the computer. (Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun)

A new space at the Savage branch of the Howard County Library is giving teens the opportunity to experiment with the latest digital technology.

And the HiTech digital learning lab has developed a following, with some students coming every afternoon, three days a week, for hours at a time.

On Wednesday afternoon, two teenage girls curled up on a colorful ottoman and scrolled through social media on iPads, chewing bubble gum and gossiping. A boy plugged a guitar into a computer, ready to play along with YouTube videos and record his progress on the instrument. A girl worked with a professional photographer to digitally create and print a birthday card for her mother.

Other students lounged around, playing video games or working on homework.

The lab, which is outfitted with MacBook Pro laptops, Sony blogger cameras, iPads, PCs, video game consoles and electric instruments, is funded with a $100,000 grant intended to elevate science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) learning,

"Our job really is to make sure the doors are open to them and really incite the passion in the STEM areas," library system COO Angela Brade said. "If we can get them really eager about it, when they go off to college, hopefully they will pursue those areas and enjoy them."

The library system competed with 100 other educational institutions from all over the country in order to get the grant funding from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, offered through the Institute of Museum and Library Services. HiTech was one of 12 programs chosen for the grant last year, and the lab opened in January.

The library system is providing space and staffing, and the grant covers the costs of running the program, such as equipment and software purchases. The grant lasts 18 months, and Brade said the library system is working with the grant administrators to see what can be done to make the project sustainable. She is hopeful it will be continued and expanded to other branches in the library system.

At the lab, teens are encouraged to hang out and progress at their own pace. Brade said they are welcome to play video games with one another — but library administrators hope they will take the leap to learning how to create those games. They can listen to music, but administrators are there to help them learn how to record and edit their own.

With that in mind, the library system has hired people to work in the lab who have expertise in different areas. For instance, one instructor used to work at an Apple store and can play musical instruments. Another splits his time between the lab and the library's public relations department, working as a photographer and videographer.

The library also used the grant to hire Mindgrub Technologies, a Baltimore consulting firm specializing in mobile and web development services, to help teens learn how about video game design. The firm helped the teens develop a mobile phone game, which is expected to be released by the end of the year for iPhone and Android phones.

That's just one of several creative projects teens have going at the lab — they also produced a movie about zombies and are working on an electronic book about civility.

"They treat you like you're family," said Jessica Blankson, a 13-year-old who was at the lab Wednesday, accessing social media on an iPad.

She and her friend, Amanda Carpio, who are both eighth-graders at Patuxent Valley Middle School, said the lab is a fun place where they feel comfortable exploring new technology. Both said they would consider careers in the sciences — Jessica is interested in being a pediatrician, and Amanda said she'd like to be a crime scene technician.

The lab is also a place where students are encouraged to pursue music and music recording. When the library begins a planned $5.1 million renovation to the Savage branch, it will update the HiTech space and add a recording studio, Brade said.

For now, one of the rooms is dedicated to music, featuring a keyboard and guitars with a computer for recording music.

Christian Cooper, a 14-year-old ninth-grader at Atholton High School, is one of six students enrolled in a "Create Your Own Music Project" class through the lab. He already knows how to play the bass clarinet, but he's been getting free guitar lessons as part of the class. HiTech lent him a guitar so he could practice at home.

"Technology and music, those are my favorite things to do," Christian said.

His favorite school subjects are science and math, he said. Although he has no idea what he'd like to do after high school, he said he is interested in engineering, or maybe something involving the music industry.

It is those interests that the HiTech lab hopes to foster. The lab has a mentoring partnership with the University of Maryland's Clark School of Engineering. It is also working with international student exchange programs to encourage student collaboration across countries.

"We're always investigating and looking at new ways to get the kids engaged," Brade said. "And we're always listening to what they want to do."

Coming up

The HiTech digital learning lab will be open on Friday, Oct. 19, when Howard County schools are closed. Students ages 11 to 18 are welcome, and pizza will be provided. Registration is required at hclibrary.org/hitech_events or by calling 410-880-5980. From 8:30 a.m. to 11 a.m., students will collaborate on creating a Choose Civility electronic book; from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., there will be a seminar on filming and editing videos or recording music; and from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., students will be able to hang out.

An earlier version of this article misstated Angela Brade's title with the Howard County Library System. The Sun regrets the error.