Youth team up with workshop leaders to build new Nashville Learning Lab

Article written by Cory Garfin and listed on the YOUmedia network site ( featuring GHP Environmental Environmental + Architecture Project Manager Dominique Arrieta.

Teens in Nashville got a chance recently to whet their appetite for architecture, get involved in creating a part of their city, and have a say in what the soon-to-open YOUmedia space in the city will look like. The site, a center of hands-on learning with digital media in the Nashville Public Library, is in the planning stages this year, and a group of approximately 10-12 local youth are helping to design the physical elements of the new space with help from lead architect Dominique Arrieta and Associate Professor at Vanderbilt University Kevin Leander. The teens are not only choosing the technology and amenities that will be available in the space, but also designing the logistics of its potential infrastructure using online design programs.

“We try to make it their space, something they’re proud of,” said Arrieta, “which is especially important in libraries because it’s their choice to be there.”

The teens are taking part in 13 workshop sessions, covering topics such as augmented reality, and space relations between physical and virtual worlds. The students are using Minecraft, the digital game in which users build and break down structures by moving computer-generated blocks, to practice building the structures they’ve designed.

Leander described Minecraft as “writing on the surface of a virtual earth,” and said he was surprised by how adept his students were at the game. “It’s really astounding to me,” he said, adding that the game has become a kind of literacy in itself. Arrieta explained that they’ve also been using the game to role play the relationship between client and designer.

“It’s very exciting,” said Arrieta. “We’re trying to challenge them and to use other tools,” including Google SketchUp, which allows students to build 3D models.

The workshop leaders have also taken students on tours of other spaces, including libraries, to help enrich the ongoing conversation about space and how it affects learning. During these tours, students are asked to pay close attention to the surrounding architecture and the use of physical space in order to gain a better understanding for the spaces that comprise their community. As Leander noted, this collaboration between youth and designers has provided students with a unique learning opportunity where they have a role in creating part of their city.

The upcoming weeks of the mentorship will be dedicated to creating a prioritized “wish list,” by comparing elements that the students would like in their new Learning Lab against square footage and space limitations. Some of the priorities that have been confirmed include a makerspace—a place where teens can tinker and invent—and, in keeping with its Nashville roots, a place for music production and recording.

Leander said that their location is a key component in creating a singular space. “We want the space to be unique to the team we’ve assembled, and unique to Nashville,” said Leander. “We want to do something different where the virtual piece and the physical piece are interwoven.”

Finding a balance between creating the ideal concept, which is still in a developmental phase, and beginning to physically construct the space is one area that, according to Leander, can present some roadblocks.

“You’re trying to bring a lot of imagination and creativity, but also trying to make commitments,” said Leander, “all in order to build a version of a thing no one’s ever seen before. It sort of feels like you’re building a boat while trying to sail it at the same time. At some point, you have to look at each other and say, ‘we’ve actually got to make this thing’.”

For Leander, one of the goals of the workshop is to connect in-school practices and literacies with those commonly cultivated outside of the classroom, and to recognize the role of technology within both settings. The mentoring program also aims to enforce architecture, management, and structural engineering skills, and to expose students to new career paths as well. Arrieta pointed out that engaging youth in these subjects will soon be essential in order to sustain her career, and other STEM-related fields.

“I really feel like it’s important to let them know about these options,” she said. She speaks from experience, She had never considered architecture as a possible career choice until college. “We need more interest in our field. We’re getting to a point where we really need young people.”

The key to engaging these young people is, of course, meeting them where they are, and learning from them. One of the biggest lessons Arrieta said she has learned during this process has been to abandon any preconceived notions about the students and their potential strengths or weaknesses. “We understand that they’re coming from a different skill set,” said Arrieta. “I’ve learned not to guess what they know, or assume anything, and to ask questions.”

The sessions will culminate on March 13 with students’ final presentations to the library board on what they’ve designed over the course of the program. “The overall goal is that, at the end of the day, we want them to produce a three-image document, or floor plan, that describes the intent of the new space,” said Arrieta.

Despite the fact that the YOUmedia space won’t be completed for quite some time, the bubbling excitement for this project is undeniably growing. “Creating spaces like this one is important,” said Leander. “I am really invested in what our students are going to experience.”