History In The Making

The Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC is best known as ‘America’s attic’ -- a collection of 19 museums and galleries. But it’s also fast becoming a hotbed of maker innovation for the city’s teenagers. Introducing ARTLAB+.

Say ‘Smithsonian‘ and you’ll likely invoke references to such treasure troves as the National Museum of Natural History and the National Air and Space Museum. But nestled in the Hirshhorn Museum’s sunken sculpture garden is a very different space -- ARTLAB+: a tech-focused drop in center that’s increasingly popular with Washington DC teenagers.

ARTLAB+ was set up five years ago as part of a push to create community maker spaces. Today it’s a dedicated place for young people to socialize, learn about digital media, and participate in workshops.

Four times a week some 40 kids from across the city congregate for a couple of hours at this innovative youth program. But unlike other after-school programs, at ARTLAB+ teens have complete access to -- well -- pretty much every piece of cutting edge maker technology you could think of: including Macs, iPads, 3D scanners, 3D printers, game consoles, and Makey Makeys (!).

But there’s something else that ARTLAB+ offers that the kids wouldn’t normally get: mentorship. All of the lab’s mentors are industry pros -- a collection of game designers, 3D designers, photographers, and videographers.

“We don’t just have the equipment, we can actually show kids the best ways of using it. It’s much easier than learning from YouTube!” says Cody Coltharp, ARTLAB+’s 3D mentor. “We champion the HOMAGO process here: informal learning happens through Hanging Out and Messing Around, and eventually leads to Geeking Out! That said we’ve started to run some structured sessions once a week.”

One of the ARTLAB+’s current initiatives is a series of game design workshops in which teens scan themselves in 3D, rig and animate the model, and put their character into a game engine.

With this in mind, it’s odd to think that most kids start out at ARTLAB+ with very little technology experience. The majority quickly cut their teeth building with papercraft projects, before moving onto to more sophisticated software processes; like digital modeling and game design.

Makey Makey is another popular starting block.

“We introduce it when we teach the basics of circuitry and electricity,” says Cody. “But we also see lots of custom game controllers being built using Makey Makeys. We had one teen build one for walking around in the game Terraria and I’ve seen kids make new instruments for Garageband and use them in retro gaming. It all depends on what they’re interested in or what their aims are.”

As part of its mission to champion innovation and collaboration, one of ARTLAB+’s core aims is to be ‘radically inclusive’ -- as accessible as possible to every teen, no matter what their background. While most of the regulars come from traditionally underprivileged neighborhoods, others turn up with their own private drivers.

“It’s pretty rad that this is a place of equality, says Cody. “Everybody plays games together and works on projects together. And we’re getting more and more popular. To stay accessible we’ve started doing some off-site workshops; and to be honest, most schools don’t have the funding to provide the kind of technology we have access to.”

While the team has close partnerships with several schools and libraries in the city, most teens find out about ARTLAB+ through word of mouth. ARTLAB+ also benefits from being part of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the modern and contemporary art museum of the Smithsonian Institution. Cody and the team run game design workshops at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Indie Arcade events, and have been involved in a variety of events at other museums.

Moving forward, the mentors are keen to grow the city’s program, but ultimately the ambition is to scale the program itself.

“We’d always like more room, more mentors, and more cool toys,” says Cody. “But I’d also love to see what we do packaged up and adopted across the country, to continue its success.”

In terms of recent ARTLAB+ successes, Cody gives the example of a teen who was invited to the first ever White House Maker Faire for her original papercraft dinosaur head, and also recounts another’s effort to make a functioning Ironman mask.

“One day he walked in saying ‘I want to make a dope mask like that’. So he stated with a sketch, made a foam prototype, and eventually developed the metal version.

“But he didn’t stop there: he kept taking what he knew and leveling up, teaching himself about vacuum sealing, circuitry, epoxies.

“The fact he didn’t stop, that he continues to evolve his skillset, that’s what I would consider a success: the ability to inspire lifelong learning.”

For more info on ARTLAB+ please visit their website. More photos are available on their flickr and Facebook pages.