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21st Century Learning Lab Designers

AWARDS: $30,000-$200,000

The 21st Century Learning Lab Designer awards are development grants for work to be undertaken in the grant period.

The 21st Century Learning Lab Designers category is aligned with National Lab Day. Winners will receive awards for learning environments and digital media-based experiences that allow young people to grapple with social challenges through activities based on the social nature, contexts, and ideas of science, technology, engineering and math. Digital media of any type (social networks, games, virtual worlds, mobile devices or others) may be used. Proposals are also encouraged for curricula or other experiences that link or connect to any game. Learning labs may be designed around new games or expand the potential of open source or commercial games.

Learning labs

Learning labs are places of experimentation, tinkering, discovery, and even invention. Traditional conceptions of a science lab bring to mind images of beakers, plastic glasses, microscopes, test tubes, black benches, a partner, and more. Certainly, these are all important elements of learning. In considering both how to prepare young people for the challenges of the 21st century and the possibilities of new technologies and digital media for learning, how might learning experiences and the learning lab be re-imagined?

Learning labs may take a variety of forms – physical or virtual spaces, maker kits, learning environments, project-based learning experiences are just a few. It is expected that, at a minimum, applications will support participatory learning and engage young people in actively experimenting, inventing, and/or tinkering with some aspects of the grand challenge(s) of our time; they should meaningfully extend across institutions (e.g., libraries, community centers, home, school, museums, afterschool program, youth programs, etc) and communities (physical or online). They should connect virtually and physically through creative use of digital media. Most importantly, it is expected that youth will be critical partners and active creators of these learning labs and the experiences they provide.

Examples of successful learning labs include: DevInfo Gameworks, Digital Ocean: Sampling the Sea, Future of Learning & Lifelong Kindergarten, Gamestar Mechanic, Hypercities, MILLEE, Quest Atlantis, Smallab, Sustainable South Bronx FabLab, Talkers and Doers, and Wildlab.


Four Guiding Conditions for Participatory Learning:

Participatory learning typically takes place when the following four conditions are present:

  • (a) a need to know
  • (b) an occasion to share and reflect
  • (c) opportunities for ongoing feedback and evaluation
  • (d) channels for distribution across local and global communities.

Does the application create:

--A need to know, which is brought to the learning experience by a young person or is triggered by the learning lab experience? A need to know often requires learning opportunities that support inquiry and discovery, and the opportunity to practice new ways of thinking and behaving.

--A desire to share and reflect, which comes from the inherently social nature of learning that is supported through opportunities for performance and collaboration built into the design of the learning lab experience? Similarly, does the application create opportunity for ongoing feedback and evaluation that provides learners with continual and transparent feedback on achievement toward goals?

--Multiple channels for distribution across local and global communities, which provide learners the opportunity to share their work, skill, and knowledge broadly with others? These channels might take the form of online public portfolios, streamed video or podcasts, or public events where work is critiqued and displayed. These channels might include Facebook, YouTube, Vimeo, Scribd, etc.

Specifically, how does the application:

  • Encourage opportunities for critical feedback, collaboration and sharing of work and learning with an audience of peers?
  • Enable the sharing of data, information, or knowledge?
  • Invite social engagement and interaction in support of learning?
  • Provide low barriers to production and distribution, supporting, making, doing and/or tinkering?
  • Create or use existing platforms for ongoing and immediate feedback?
  • Establish or use channels for distribution?
  • Improve skills or knowledge in an area of a defining challenge?
  • Trigger continued engagement across different media forms and/or contexts (i.e., schools, libraries, museums, after-school learning environments, home, mobile or virtual etc)?
  • Engage young people in creating the learning experiences for others?
  • Define the role of mentors, guides, and other practitioners?
  • Challenge traditional notions of authority and expertise?
  • Advance dispositions and habits of mind that are nurtured by an understanding of science, technology, engineering and math?


  • Should be learner-centered and practice-oriented;
  • Should be embedded as opposed to separate from the experiences;
  • Should be data-driven and make use of the computational nature of digital media;
  • Should provide immediate feedback to learners and/or to mentors, guides or other participants.


Best in Class Awards for 21st Century Learning Labs

Best in Class: Design—for the learning lab and/or experience that best integrates the four guiding conditions.

Best in Class: Remix and Scale—for the learning lab and/or experience that is most likely to be picked up, modded, remixed, or adapted for use by others.

Best in Class: Evidence and Feedback—for the learning lab and/or experience with the most innovative approach to providing evidence of young people’s skills and knowledge.

Best in Class: Youth Partners (or co-producers)—for the learning lab and/or experience that most effectively and comprehensively integrates youth.

People’s Choice Competition Award—for the application voted by the public to be the most innovative participatory learning lab and/or experience.