Producing Sparks of Learning

I'm just back from an exciting afternoon at The White House, where President Obama, senior government officials, and members of Congress launched a new phase of his "Educate to Innovate" campaign "to raise American students to the top of the pack in science and math achievement over the next decade."

It was exciting and moving to be there and to be inspired not only by the President's words and the remarkable assemblage of public and private leaders. I was there with representatives from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Chicago Public Library as we announced our own piece of Educate to Innovate: our $4 million commitment to create 30 new learning labs at libraries and museums across the country.

There was much talk about the all-important "sparks" that fuel curiosity, creativity, innovation and learning. Those sparks are critically important entrees into effective learning. When young people have an opportunity to play, tinker, make, create and follow paths of interest and wonder passions are ignited, a thirst for learning is created, and, in many cases, lives are changed.

I agree wholeheartedly about the importance of those sparks! But I want to argue that, for many of us, those sparks happened not only in the classroom, but in a garden, a park, and especially in a library or museum.

In this country, there are more than 123,000 libraries and 18,000 museums in towns and cities all over the map. They are among our most ubiquitous, trusted, and accessible places. They house vast resources that cover every domain of knowledge, they are staffed by committed and expert staff and volunteers, and they are forums for civil discussion and debate. The mission of the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the primary source of federal support for this vast network of learning organizations, is to build the capacity of these organizations to serve their communities, and we have a long and rich history of supporting STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) projects in museums and libraries of all kinds, including museum/library collaborations.

The stories are powerful; library and museum experiences can change learning trajectories for life.

Take a listen to Shani Edmonds, a 17-year old teen from Chicago's South Side, who says, "I wouldn't be the person I am today without YOUmedia. It really opened the door for me. People are running into closed doors all the time, and all they see is gang violence and guns and drugs and all of that. But if you open the door for them and show them where they can do better things to better themselves, things will change."

And Jake Ketchum, who, at San Francisco's Exploratorium Young Makers program, fulfilled his dream of building his own Levitron, a popular science toy that levitates a steel ball bearing on a powerful electromagnet. At the Exploratorium, Jake filled a lab notebook with detailed diagrams and calculations, and he created a display of graphs explaining his inventions, with his mother noting that this was an extraordinary accomplishment, as his dyslexia often discourages him from writing very much.

Creating, innovating, working and learning. Lighting more sparks.