Working Together to Create a National Learning Community

When Jack Hidary told me about National Lab Day, I got chills. The tag line for National Lab Day is: A National Barn-Raising for Hands-On Learning. Using the internet and social computing technologies, with the support of the White House and the business and scientific communities, National Lab Day reaches out to the education community, providing a tool set that brings context, community, and passion to education, and that has the potential to transform our educational system into a true learning community.

How does this work exactly?

1. Teachers, scientists, organizations, and individual volunteers are invited to go to: National Lab Day
2. From there, follow the track that best identifies how you would like to contribute. Or, you can simply browse existing projects.

As you browse, you might come across the teacher in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho, wanting to build a working model of a river watershed. Or, the Levittown, New York, teacher wanting help with a project on Superconductivity. You’ll find a teacher in Chicago, Illinois, working with students to design, build and test bridges, and seeking engineers and Department of Transportation contacts.

On the National Lab Day website, educators enter hands-on learning projects, listing the resources needed, both human and otherwise, that can bring these projects to life. Matchmaking services are available on the site to support these hands-on learning projects. The Radar and Make communities are a match made in heaven.

As National Lab Day scales, a national hands-on learning curriculum will begin to take shape.

Research shows that hands-on learning is powerful and effective. In the well-meaning efforts to create standards in education, context, creativity, and our natural inclinations to explore and play, have been replaced with mountains of homework and a curriculum that is unlikely to effectively prepare youth for the 21st century.

In schools, failure is stigmatized, emotionally disabling, and has become a label and a measure rather than part of a feedback system supporting iteration and exploration. The most productive scientists and inventors will tell you that they fail constantly, all day long. Each failure informs them, guides them toward a new direction, a new hunch, a new possibility. With hands-on learning, failure is iteration, in the spirit of how the most accomplished scientists and inventors work.

In the somewhat misguided efforts to “teacher proof” the educational system, we have lost what good teachers bring to the system: passion, curiosity, love of learning, and an ability to create a learning ecosystem in a classroom, a school and a community. Think about what touched you most in school. At a dinner discussing education with a number of Silicon Valley CEO’s, to a person, the most significant memories were those of passionate teachers as role models.

We don’t find our passions. They find us. Not through hours of homework and standardized tests; rather, through engagement, exploration and in context learning. According to Stuart Brown, MD, author of Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, highly successful people have a rich play life. Brown further suggests that play is a “biological necessity, contributing to the learning of emotional control, social competency, personal resiliency and continuing curiosity….(many) other life benefits accrue largely through rich developmentally appropriate play experiences.

An adult who has “lost” what was a playful youth and doesn’t play will demonstrate social, emotional and cognitive narrowing, be less able to handle stress, and often experience a smoldering depression.”

Brown talks about the value of recalling your play history. You can take time to do that here.

National Lab Day has the potential to revitalize a national learning community by offering an infrastructure to facilitate the spirit of play and exploration in our classrooms, schools and communities.

While there have been efforts in the past to encourage hands-on learning, the sheer scale of the consortium gathering around National Lab Day gives it the potential to have a profound transformational impact on education and learning. Respected scientific communities and organizations, including: ACS, IEEE, AAAS and 100+ other scientific societies will be promoting this effort to their members.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation have kicked in the capital to get the project going.

In addition to the White House, other key federal agencies have joined in, including: NASA, the Department of Energy, the Department of Education, the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.

The National Science Teachers Association and the National Education Association are supporting this effort as are a growing number of companies, including Microsoft and Texas Instruments. O’Reilly and MAKE have contributed project guides to National Lab Day.

Please join in! Click on the links, join the movement, and lend your energy, skills, or resources to renew education and learning for the 21st century.

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  • Kent

    This article is so informative. U.S. education needs to step up.

  • Linda Stone

    Please tweet, link, help National Lab Day tell it’s story! Thank you so much for your interest!

  • Brian Ahier

    Education 2.0 – it’s time for an upgrade!

  • Magdalena Eriksson

    Well said, Linda!

    I’m now thinking about how Molecular Frontiers can contribute to or learn from this initiative. Let’s hope that learning coming from curiosity, experiments and try-and-ask-why approaches takes root.

  • Sally Stone

    Excellent points made in regard to the tensions we experience in education today. Back when I was in the classroom I could do so many interest-based or problem-based projects. Standards guide, but can also choke if teachers forget they are teaching Children, not Curriculum. The child trumps the curriculum. I hope this program has enough research behind it and support built into it so districts will do it and teachers can experience success. That will get these ideas into the culture of education. You have always been a great advocate for children and education done right. This is a great project for you. By the way, I bought Brown’s book. Thanks for the resources.

  • Mandy Dailey

    Thanks for your post, Linda!

    The HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competition is proud to be part of National Lab Day.

    We will begin accepting applications on January 15th. I’ve posted below the full call, as I suspect many of your readers are potential applicants!



    2010 $2M HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competition

    We are pleased to announce that all information regarding the 2010 international HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competition—including detailed category explanations and guidelines, critical deadlines, application materials, etc.—is now available at

    The theme of this year’s Competition is Reimagining Learning and there are two types of awards: 21st Century Learning Lab Designers and Game Changers.

    Aligned with National Lab Day as part of the White House’s Educate to Innovate Initiative, the 21st Century Learning Lab Designer awards will range from $30,000-$200,000. Awards will be made 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.

    The Game Changers category—undertaken in cooperation with Sony Computer Entertainment of America (SCEA) and Electronic Arts (EA), Entertainment Software Assocation, and the Information Technology Industry Council—will award amounts ranging from $5,000-$50,000 for creative levels designed with either LittleBigPlanet™ or Spore™ Galactic Adventures that offer young people engaging game play experiences and that incorporate and leverage principles of science, technology, engineering and math for learning.

    Each category will include several Best in Class awards selected by expert judges, as well as a People’s Choice Award selected by the general public. The online application system will open on January 15 and will include three rounds of submissions, with public comment at each stage.

    Please see for all details.