About The Lab
The Lab is a growing network of technology clubs for 10 to 16 year-old young people diagnosed with High Functioning Autism who enjoy working with computers. The Lab offers mentoring by technology professionals in areas such as programming, 3D, digital design and gaming.
The Lab’s approach is unstructured and does not have expectations of specific education or technology outcomes. By pairing young people who have High Functioning Autism with tutors who have technical expertise in areas of mutual interest, The Lab seeks to improve the wellbeing and life prospects of young people who are often highly skilled but whose condition can lead them to fall through gaps in the mainstream education system.
At each weekly two-hour Lab session, two or more computer programmers and designers work individually with between 12 and 20 young people to develop their social and technology skills. We provide an environment where participants can share their interests in a wide variety of things such as gaming together, video creation and sharing, graphic design, programming and game development. During Lab sessions, mentors are available to help with any questions or issues, or to work with participants on projects of interest to them.
We’ve found that some of the most useful things first learned by participants during Lab sessions are social and personal skills. This includes learning about how to work with others, how to make friends and how to interact socially, as well as simply feeling accepted and valued by peers with common interests. The Lab is about technology skills too, but typically the programming and design skills come a little later once participants have settled in. This can take a little time and one of the essential aspects of The Lab is that kids find their own place in their own time.
We take an unstructured approach so every session can be different. We want participants to undertake activities because it interests them, not because they have to. This approach is deliberately unlike school, and is based on our experience with hundreds of young people. The Lab is designed to be a cool and accepting place to visit, hang out and learn while having fun.
At the Lab, we are committed to ensuring the safety of children attending Lab sessions. We put this into practice via a range of policies and protocols, including screening of those working with children, training programs and complaints procedures. All Labs have protocols for child safety and these are rigorously followed.
For more information on child protection please see http://www.aihw.gov.au/child-protection/#report
The Lab started with a 2009-2010 VicHealth funded research project, Connected Lives, that looked into the possibilities of using technology to improve the wellbeing of young people living with multiple forms of disadvantage. This project was awarded the national B/HERT Award for Community Engagement in 2010. Project leaders Dale Linegar, a software developer, and Dr Stefan Schutt, a community technology researcher and educator, found that one-on-one technology tuition worked particularly well with young people with Asperger’s Syndrome. At the same time, Linegar’s consultancy Oztron needed a space to run its expanding number of specialist technology projects. The team also sought advice from the young people they had previously worked with, parents and youth organisations.
A space was found in the Trocadero artist studio space in the inner-western suburb of Footscray. Oztron’s developers worked on software projects during the day, then with Lab participants after school.
The inspiration for this dual-purpose space came from writer and social activist Dave Eggers’ 826 Valencia Project,(http://826valencia.org/), which began by renting a cheap shopfront in a (then) poor San Francisco district and co-locating Eggers’ McSweeney’s literary magazine with an after-school literacy drop in centre. The Lab’s formation was also influenced by constructivist theories of technology-enhanced learning such as Greg Kearsley and Ben Shneiderman’s Engagement Theory, Axel Bruns’ Produsage, Greg Ulmer’s Electracy, Mitch Resnick’s Constructionism and the work of Professor Henry Jenkins. These theories focus on the importance of focused, meaningful activities that deploy digital technology to build on the interests of young people.
The Lab became known quickly and soon found itself with a long waiting list, even after expanding its number of weekly sessions. Others became interested in running their own Lab sites using the proven model, which was externally evaluated in 2013. (Click here to view the 2013 evaluation.) With the help of the Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre, this led to the formation of a national network of Labs, currently sitting at 15 sites around Australia delivering over 240 sessions every school term. After helping to run the Lab, then set up the Lab’s not for profit company and board, Lab co-founders Linegar and Schutt handed over the baton to other experienced Lab Network board members in 2015.