by Becky-Jo Samples, Connected Lane County
A new spark downtown for students
Connected Lane County opened SparkLab in 2021 to help teach youth technical skills
If you’ve been in downtown Eugene recently, you may have noticed the new SparkLab sign on West 7th Avenue. Or maybe you’ve walked past the building to see the space filled with teenagers working around 3D printers, computers and robotics equipment. Perhaps you’ve even been lucky enough to take a look inside.
SparkLab is the newest — and largest to date — initiative by Connected Lane County, a local nonprofit focused on improving student success for historically underserved populations around Lane County. Its other work includes setting up internships and job placements for students, organizing annual book drives, providing support to out-of-school youth, coordinating career fairs, distributing at-home learning kits and much more.
“Our vision was for this space to be a reflection of the things students wanted to work on and grow their skills in, while also introducing them to new concepts and ideas they might not have considered before,” Connected Lane County Executive Director Heidi Larwick said. “I think we struck a good balance between a safe, inviting space they can feel comfortable in and one that pushes them to learn and grow.”
Larwick said the idea for SparkLab came about in early 2020 after noticing recurring conversations with local industry leaders about the difficulty of finding skilled workers for high-demand, high-wage jobs. As the year progressed, it became clear there was a need for an out-of-school space where youth could gain hands-on experience with technical equipment, grow their skills and become confident problem solvers.
Jump to July of 2021, and SparkLab is open with its first official program, Invention Lab, where dozens of high school students have been working for weeks as paid interns to create devices that can monitor air quality and CO2 levels in indoor spaces.
The long-term strategy for SparkLab is to serve as a place where community, education and industry come together to support Lane County youth in invention, education and career-connected learning. The facility is outfitted with industry-standard equipment such as CNC machines, laser cutters, 3D printers and screen-printing presses for students to practice with and create. The staff is currently focused on hosting summer camps, but once school picks up again in the fall, there are plans for after-school programs, professional development workshops and CTE courses for local teachers, and much more. The building includes meeting space for mentorship opportunities, youth support services and events, and you'll even find a snack wall and a student lounge where youth can take a break and fuel up with a beverage and a snack.
Connected Lane County wants the space to be as student oriented as possible. Drawing from its Elevate mentorship participants — where students submit a mentorship application with a project in mind and are paired with an industry mentor to provide support and resources — youth were contracted to infuse the space with their creations at SparkLab. Craig, a high school student, worked with Mark Bruer of Essex General Construction to build three custom picnic tables for the outdoor seating area. Brynn, a student who had created a 90-foot mural for the Child Development Center Preschool with the guidance of her mentor and local muralist, Celeste Jacobi, was hired to paint a new mural for the lobby of SparkLab. Even the name itself was created by a group of South Eugene High School freshmen — Jeyla, Ashley, Grace and Nova — who pitched it as a part of Connected Lane County’s 2021 Marketing Jam competition.
Please note all 2021 camps are full.
SparkLab officially opened in July with Invention Lab, a summer camp for high schoolers designed to teach youth skills in the invention process. Invention Lab is a partnership between Connected Lane County, Lane AABSS and H.O.N.E.Y. and is modeled after Portland State University's Invention Bootcamp. Youth are building technical skills, gaining experience in human-centered design and prototyping, and at the end of this five-week camp, they will present their invention to the public at a community showcase.
Additional summer programs include the STEM Maker Camp for Creswell Middle School students and Eugene 4J high school and middle school students. SparkLab also hosts Wonder Wednesday events for youth involved in the Workforce Innovation & Opportunity Act (WIOA) program. Wonder Wednesday events are designed to provide skill-building opportunities and knowledge to help youth through life transitions.
After-School Programs and Upcoming Events
Leading into the 2021/2022 school year, Connected Lane County will announce after-school programs, drop-in hours, community events and more. Please be sure to follow Connected Lane County on social media (@connectedlane), sign up for their newsletter or visit connectedlane.org to stay in the know.
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Photo courtesy of Delene & Co