Festival of Learning 2020

A day for learning, sharing, making, creating, and debating at the MIT Media Lab.

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Credit: Media Lab Learning Initiative

A quick note: The MIT Media Lab’s Festival of Learning is an annual, internal, and in-person event that takes place at the end of January. We originally wrote this blog post to reflect on the 2020 Festival of Learning and to share some ideas about how the concept could be replicated by others. Yet, so much has changed since January due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and in-person events like the Festival are not possible right now. Writing about it reminded us of the wonderful moments of connection that can happen when we get together with others. And it helped us look forward to being able to see our friends and colleagues in-person again. At the same time, it also pushed us to think about new approaches to bringing a stronger spirit of collaboration and community into online events; be it through virtual workshops with librarians, remote lunches with our colleagues, or casual get-togethers with friends. Stay connected! Stay safe!

The MIT Media Lab Festival of Learning is a day-long event for Media Labbers to learn and create together in a celebration of our community’s diverse talents and interests. The Festival of Learning made its debut at the Lab in 2012, spearheaded by a team of graduate students. After some hiatus, the tradition was revived in 2019, and this past January marked our sequel comeback! The Festival is now organized by a collaborative team of students, staff, and researchers, with support from the Media Lab Learning Initiative.

Credit: Jerry Habraken

This year, our agenda featured 36 workshops led by over 50 members of the Media Lab community. We learned how to program drum machines, make flipbooks, and juggle; we made (and ate) homemade pasta; we used AI to generate new underwater animals, sewed up giant inflatables, and explored the mathematics of symmetry through coloring; we saw sound with our eyes; we learned to play the theremin; we drew kolams, made jewelry, dyed fabric with a traditional Batik technique, and so much more!

Anyone from the Media Lab community is invited (and encouraged) to host a workshop at the Festival. These workshops are inspired by Labbers’ hobbies, interests, and research — and frequently, they’re a mashup of all three! In planning the day, we aim to put together a packed program with a variety of workshops that reflect the diversity of interest, expertise, and passion that exists in our community, with representation from across the Lab’s faculty, staff, and students.

On the day of the Festival, we take over the entire Media Lab building; open spaces, classrooms, and meeting rooms are transformed into workshop venues. Labbers are encouraged to roam around throughout the day, try new things, and meet new people! We also make sure to always have some activities going on in the atrium — the Media Lab’s central, open community space. This is where communal meals and snack breaks happen throughout the Festival, alongside drop-in activities like this year’s collaborative sculpture, the Tree of Culture.

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A collection of some of the Tree of Culture tags added to the collaborative sculpture throughout the day during the 2020 Festival of Learning (credit: Jerry Habraken).
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Director’s fellow Nonabah Lane leads a workshop on modernizing Navajo foods using traditional food science and cultural narrative. During the workshop, Nonabah demonstrated blue corn pancake preparation using traditional Navajo ingredients, and recounted the sociocultural context of the dish’s components (credit: Jerry Habraken).
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Lab student Kristy Johnson, a PhD student in Affective Computing, leads Save a Life with Disco, a class on hands-only CPR (credit: Jerry Habraken).
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Some Festival attendees got the opportunity to explore the Conformable Decoders group’s cleanroom, YellowBox, a facility for microfabrication (credit: Jerry Habraken).

As is tradition, this year’s Festival concluded with a communal pasta dinner prepared by some dedicated members of our community. Both preparing shared meals and dining together in a casual manner are integral components to the Festival’s intention to build community. Our shared meals give community members a chance to reflect and share what they learned with others. One Labber noted, “I loved the ‘family’ dinner style we had. Sharing food and the setup of the table was really good at making us interact with each other and felt warm and welcoming.”

Building community by learning together

The Festival of Learning provides an opportunity for our Media Lab community to celebrate the Lab’s culture of collaboration and creative learning. Not only does the Festival give us a chance to come together to share our internal learning culture, but it also offers a welcome disruption from our standard routine, bringing research groups and community members together to co-create and share joy in the process of making and learning. The Festival also acts as an important social glue for the Media Lab: Labbers are encouraged to meet new people, and in the process they are given the opportunity to learn more about their colleagues and their interests. Importantly, we chose the dates for the Festival to mark the end of MIT’s Independent Activities Period (IAP) in January, a four-week term that allows MIT students to explore research areas and projects outside of their formal coursework.

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Media Labbers gather on the 5th floor to explore painting with watercolors as a part of a workshop led by Sneha Makini (Social Machines group) titled “Students & Staff Need Easy, Honest Art” (credit: Jerry Habraken).
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PhD student Irmandy Wicaksono demonstrates batik, a wax-resist dyeing technique that originated in Java, Indonesia (credit: Jerry Habraken).

Run your own Festival of Learning!

While the Media Lab’s Festival of Learning is designed to be a day “by the Media Lab, for the Media Lab,” it can easily be adapted and remixed for any organization or team. Hosting your own Festival of Learning can help to cultivate a stronger sense of community, strengthen connections between members of your organization, and foster a shared culture of making and learning together.

You also don’t need to start by setting aside an entire day for an event like this — there are many other ways to bring the spirit of the Festival of Learning to your organization:

  • Start small with skill-shares or making sessions over lunch.
  • Host a half-day unconference-style version of the Festival where community members can volunteer to host a short session around one of their skills, hobbies, or interests.
  • Form an internal community learning team with members from across your organization. Ask them to remix the format of the Media Lab’s Festival of Learning to suit your culture and values!

If you have questions or comments about how to bring the Festival of Learning to your organization, feel free to reach out to us at learn@media.mit.edu.


There are so many folks we’d like to thank for helping make this year’s Festival happen! MAS and Facilities; workshop leaders; chefs; the 99Crew; and last, but certainly not least, the Festival of Learning Planning Team. Thank you all!

This post originally appeared on the MIT Media Lab website.


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