How to Design a Creativity Lab

Room Spotlight on the Creativity Lab at Inner-City Arts

by room2learn

This week, we had the absolute pleasure of interviewing Angela Villarreal, a Teaching Artist in the Creativity Lab at Inner-City Arts in Downtown LA. Inner-City Arts is a non-profit arts organization with state-of-the-art facilities, professional teaching artists, and a determined mission to provide high quality, hands-on instruction in visual, performing, and media arts to underserved youth in Los Angeles. But Inner-City Arts doesn’t just offer arts instruction. Their teaching artists and administrators pair skills-based arts instruction with the value of authentic, freeform creative expression. The result is a safe space for students to ignite and explore their creativity.

Angela is one fourth of the teaching team powerhouse at the helm of the Creativity Lab, best described by Angela herself as a place “where science smashes into art.” The Creativity Lab is part science lab, part makerspace, and part art studio. If you found yourself in the lab, you might find students working together to create DIY pinball machines or thumb pianos, all while exploring angles, colors, sound waves, and how to use power tools safely.

As you can imagine, the Creativity Lab has many moving parts and the way Angela and the teaching team have organized and designed their space supports both its complexity and its playful, experimental nature. In our conversation with Angela, we sat down and discussed how the Creativity Lab space and layout supports learning.

Let’s hear about this lively classroom from her!

r2l: So, tell us about the Creativity Lab in your own words!

Angela: The best way I can describe it is it’s where science smashes into art. And within that, our biggest priority is creating relationships with students. We really want students to see that it’s about the process, not the final outcome. We want them to see that it’s cool to cooperate, to collaborate, to say “yes and…” We work hard to create an ideal environment for growth.

r2l: What are three words you would use to describe your classroom?

Angela: Dynamic, Thought-provoking, Organized

r2l: How would you describe the learning that happens in your classroom?

Angela: There are two kinds of learning; one is inquiry based. We base all of our lessons and our theories on the scientific method. Students are encouraged to come up with an idea, observe and test it out, and adjust the design where it needs it. We encourage them to make mistakes. That’s where all the learning happens. That’s what pushes them. When students make five mistakes, it shows us that they are learning five new things. It is also a litmus test to see if they are stepping out of their comfort zone. Making mistakes shows me that they are being courageous and trying something and thus, really learning.

The other learning is very skills-based. We have students using power tools, so in the beginning of the semester, it’s not all about the creativity, but about how to use tools like the drill press and the saw. This is important because later on, they can be more creative with the skills that they have already learned. Getting them comfortable with those tools emotionally and skills-wise allows them to be more creative with their projects later on.

r2l: How would you describe the layout of your classroom?

Angela: Right after I got hired, the room was still being built, so I was able to really shape how the room would look. I went to Vegas with my daughter and husband during this time and we went into Sugar, the candy store. And I thought to myself, this is how the the Creativity Lab needs to be.

So, like Sugar in Vegas, in the Creativity Lab, there are lots of clear plastic bins that are labeled very largely so that you can see all the possibilities. It’s organized, it’s neat and you can see where everything is. It is accessible.

As for the layout, we have a whole section dedicated to all of the machinery. There is a space delineation that supports the safety of the students. Then we have a workspace for projects, where there are large tables that allow students to work together in groups and teams. Each table fits eight kids and they all face each other, which really fosters that collaboration. This helps break down any competitiveness and fosters more sharing of ideas. If our students see something really cool that their friends are doing, we want them to say, “I am inspired by what you’re doing, can you show me that?” The way that the tables are set up in groups, rather than rows, really fosters that kind of learning here.

r2l: How does the layout of the room influence how the learning in your room?

Angela: The accessibility of the supplies really helps. Our students can see all of the supplies and they know how to access them. With that, ideas can flourish. They can look around the room and say, “ah yes I can use straws, ah yes this or that.” There is a flow to the organization too. All of the materials are organized and easy to see. There is a lot of them, but it’s not overwhelming.

r2l: Do you have any “hacks” or classroom design solutions that you want to share with the community?

Angela:

  • Stack objects vertically, even things like paper. Think about it. If you stack paper horizontally, it’s hard to get a color you want that is at the bottom. This makes it easy for students to get their own paper.
  • Label large!
  • Open shelving helps you see what you are working with! Take those doors off those metal cabinets.
  • Group like things together. I take a lot of inspiration from Marie Kondo too. We have a lot of volunteers that come into the space, so it is important to have a flow to our organization. When you group like things together, it’s easy for everyone. The room can be overwhelming with all the stuff we have in here, so it makes sense to have all the same stuff grouped together.

r2l: Do you have anything else you want to share with the r2l community? Any last pieces of advice?

Angela: I’d love to see teachers share their ideas with each other more! If you think someone is doing something cool, ask them how they do it! As adults, we sometimes have an idea that we should save our ideas for ourselves. But when you share them, someone can say, “yes and…!” Sharing your ideas and helping each other think helps you build an even better learning space.

Angela, we totally agree! We’d love to see how your classroom space supports learning. Show us your hacks and layouts on room2learn.org and tweet us at @HackClassrooms! And, if you’d like to be featured on our blog, reach out to us at community@room2learn.org.


Angela Villarreal is a teaching artist in the Creativity Lab of Inner-City Arts, working in coordination with the organization’s co-founder and artistic director Bob Bates. In the Creativity Lab, Angela strives to foster a safe place for creative expression and encourage students to solve complex problems while exploring new materials, and integrating design into their projects — a truly unique opportunity presented by Inner-City Arts. In addition to teaching, Angela coordinates activity between the students and several prominent Los Angeles businesses including Disney’s Imagineers, and the Southern California Institute of Architecture. Angela began working with Inner-City Arts as a volunteer in 2012 before joining the team as a full-time teaching artist in 2013. Angela has a BFA from Sam Houston State University and earned her M.Ed from Concordia University. Angela brings nearly 20 years of arts education experience to ICA, having previously taught within the Central Texas public school system.