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LifeLabs New York Launches Inventive Courses for the Constantly Curious

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Thinking of increasing your 'allure and impact'? You might want to consider taking a class in surprisology.

Surprisology is just one of the many courses offered by LifeLabs New York, an educational incubator for ideas and practical impact. I came upon LifeLabs based on a friend's recommendation and after considering taking a number of graduate courses at traditional universities. My persistent curiosity around learning always has me searching for knowledge, but in the usual places. New York City, luckily, has no shortage of educational forums.

Yet, LifeLabs brings a refreshing view to experiential peer education on topics such as logic and coolness. To curate more course ideas, LifeLabs hosts regular spaghetti dinners designed to bring together idea over a good hearty meal. It's important to note, however, that the organization has a structured approach to its course design, even with a more community-based model, and is itself constantly looking for its own lessons on how to design and offer more compelling courses.

I recently caught up with LeeAnn Renninger, Ph.D., who is the director of LifeLabs New York to find out more about the story behind LifeLabs, where it's headed and how to get involved.

Laura Cococcia: What was your inspiration behind launching LifeLabs New York?

LeeAnn Renninger: I'm a social psychologist and I study how ideas transfer from person to person and the things the impact people's life satisfaction over the long term. During my doctorate work, I started noticing that the things people report valuing most in life are experiences (vs. items) and a feeling of growth & mastery that comes especially when you are learning something new in a playful way. I'm especially interested in experiential learning, where you turn ordinary knowledge into a kind of interactive adventure, full of surprises that touch your emotions and create lingering stories.

LifeLabs New York is meant to be this kind of laboratory -- a laboratory to roll up your sleeves, become a researcher on life, and catalyze ideas that make life just a few notches better and more exciting.

About the 'lab' part: In high school, for me, the best classes were the lab classes. Instead of just listening to a teacher tell you what you should know, you got to try it out yourself and see what you think. Take stuff apart. Blow things up. Figure out what works for you and what doesn't. I like the idea of playful experiments that you can romp with around and make your own discoveries.

The 'New York' part in LifeLabs New York came three years ago: I had just graduated from my doctorate at the University of Vienna, Austria, with years of great teachers and learning behind me. But when I first arrived in New York City, I started to get the feeling that the city itself was one of the most amazing and insightful teachers I'll ever have- from testing and perfecting one's patience while standing in an endless post office line, to noticing the shifts in wind patterns around buildings, to having a spontaneous and brilliant conversation with a passing stranger. It seemed really fun to share this.

So, I started putting together learning adventures (with NYC as the professor) as a hobby, like the 'Williamsburg smells (good)' scent learning adventure. Eventually these grew so big that we had to start taking reservations. And LifeLAbs NY was born.

LC: What has been the response and feedback from participants to date?

LR: The first official lab classes opened in October 2010. Since then, all labs have booked fully, with two classes every week, 30-40 people per class. We don't do any advertising, only word of mouth. So, we feel pretty proud and happy that things seem to be going very well.

LC: What's the most personally rewarding thing for you about LifeLabs? The most challenging?

LR: Most rewarding: sitting in on classes and noticing shifts in ideas, rowdy conversations brewing.

The most challenging -- it's probably two things. In the beginning I had no sense for the business side of things. It was hard to figure out how to keep the courses low cost, and yet still cover expenses like insurance, room rent, teacher salaries, etc. For example, are teachers employees or independent contractors? Do we need to charge taxes on sales? This isn't the kind of stuff I'm interested in, but we had to learn how to figure these things out.

Second, it was challenging to prioritize. We have tons of ideas for classes, and it's hard to figure out those to follow and those to let go. For the first few months, we had way too many classes going, which meant there was no time to think about an overall strategy. We have to constantly resist the urge to overload.

LC: What's next for LifeLabs New York? Anything we should be on the lookout for?

LR: In July, we will launch our 'Make Stuff' Lab series. Each week we will combine a craft teacher and a researcher, who interweave topics in a unique way so that you learn how to make something great, while also trying out a new little life skill. Examples include: Make a terrarium and learn about breathing. Make pop-up cards and learn about bravery. Bind a book and learn tricks on how to be a great story teller.

LC: How can people get involved?

LR: Take a class. Or, if you have good ideas for future classes and adventures, join us at our monthly spaghetti brainstorm dinners, where we bounce around ideas for upcoming classes. You can also find out more information on our site.

For more about the people, places and organizations making a creative impact in communities worldwide, check out The Journal of Cultural Conversation.

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