In Brooklyn these days, we’re in the midst of a renaissance in shared learning experiences, like skillshares, interactive teaching, and different kinds of adult “ed.” There’s so many different avenues of nonconventional learning, from places like Brooklyn Brainery, TradeSchool, Brooklyn Kitchen Labs, Alpha One Labs, and The Commons, and series like OCD Lectures, Nerd Nite, Adult Ed. And one of the older groups focused experiential learning is LifeLabs NYC.
Started by social psychologist LeeAnn Renninger, who has a doctorate in urban ethology from the University of Vienna, LifeLabs is “an incubator for ideas on living wisely and well, offering courses, labs, and events for the common good.” What kinds of classes? Oh, awesome things like Yapper Lab (the art of better conversation), Sense School (fine-tuning your five senses), and Surprisology (adding surprise to every aspect of your life).
brooklyn spaces: How did this get started?
LeeAnn: LifeLabs started as a platform for professors at the University of Vienna to translate their findings into something that everyday people would find useful and fun and exciting. The idea was to create a laboratory where, instead of having someone lecturing you about something, you actually do that thing, and then the science behind it gets explained. It’s really hands-on, roll up your sleeves, try-it-out, blow-stuff-up, take-things-apart learning. My research specialization is urban ethology, looking at how ideas spread from one person to another, how people influence one another, perceive one another, get inspired by one another. I think there’s really something to the idea that each of us has an expertise of some kind, and it’s just a matter of creating the right platform to enable people to showcase that.
brooklyn spaces: What were some of the classes you started with?
LeeAnn: One was the Wisdom Lab. The idea was that “wisdom” sounds so stuffy, like you have to have grey hair and a cane to be wise, but it’s really kind of easy to become wiser by just practicing a few things, like staying calm when someone’s being totally annoying, or really trying to gather different perspectives before you form an opinion, things like that. We also do adventures, and an early one was tracking shadows around the city, to notice how they move over time. We took chalk and went around and traced different shadows, we had big groups of people armed with chalk, with chalk dust all over themselves. It’s about finding a more enriched way of interacting with the city.
brooklyn spaces: What are some of your favorite more recent classes?
LeeAnn: My favorite is the Seeing Lab, not only because I teach it, but because I love the topic. In Seeing Lab you test your ability to read facial microexpressions. Over the course of an hour, most people go from a score of about 40% correct on a facial-reading test to 75%. So really quickly you’re able to see what you think is impossible to see, these tiny flashes of emotion. In just a short time, people begin connecting much more deeply with one another, and seeing things that they hadn’t seen before. My other absolute favorite is Surprisology, which is about being mischievous and building a lifestyle of surprise.
brooklyn spaces: Can anyone apply to teach a class?
LeeAnn: Sure. There’s a course proposal form with a few criteria, like the course has to be experiential, and there has to be something a little bit goofy or gritty or strange about it. We interview the teachers, and everyone goes through a trial run, and then people can become members of the lab circuit and teach whatever courses they want to.
brooklyn spaces: How do you find the places to hold the classes?
LeeAnn: We’re always on the look-out. It’s really hard to find low-cost, reliable spaces, so we’re trying out lots of different ones. A space has got to have one of three things: one, it ties into the topic; two, it’s a space that’s just weird in general, where you can learn in a new way; or three, it’s a space that people don’t normally have access to.
brooklyn spaces: Do you have a fond memory or a struggle of getting LifeLabs under way?
LeeAnn: Oh my god, every day! Every day is a struggle, every day is a fond memory. New Yorkers are a tough crowd, and it’s been really fun to see how not shy at all they are. I’ve taught these same classes in Germany, Austria, London, Amsterdam, and seeing the difference in how New Yorkers behave is incredible. There’s a whole different way here of really being interactive, so I feel like New York is the perfect incubator for these kinds of classes. People want to contribute, they’ve been there, they’ve done that, they’ve experienced a lot, and it’s really fun to be able to provide a mutual sharing atmosphere. Of course, it’s scary too, because if you say anything that doesn’t make sense, people will let you know it. It’s really been a learning experience for me, the New York City way of doing things.