With COVID-19 forcing educators to embrace online learning, maintaining student engagement has become paramount. However, the virtual learning environment has birthed challenges for educators fighting to keep students engaged, requiring innovative teaching and learning strategies to encourage student learning in this new online world.
In the Dorson Scholars Program, a four-year college prep program launched by Dorson Community Foundation in November 2019, project-based learning took center stage through the program’s virtual capstone Dorson Design Challenge. The program’s cohort of 20 ninth grade students from inner-city Essex County, NJ, were divided into five teams and assigned projects focused on improving their Dorson Scholars experience.
The projects included: designing a Dorson Scholars mobile app, creating a social media and communications campaign to celebrate the end of the program year, designing an enhanced virtual classroom, planning their 10th grade welcome back event, and designing their own mentorship program.
Each project aligned with real programmatic work Dorson’s staff planned to carry out over the summer recess, thus giving staff the opportunity to gain valuable student input. Additionally, the project enabled Dorson’s students to contribute to the curation of their program experience while encouraging virtual collaboration and engagement.
The Dorson Design Challenge was helmed by Executive Director, Natasha Scott and a member of Dorson’s Board of Directors, Nathaniel Reichel, who brought to the project his unique background in building collaborative teams and product management with experience growing up in a family business, serving as the VP of Operations of a tech startup, and currently designing software for the City University of New York (CUNY).
“Our intention for the Design Challenge was to simulate a real world collaborative work environment, “ stated Reichel. “We wanted to give the Scholars a platform to exercise their brilliance building real products for Dorson.”
Students, who’d been meeting bi-weekly on Zoom since the Foundation moved its programs online on March 17, were first divided into teams and then assigned projects that directly aligned to their career interests. For example, students with self-identified interests in software development were intentionally grouped to design the Dorson Scholars mobile app, while students interested in creative writing and journalism were tasked with building the social media and communications campaign.
Students were then given clearly defined deliverables. The team challenged with designing a mentorship program had to submit a pitch deck about their program, while the team coordinating the 10th grade welcome back event had to create a run-of-show and submit an itemized supplies list and budget.
Over the course of three weeks, students met virtually in Zoom breakout rooms where much of their project work was done. “The virtual environment was definitely an unexpected layer,” Scott admitted. “However, this unique circumstance introduced students to a workplace they may very well experience in the near future -- one where they must be comfortable adapting.”
Similar to how professionals operate, students had to work together to brainstorm, delegate team roles, and divide responsibilities. As standard in a professional work environment, students submitted deliverables according to deadlines and scheduled check-ins with their supervisor, namely Reichel.
Understanding the high expectations for each project, Reichel and Scott worked closely with each team. “As an Advisor, I made sure the students knew they should utilize me as a resource and treat me as an extension of their team,” Reichel recalled.
In team meetings, Reichel and Scott helped guide the students by asking probing questions and sharing ideas already being considered by the Dorson staff. “In working closely with me, the students were given an opportunity to learn what it is like to work with a professional and meet tight deadlines, while being treated as intellectual equals,” Reichel reflected.
Developing and applying critical workplace skills was a major component of the Design Challenge. Each project encouraged students to tap into their creativity, critical thinking and problem-solving skills. “With the students in full control of the vision, strategy, and decision making for their projects, the host of professional skills they were able to hone was extensive: attention to detail, time management, and self-advocacy just to name a few," Scott informed.
The emphasis on teamwork and collaboration was an intentional priority to best prepare the students for a post-COVID world. “Learning how to be a team player is a valuable skill for life in general,” asserted Scott. “In a post-COVID world where remote work spaces and increased virtual communication are inevitable, possessing strong teamwork and communication skills will be essential.”
As she worked to design an enhanced virtual classroom experience with her team, Dorson Scholar, Fatiyah, learned how to be a better team player by “assess[ing] people's strengths and weaknesses and assign[ing] responsibilities based on that.”
Students were also able to gain new industry-based skills from this capstone. Tyler, a Dorson Scholar and aspiring Software Engineer on the mobile app team, worked with his teammates to deliver a wireframe, a software development concept he learned.
Dorson Scholar, Jonathan, who helped his team design an enhanced virtual classroom, stated: “While making the splash screen, I learned how to better use photo editing software.”
Another Dorson Scholar, Kiran, was challenged with creating a two-week editorial and social media calendar with her team and expressed that she “...enjoyed being exposed to a different type of writing and learning how to use our [teammates] writing skills in order to do marketing.”
The Design Challenge culminated into a virtual presentation day where each team shared their deliverables with Dorson's Board of Directors over Zoom. After the presentations, students were able to reflect on their personal development throughout the project, noting areas where they most improved and the strengths they brought to their teams.
“A long-term desired outcome for each of our Scholars is increased self-confidence and a better understanding of the importance of investing in yourself,” stated Reichel. “The final key component of the Design Challenge was providing a moment for self-reflection in order to teach our Scholars that becoming the best team player and the best version of yourself, takes consistent self-reflection and self-growth.”
Dorson Scholar Bernadette highlighted a personal shift in her attitude towards teamwork. She said, “I usually like working alone, but during this project I stepped out of my comfort zone and learned how to better work with others. I might be starting to like working with other people.”
Scott, who will oversee the staff’s programmatic work this summer, believes the Design Challenge revealed valuable insights into their students’ needs and ideas for future engagement. “We intentionally sought out their input in the form of a team project rather than just sending out a survey,” said Scott. “Through their projects, we’ve been able to see their ideas and vision for the program come to life which gives guidance to our staff this summer.”
With the success of the Design Challenge, Dorson is already planning to apply the project-based learning approach in a new program component: the Summer Micro-Internship Program set to begin in early July. With the COVID-19 crisis leaving students without fruitful summer plans, the Foundation is providing its students with an opportunity to earn small stipends by continuing their work on their Design Challenge projects. Students will work alongside Dorson staff to complete projects from the Design Challenge as well as other short-term assignments, including helping create marketing and social media content, performing data entry, and helping with donor outreach tasks.
Executive Director Scott believes both the Design Challenge and the Summer Micro-Internship Program are laying the foundation for a Program heavily emphasizing student-centered learning. Scott believes that “with the projects being directly tied to their program experience, it provides another opportunity to strengthen our Scholars’ affinity to our Program and to each other.”
Dorson Scholar Laylah said “the Design Challenge was fun because I got to work on a project with my friends that we were all passionate about.” In a COVID-19 world, where educators are learning best practices to support student engagement virtually, Dorson is focused on providing its students with opportunities for self-growth and bonding during this difficult time.
Learn more about our hallmark Dorson Scholars Program here.