Schools Navigate How to Provide Experiential Learning in a Socially Distanced World

Jul 29, 2020

Until March, students at MetWest High School in Oakland, Calif., were reporting to businesses and organizations twice a week to learn through real world internships. Down in New Orleans, students at Rooted School were taking classes in school to get certified in technical skills like 3D printing, AutoCAD, and the Adobe Suite.

While some schools offer experiential learning as optional programming, at MetWest and Rooted it is a core part of the model. In schools such as these, real world work experience, including visits to offices and meetings with mentors is a big part of learning.

So when COVID-19 brought all of this to an unexpected halt, these schools have had to reimagine experiential learning through remote learning. The end result might not give students everything they’ve come to expect, but may instead give them a glimpse into how remote life is reshaping the workplace—and the many uncertainties that come along with it.

Learning to work, and working to learn

Rooted Founder and CEO Jonathan Johnson saw that companies like GE were attracted to New Orleans, but the lack of homegrown skilled workers prevented opening operations. As a teacher, Johnson saw the vast majority of students coming from homes facing poverty. At Rooted, students take courses that earn them certifications that can make them competitive for high paying entry level jobs alongside traditional subjects like math and language arts to help close the massive wealth gap between Black and white students. Students have the opportunity to apply skills in internships in technology companies. The goal is for students to graduate from Rooted with a college acceptance in one hand and a job offer in the other.

Prior to the their building's closure due to COVID-19, students worked towards certifications in programs like AutoCAD. Students were able to continue their work and earn certifications remotely. (Photo credit: Jin-Soo Huh)

At MetWest, all students do internships throughout their entire high school career. “People learn in authentic ways. Learning experiences should have purpose for the students and do it in a context where things have meaning,” explains Michael Cellemme, the school’s internship coordinator. Internships empower students and develop them so they can be agents of change. Students have complete choice in what internships they want to pursue and are not pigeonholed into a career path. Organizations span the gamut with students working in tech, hospitals, restaurants, construction firms, schools and nonprofits.

Pivots required as schools and businesses go virtual

When businesses and school buildings were closed due to the pandemic, schools were thrust into a time of confusion. Business partners were overwhelmed as they had to meet their own basic needs to stay afloat and many in person internships were no longer possible. Schools scrambled to get internet access for students. On top of that, students became caretakers for younger siblings and a certain mental toll hit students. The vast majority of students at both schools also deal with challenges of poverty.

MetWest originally assigned students without internships to long term projects but realized that most students did not have the cognitive capacity to do the work due to the impact of the pandemic. Cellemme said they adjusted to meet students where they were at by giving shorter tasks aimed at developing professional skills. He created a menu of options students could use to get credit for the internship course, which included tasks like sending a thank you letter to their internship mentor and updating their cover letters and resumes.

Rooted was committed to making sure their students were still able to get certifications. Although Rooted had a one-to-one Chromebook program, the technical skills they were learning were on programs that required more powerful computers. They came up with a creative workaround with students using TeamViewer which allows students to remotely login to desktop computers at schools from their Chromebooks. This allowed students to continue developing skills and take tests to get technical certifications.

Planning for the fall

With the school year behind them, both schools are planning for next year with a lot of unknowns. To prepare, they’ve begun to think of creative ways that students can still get experiential learning despite the obstacles.

Some internships will be possible virtually. Rooted noted that longtime partner Entrescan, a 3D printing business, is offering internships and 12 students got paid internships through YouthForce NOLA, an organization that connects students to work experiences. Some of MetWest’s students secured internships with GenesysWorks, a national organization that pairs underserved students with work opportunities. While the organization has seen some disruption due to COVID-19, many partners they work with were able to continue offering internships by transitioning them remotely. For those whose internships were ended, GenesysWorks was able to continue to pay students thanks to a donor to ensure there was no disruption to their planned income.

MetWest is brainstorming options to make sure students still are able to get experiential learning for students who are not able to secure an in-person or virtual internship. For example, they are looking at project-based learning as an avenue and thinking about doing small group projects possibly connected to social justice movements. They are also considering loosening requirements for students to be dual enrolled in college courses and looking at online learning platforms so students can learn technical skills like machine learning. Opportunities to dive deep into student clubs and volunteer (e.g., tutor younger students virtually) are another option.

The schools are engaging with partner organizations to see if they are able to offer opportunities if an internship is not possible. For example, partners could connect with students to do virtual informational interviews or pose a dilemma to students for them to propose a solution as a project. Program Manager Chelsea Segal at GenesysWorks shared that businesses are still dealing with uncertainty and their own pain points in transitioning to working remotely. For example, businesses have cited concerns around onboarding high school students virtually, their budgets, and what virtual projects could look like.

“Things can change a lot in the next two months,” Cellemme said. “Things are opening up faster than we anticipated even a few weeks ago. So we will constantly adjust our plans to make sure our students are able to get experiential learning.”


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