Friday the 13th turned out to hold more than the usual amount of superstitious bad luck in March 2020. On that day, millions of teachers and families across the U.S. learned that they would not be going back to school the following Monday. As leaders grappled with emerging COVID-19 information, one week off became two weeks, then a month, then a shift to remote learning and working for most people for an extended period, some of which continues to this day.
COVID-19 has brought tremendous shifts in learning—not just in the school system, but for everyone who supports children’s wellbeing and development. This includes parents and other family members, as well as the private sector, nonprofits, associations and concerned individuals.
I’m the co-founder of a small nonprofit, Connected Camps, one of the few organizations that was already offering entirely virtual project-based learning for kids at the start of 2020. We know kids still need spaces to learn and play with their peers, but they also need to build relationships with mentors and trusted adults who can help them develop their interests in new and exciting ways.
It isn’t always easy, especially during a global pandemic. But in the past year, a handful of education organizations have expanded and adapted their capacity to connect students with diverse mentors and interest areas. Together, we’re leveraging technology in unique ways to forge connections that will last well beyond the pandemic.
Connected Camps: Skyrocketing Demand = Workforce Equity Opportunity
Connected Camps’ mission is to create a global online community where kids can build, code, play and learn from one another, guided by the core values of equity and inclusion. Our approach centers on engaging kids through popular game platforms such as Minecraft and Roblox and tapping the power of college-aged tech experts to act as near-peer mentors to younger kids, ages 8-14.
Online courses like ours had been growing in popularity as spaces for kids to have fun while developing tech and digital citizenship skills and learning about art, history, science and more. When the pandemic hit, virtual camps suddenly were filling another vital need: allowing kids to play with one another, keeping them physically distant and safe but socially connected. The pandemic brought a flood of demand for online opportunities, and by May 2020, we struggled to keep up with a massive five-fold spike in demand for our online camps and courses.
But even as we scrambled to accommodate these new students, we recognized this growth as an opportunity to address workforce equity. Rather than target stereotypically “elite” universities and students for our tech experts, as many commercial tech camps do, we recruited through university offices of access and inclusion, including many Hispanic-Serving Institutions such as the University of California, Irvine, and University of California, Riverside, as well as several historically Black colleges and universities. Our online format means we can recruit student counselors from higher ed institutions all over the country.
The diversity of our employee pool benefits both the college-aged counselors and the younger participants. Children benefit from being mentored by young adults with backgrounds that may differ from theirs. Both campers and counselors leave our programs with a more expansive vision of who “belongs” in STEM, and what a STEM career might look like.
Through a partnership with DreamYard, whose local programs help high school students explore 21st century education and career opportunities, Connected Camps trained a group of Bronx-based youth in the spring and summer of last year. Rudy Blanco, their director of entrepreneurship and gaming programs, said, “Virtual counselors, moderators and online mentors will be the community builders of tomorrow. By training a diverse team of gamers that come from underrepresented communities, we can change the narrative and direction of an entire industry.”
We met our equity goal of recruiting a diverse counselor pool, with a majority from groups underrepresented in tech. Of the 96 counselors who worked for us over the summer, 61% identified as counselors of color, and 35% as women (26% as women of color).
In 2020, over 20,000 kids joined us at Connected Camps for tech experiences and social game play to stay connected and engaged while stuck at home. For any organization, explosive growth in market opportunity is a path to meeting financial goals. As a mission-driven organization, we also used this growth to meet equity and diversity goals through intentionality in partnerships and recruitment.
Chief Science Officers: Expanded Opportunity for Career Connections
Chief Science Officers is a leadership development program that teaches youth how to advocate for themselves and for meaningful STEM learning experiences. When COVID-19 hit the U.S. last spring, the Chief Science Officers themselves—students in grades 6-12—were quick to leverage technology in positive ways to fill the void created by the lack of in-person trainings and programs.
In the midst of acute challenges, the Chief Science Officers found creative ways to innovate and continue to pursue their mission. At normal times, obstacles ranging from transportation to time conflicts with school can sometimes make it difficult for some students to get involved. During the pandemic, the shift to Zoom for training and planning meetings meant that more students could be included in events.
One example of a new program the Chief Science Officers launched in 2020 is the student-led, virtual educational program, “Zoom in on Science” calls. These video chats featured STEM professionals discussing their academic and career paths and experiences. Diverse professionals demonstrated how people from different backgrounds, of varying ethnicities and genders, have developed successful careers as marine biologists, pilots, astronauts, geologists and more. These live sessions were recorded and made available as on-demand videos for those who could not participate at the time of the event.
The student who developed the program did so to make connections among CSOs when social interactions were made difficult by the pandemic. Students have been able to gain interesting insights into a variety of professional paths and experiences while connecting on the calls and encouraging their peers to maintain their passion for science and learning. Students from across the U.S. and Mexico, Kenya and Kuwait joined the calls and learned about STEM careers and other cultures, opening up opportunities for these students that may have never existed if not for the pandemic.
Roadtrip Nation: Helping People Clarify Dreams and Purpose
Roadtrip Nation began in 2001 when its three founders, who had just graduated from college, realized they didn’t yet know what they wanted to do with their lives. They traveled the country in a green RV, interviewing a wide variety of people to learn how they found their path in life. What started as a documentary series was released as an online course in September 2020, leveraging virtual learning to create a productive and insightful career journey.
“Our online programs use the power of storytelling to help students see themselves in careers that align with their goals and interests and widen the lens of their future possibilities—but that exposure is just the first step,” said Roadtrip Nation President Mike Marriner. “How can students take what they're learning into the world to try it out and apply it to their own lives? Students need these opportunities and work-based experiences more than ever.”
That was the impetus for the project at the center of Roadtrip Nation’s student-driven course, where students interview a real person in a career they want to learn about. That opportunity to talk to someone, make a connection, and get that experience of engaging in a different way beyond the classroom—real or virtual—builds students' real-world skills, their network and their confidence during a time when they really need that boost.
Though the concept has been around for 20 years, the pandemic inspired the teams to expand the online version, Roadtrip Nation Experience, through new partnerships. With support from AT&T and Google, Roadtrip Nation now focuses on digital skills as well. Through their Interview Project and using supplementary Applied Digital Skills lessons, students build skills in project management, conducting online research, emailing and professional communication, digital collaboration, video conferencing, and creating and formatting documents.
Roadtrip Nation has expanded their partnerships with varied organizations such as workforce boards and community colleges to ensure that their resources and courses are accessed by young people who are struggling with career choices as they graduate and enter the workforce during a pandemic.
Replacing Fatigue with Inspiring Connections
All of these examples involve creative use of virtual platforms to continue a practice that’s ages old: connecting children to mentors who inspire, educate and expand their imagination of what is possible. As we suffer from “Zoom fatigue,” these are reminders of the unique opportunity that online venues offer us: the ability to connect with others across distances and differences and to learn from the wisdom of others who we might not meet locally.
Professional educators will always have an essential role in educating children, but I’ve long advocated for the value of a broad range of “learning heroes” in young people’s lives. Our research at the Connected Learning Lab on engaged and interest-driven learning has demonstrated that young people thrive when connected to communities of interest, mentors and peers who share passions and purpose.
The shift to online learning in 2020 created a unique opportunity, as well as a driving imperative, for organizations to expand the networks of mentors that children can connect with. Even as the pandemic recedes, and we worry about recovering from academic learning loss, I hope leaders will not forget the value of the online connections that sustained us during the dark days of 2020. The online world offers an opportunity not only for continuity of traditional educational objectives, but also of expanding our possibilities to connect and inspire.