Affordable Design and Entrepreneurship:
It's not often that a college student can say they've worked on the same project for four consecutive semesters and gotten class credit for all of them, but my capstone project has allowed me to do just that. Olin's Affordable Design and Entrepreneurship class, or ADE, is one of two capstone options at the college, and it focuses on working alongside people in low-resource contexts to design innovative solutions that address inequality. I began my work with ADE on the Community Development team in the summer after my sophomore year (2018), working as a summer intern for my eventual team's program: Shifting Rhythms.
ADE's Community Development track has spent the last four years working in the Mississippi Delta region, working to build social, political, and economic impact at a community level. To approach this challenge, the team has focused on youth educational opportunities in Coahoma County, MS. The Mississippi Delta is a region whose history has been rife with slavery, segregation, and systematic disenfranchisement, the legacy of which remains strikingly visible in its communities today. Our team operates primarily in Clarksdale, the largest city in the county; Clarksdale's municipal school district ranks 222nd out of 233 total districts in Mississippi, a state that already consistently ranks in the bottom three nationally for education. Students receive little to no exposure to meaningful STEM content and spend more than a third of the school year prepping for standardized tests. As a means of disrupting this narrative, our team has developed Shifting Rhythms: an out-of-school program offering experiential learning in technology, arts, and entrepreneurship for youth aged 9-15 in Coahoma County, MS. Our program aims to students a space to be creative and to develop the self-efficacy and confidence they need to positively impact their futures.
OUR THEORY OF CHANGE
Students aged 9-15 in Coahoma County, MS will exercise creative expression, practice self-efficacy, and develop an entrepreneurial mindset with Shifting Rhythms’ Technology, Arts, and Entrepreneurship program, and these experiences will better prepare them to create and seize economic advancement opportunities for themselves within and beyond their communities.
My summer with Shifting Rhythms let me take a deep dive not only into the project work, but also the cultural context. I quickly learned how to facilitate activities for groups of students who were nothing like me, how to communicate effectively with them, and how to capture and sustain their attention. The experience allowed me to jump into the program's content with fresh eyes and assess and tweak it in real time. I refined and troubleshot our curriculum modules, repaired our 3D printers and other tools, and even developed some new curriculum modules of my own. The summer gave me an in-depth understanding of our program's logistics, which I put to use in the fall as the team's only member with working project knowledge.
One of my biggest contributions to the team has been developing new curriculum content. It was evident from the summer that there were plenty of improvements to be made on our curriculum. In addition, the success of our summer pilot sparked a lot enthusiasm from the community about continuing programming in the school year. We realized this meant our team would have to work efficiently to produce new content for the program. During my time on the team, we've developed over twenty new curriculum activities, many of which I've personally designed or contributed to.
My work on the team has also included working to devise a professional development program to get more local teachers acquainted with STEM content; creating and assessing curriculum structures and pathways for our program to follow; selecting new tools, softwares, and materials for our program to invest in; developing metrics of success for our program; planning and leading multiple trips down to our project site to meet with community partners and test our curricula; serving as a liaison and point of contact for community partners; and creating and giving presentations about our project on behalf of the team. The graphics below (click to enlarge) represent some of my most recent work in shaping the direction of our project.
One of the best parts of this project is the opportunity to regularly visit and engage with our community partners on site. The team travels to Mississippi at least once but often several a semester. On these trips, we expose new members to our project's context, meet with teachers and nonprofit organizers to further our work, meet with students to try new curriculum activities, and make new contacts in the community. For a few days, we get to tune out all other work and focus on Shifting Rhythms—they're some of my fondest memories of the last few semesters. The slideshow below captures some memorable moments from these trips.
Being on the team for four semesters and a summer has allowed me to achieve a depth of understanding that few other opportunities could provide. I've seen my work go through the design cycle and ultimately get deployed into regular use. I've seen our program reach over 500 students in my time and become a known and respected force of good in the community. I've been able to maintain continuity on our team between semesters and onboard new members through my own experiences. I've visited our project site on nine different occasions and built relationships with a number of our community partners. And finally, I've found and fostered a passion for applying my skills as an engineer to parts of the world where I can truly make a difference on people's lives. I'm sincerely grateful to my fellow team members and our advisors for having made this journey so memorable and meaningful. I look forward to staying in touch with and advising future teams as they continue along this journey that has played such a huge role in my college experience.