This fall marked the first semester of the new Youth and Social Innovation major at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, and already students are bringing innovations to a local youth program.
The assignment in the course “Introduction to Youth and Social Innovation,” co-taught by professor Edith “Winx” Lawrence, the new YSI program’s coordinator, and Curry School Dean Robert Pianta, was to use “design thinking” principles to develop enhancements to the University’s Day in the Life program, a tutoring and mentoring program that pairs U.Va. students with elementary through high school students in the Albemarle and Charlottesville communities.
“‘Design thinking’ is an approach to problem-solving and innovation that focuses on the importance of collaboratively discovering with key stakeholders what the issues are before generating solutions.” Lawrence said. “In addition to teaching the U.Va. students foundational knowledge in youth development and the social and cultural factors that impact trajectory, we wanted to give them opportunities to practice applying this knowledge in a meaningful way.”
Students in the class were grouped into five teams, each with a focus on one of five Day in the Life community sites. Having gathered information via interviews and observations to better understand the needs of various Day in the Life leaders, each team developed two project ideas to improve the program.
On Nov. 4, each team pitched their ideas to a panel of stakeholders. With feedback from the panel, each team will pick one project idea and develop tools and strategies to implement it over the next year.
“We designed this semester-long project to really push our students to work collaboratively with community stakeholders to examine a youth program and then create solutions where they saw areas of need,” Lawrence said.
The Day in the Life project reflects the uniqueness of the YSI major. The assignment required students to conduct research and to analyze and develop potential innovations. The starting point was making sure the YSI students clearly understood the challenges and assets of a community-based program from the perspectives of all of those involved, including the program leaders, on-site organizers and the children. This understanding becomes the foundation for developing innovations that stick.
“Learning how to engage youth is very different from learning the skills needed to be an effective evaluator of youth programs and policy, or to be an innovator of new programs that work,” Lawrence said. “In the Youth and Social Innovation major, our students learn to do all three.”
Though the first students to declare YSI as a major were making a new path, they entered the major with vigor and found the opportunities for impact in this class inspiring.
“By studying childhood developmental and social innovation theories in the classroom, then going out into the community to do practical work like volunteering, we can actually apply our theoretical knowledge to the real world,” said Jack Baker, a third-year student majoring in YSI.
“This first semester has been inspiring because I am learning what it means to be a social innovator,” said Shontell White, a second-year YSI major. “It is something so special and rewarding about being in the class and gaining hands-on experience.”
Pianta knew early on that students in the new major would be positioned well to make a real impact on youth.
“Over the past several years I have been on federal-, state- and community-level boards focused on youth programming and it’s clear that the energy and talent of U.Va. students could be well-used in those settings, and that there are important career opportunities in this work,” he said. “Our job should be to provide appropriate knowledge and experiences in order to prepare them for this important work.”
The potential impact on the Day in the Life program in the major’s first semester is not insignificant, said Cheryl Gittens, who directs the program.
“This semester the students expanded the Day in the Life program’s capacity to evaluate its present structure, identify gaps in services and operations, and conceptualize new approaches for program delivery that benefit the University students and the local constituents,” she said.
One group’s idea was to add an executive board comprising U.Va. students.
“Cheryl and her assistant have an unbelievable workload to handle in regards to Day in the Life, and two people can only handle so much,” Baker said. “By having students take these leadership roles, they not only get valuable experience, but they also allow Cheryl to work on ways to grow Day in the Life to be a very powerful force in the Charlottesville community.”
Lawrence and Pianta have been pleased with what they have seen in these students all semester.
“The level of engagement, sophistication and skill shown by these students has been remarkable,” Pianta said. “Regularly, I marvel at their analysis, their use of relevant theory and empirical studies, and their commitment to developing skills that enable them to work in very complex social and organizational settings to advance the quality of programming for youth.”
Lawrence concurred. “They ask amazing questions of us. We keep raising our standards of what we expect from them and they keep surpassing them.”
“Personally, in my career as an academic, this has been one of the most energizing, interesting, creative and challenging initiatives with which I have been involved,” Pianta said.