Higher Education, Nonprofits, and Technology

WMCAT contributes to national study

'Reclaiming Digital Futures' aims to equip educators to enhance youth development with digital tools.

May 31, 2019
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WMCAT Jammies
WMCAT students hung out in the Green Room at the Jammies, performing artist interviews and gathering tips and information that eventually turned into a music CD. Courtesy WMCAT

The West Michigan Center for Arts + Technology is one of eight youth organizations nationally that was observed for a collection of case studies on integrated digital learning.

WMCAT’s Teen Arts + Tech Program was included in a free guide for youth organizations called “Reclaiming Digital Futures,” compiled over 18 months by a team of researchers from New York University and the University of California, Irvine, in partnership with Chicago-based foundation Susan Crown Exchange.

With many case studies and tips in several areas, the guide is meant to equip educators with practical tools to infuse youth development with digital tools and practices.

The organizations, also located in New York City; Chicago; Baltimore; and Providence, Rhode Island, were selected through a national RFP. They all work with youth outside of the classroom in programs that focus on future opportunity, creating, involvement in important issues, balancing technical skills with social and emotional skills, and enhancing connections to culture and community.

The organizations met in Chicago three times to discuss their individual programs and differences, deciding on the basic principles they are sharing.

“It was really great professional development for our team, as well, because we were learning from the other cohorts,” said Trudy Ngo-Brown, WMCAT director of creative programs.

The researchers came to Grand Rapids to observe the WMCAT program and interview participants.

“We saw it as an opportunity to continue to grow in terms of our practices and learn professionally, but then also contribute to the conversation around digital learning because this is something that we've been doing more of over the years,” Ngo-Brown said.

The Teen Arts + Tech Program, winner of the 2016 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award, engages more than 150 students after school twice per week. This program is comprised of studio experiences, offered at varying levels by professional teaching artists, in areas such as video production, music production, digital photography and game/app design.

In the program, teens create original films, music, video games and photo essays, meant to elevate their voices and affect community conversations.

The tuition-free program gives students access to professional equipment, intentionally outfitted studios spaces, mentoring from teaching artists and support for postsecondary planning.

One of multiple case studies of the Teen Arts + Tech Program shows a collaboration between WMCAT students and Derk Baartman of The Mosaic Film Experience, Erik Lauchiè of Carbon Stories and Tyler Hollman of Gorilla to create a public service announcement in 2017 for the city of Grand Rapids to support Mayor Rosalynn Bliss’ Greening Initiative, a goal of creating a tree canopy to cover 40% of Grand Rapids.

Besides giving them hands-on experience, the collaboration connected the students with professionals in their fields of interest.

“When it comes down to hiring and when it comes down to us having projects that in the future we need creators for, I already know of five teenagers that are up and coming,” Lauchiè said.

Another case study shows how the students have been invited for several years to the Jammies, an awards ceremony for West Michigan bands. The students have had backstage access for artist interviews and made a CD that played on the local WYCE radio station.

“That is a great example of how we often try to expand this idea of community outside of our facility,” Ngo-Brown said. “Getting students connected to the creative sector here in Grand Rapids and how dynamic it is.”

A video game design class session taught by Kali Workman is highlighted as students collectively decided to collaborate to create a 2D minigame.

The collaboration between WMCAT and the other participating organizations outlined a toolkit identifying five focuses for success in digital learning: co-design programs with youth; practice skills in real-world contexts; leverage technology to support larger organizational goals, moving youth from consumers to producers; meet all students at their level and provide pathways for improvement; and consider organization priorities in hiring and development staff.

“I would like them to see themselves as creators, not only consumers of content and digital content but that they see themselves as creators and being able to use the platforms that we provide for them here at WMCAT in ways that empower them,” Ngo-Brown said.

Ngo-Brown said she wants the students to see the organization without the stress they may experience in school, which she said may constrain their motivation or excitement for the future.

“But when they're given the tools that professionals have, when they get to work alongside professionals who actually do this for a living, I think that's pretty powerful,” she said.

Ngo-Brown added she wants students to leave the program with “creative confidence” — feeling confident enough to create work and share it with the world — especially when many of them may have their voices discounted because of their age or something else.

“That's important no matter what industry you go into and what career you pursue,” she said.

Being from a less populated region, Ngo-Brown said organizations in similarly sized communities may find unique value in WMCAT’s case studies.

Whether from West Michigan or another area, Ngo-Brown said WMCAT is open to sharing ideas and collaborating with other organizations interested in the topic.

The report is available at digitallearningpractices.org.

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