This past weekend I participated in a design charrette co-sponsored by the Syracuse University iSchool and COLAB, which is part of the College of Visual and Performing Arts at SU. What we termed #SUCharrette on Twitter was a coming together of 36 students from across campus who spent 36 hours thinking about “Social Media Futures.”
While I was there as an official observer, blogger and tweeter (I had my social media maven hat on), I did learn a few things that I would like to pass on to whomever is willing to listen. I know that both of the Deans of the schools co-sp0nsoring the event were there, so it was kind of a big deal. And these are a few of the reasons that everyone involved had an awesome experience.
COLAB-oration. Social Media Futures was one of the first and only events that I have seen on campus that brought together students of all disciplines, freshman through senior, undergrad and grad, to work on a project. And this wasn’t just your run of the mill ‘group project.’ This was an intense, focused project that would live or die based on how well the team members connected and worked together. While some groups did a better job than others of coalescing and compromising, all agreed that the opportunity to work with others they don’t normally interact with offered a fresh perspective. Almost every group included NEW, iSchool, MAX & VPA students (with a smattering of EDU and Whitman thrown in). This does not happen every day. Students who have a single major in a single school or college may never have the opportunity or inclination to take classes with those outside of their discipline. And that is great ~ to an extent. But surrounding yourself with people who all pretty much think in similar terms will only take you so far. In any workplace where you might find yourself after graduation, there are going to be a variety of people from a variety of educational backgrounds. This event mimicked the real world much more than the traditional classroom. And guess what? The students loved it! The results were A-MA-ZING! And they talked about how much they learned from each other! And they are still talking about it! Point made.
Environment. The majority of this weekend’s event took place in the COLAB space. For those who have never been to the 4th floor of The Warehouse, you need to schedule a visit (or ask for a tour…however that works). This place is really something to behold. Yes, it is an old industrial warehouse…but they don’t call it the COLAB Playhouse for nothing! In addition to it being a state-of-the-art design space, it is bright, welcoming, colorful and FUN. There is a huge sailfish on one wall, what looks like a new Vespa, a foosball table, half-wall partitions made of corrugated cardboard-ish stuff that is really a piece of artwork, and many many beanbags and soft cubes upon which to sit. In short, this is an amazing space to work in. Most of the students involved in the charrette had never been to COLAB before and thought it was just really, really cool. They also thought it might be a little distracting…so much going on in terms of color and texture….that maybe they wouldn’t be able to concentrate. But they were all pleasantly surprised that this space actually enhanced their experience. I heard more than one of them say that even when you are doing something else, like playing foosball, you’re still thinking about why you’re here. I see this as another takeaway for how we educate students. Why the sterile, all one neutral color classrooms? Does anyone (well maybe someone) decorate their home like this? I would say that based on the experience of the 36 students I spent the weekend with, we need to at least take out a can of bright-colored paint and go to town. What’s wrong with being comfortable while you’re learning? I’m not saying every classroom should have a foosball table front and center. But I am saying that we need to look at the way our classroom environments affect learning and creativity. And in today’s information economy, we all need to be creative.
Alumni. Yes, I may be biased being the Alumni queen of Career Services and all, but I must point out how much was added to the atmosphere of the event by the alumni presence. The alums added that elusive real-world connection to what the students were working on. They offered their expertise on panels. They mingled and circulated and had meals with the students, offering advice and guidance (and maybe even the stray job offer). And though I won’t name names, certain alums added, how shall I say, an energy level heretofore unseen on a Saturday morning. Students always love interacting with alums, and vice versa. If I’m not mistaken, Syracuse University has about 190K living alums; that’s a huge untapped pool of experience and talent from which to draw. From my work with SU alumni, I have found that there is an amazing love of this place by its former students. They stay in touch, they network, they help each other, and they want to give back when they can. One of the ways the University can leverage that love is by inviting alums to participate in events like this, asking them to come and speak on campus, meet with student and Greek organizations and present in classrooms. I understand that sometimes it’s hard to fit in a guest speaker because of the demands of the curriculum. But professors have a great deal of pull with their students. If offered extra credit for attending a lecture by an alum, many students will jump at the chance. And they are learning while doing. SU alumni are the ultimate career connection for our students, and we should be offering them these connections as often as possible, whether on campus, through social media or at remote location events. The real-life experience and fresh perspectives on the work world and the job search that, especially, young alums can offer is what many students crave knowledge of and stress out about not having access to. The cost to incorporate more alumni into the student experience is minimal, but the benefit to all parties can be great.
These are just some of the takeaways from an incredible weekend of learning, connecting and collaborating. And I didn’t mention one thing about social media, which was the subject of the weekend. Because while we were all surrounded by a social media bubble this weekend, it was really the people and the place they created inside that bubble that made it special.
I invite your comments; whether or not you were inside the bubble. ~ Kelly Lux