July 26, 2018

Remembering the Beginning: The 2015 Summer Design Workshop

In 2015, the summer before my senior year of college, I applied for what I thought was a position as a typical camp counselor. I expected to spend my summer repeatedly yelling “No running on the pavement!” Opportunity Education (OE) Quest Forward Learning needed “mentors” for their 2015 Summer Design Workshop, where a group of high school students would learn, play, and create together for 3 weeks in July—it sounded like summer camp to me.

Pictured: Mr. Ricketts and the 23 interns selected to participate in the program.

Soon, I learned the workshop was an internship for 23 carefully selected students, ranging from grades 9-12, and the Quest Forward Learning team’s mission was to change the way high school students learn globally. This workshop was the first step.

The 2015 Summer Design Workshop piloted the Quest Forward Learning (then NGL) platform and methodology with 23 high school-aged interns and four mentors. The Quest Forward Platform team driving this initiative had formed back in January 2015 and quests were conceptualized shortly thereafter. The development of the Quest! Android app started in March 2015, and then in July, those 23 interns arrived at the workshop held at a charter school in Pittsburgh to give feedback on the quests, the technology, and the experience.

Prior to the start of the program, Jolene Zywica, OE Director of Research & Evaluation, the other workshop mentors, including Dawn Lovic, a current OE Quest Designer, and I designed about 30 quests. At the time, we did not yet know if quests would be used in schools, after school programming, enrichment programs, etc., so we created a wide variety of quests on any topic we could think of. By July, we had quests ranging from academic topics like engineering, Punnet squares, and characterization, to quests about photography, tie-dying, and cooking with unique spices.

Once the workshop began, Jolene regularly rearranged the daily schedule based on thoughtful reflections on what was and wasn’t working. In general, each day included quest work in the morning and Maker time in the afternoon.

Some mornings, interns picked a quest and completed it either alone or with a peer. Other days, interns broke up into groups based on their favorite subjects and worked on a quest in that subject area. We once tried having a mentor lead one quest with all 23 interns. Trying new variations, even if they didn’t always work, showed us the different roles mentors could play in supporting student learning.  

In addition to quest time, interns had about three hours of independent “Maker” time each day. Most interns chose to finish artifacts from quests they started earlier that day. At the end of each week, interns presented the artifact they were most proud of. All mentors, interns, and visitors gathered in one room to celebrate the week of creating, learning, and trying new things.

After all, that’s what the Design Workshop was all about: trying new things. Together, we tried learning and teaching in new ways. We tried quests, different ways of completing quests, and a brand new app. Not everything worked. However, 75% of interns stated their experience in the workshop encouraged them to think differently about school and that they wished their school experience was more like that early version of Quest Forward Learning. What we learned from the summer program helped to shape how we currently think about mentoring, course design and working with schools. In just three short years, the interns’ feedback, combined with OE’s continued “what ifs,” have since evolved into the Quest Forward Learning ecosystem we have today. A platform and community where, of course, we try new things every day.

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