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Jenny Willis published this report in CREATIVE ACADEMIC MAGAZINE Issue 7 From October 2016-2017. This lightly edited version of the original article provides an ideal kick-off for a new blog category that focuses on teams and projects.

Cogswell College: a living laboratory

Dr. Henry Daniel Cogswell, born in Tolland, Connecticut, March 3, 1820, was a man of both vision and distinguished heritage. The Cogswell family was descended from Alfred the Great and Charlemagne and immigrated to America in 1635 from England. Dr. Cogswell cherished his family crest and motto, “Nec Sperno Nec Timeo,” which means, “I neither despise nor fear.” He founded Cogswell College in 1887 after making a fortune as a dentist during the California Gold Rush. He felt the best way for students to learn was with instruments in their hands.

Designed as a “fiercely collaborative, living laboratory,” Cogswell College is located in the heart of the legendary Silicon Valley in San Jose, California. The school is a WASC accredited, four-year institution of higher education with a specialized curriculum that features hands-on, team-based collaborations between art, design, computer science, and business students. The college’s vision explicitly links the use of new technologies to preparation for the workplace. This article focuses on one of its projects, MediaWorks.

What is MediaWorks?

Through MediaWorks, students work with a ‘real’ client on a ‘real’ project, in order to develop the experience, skills, competencies, and understanding they will need to work in the media industry after graduation.

The ways in which students experience this form of real world experience is captured in a series of YouTube videos created and presented by the students at the conclusion of one such project, their work with AC Transit to produce promotional material designed to ‘sell’ a new transit concept to the public.

MediaWorks final presentation

MediaWorks AC Transit project

Just watching their slick, 42-minute video, I was impressed by the professionalism of the students. They each spoke confidently about their individual role and team, illustrating their work with enthusiasm and immaculate slides of the processes involved, followed by insightful ‘take aways’ from their learning experience. The presenters were inclusive but sensitive to the different competencies of their team members: some presented live while others contributed through recorded pieces.

The student team explains how, in June 2016, AC Transit announced that it planned to construct a Bus Rapid system (BRT) in East Bay, California. This would revolutionize public transport, but naturally, have some opponents: as one of the students explained frankly, there were fears of ‘gentrification’ of a traditional working class area. AC Transit is California’s third largest bus company, and carries a daily average of 200,000 passenger trips, using 151 bus routes across an area of 364 square miles. The company researched potential organizations who could work with them on this important project and gave ‘overwhelming approval’ to Cogswell College’s MediaWorks program. A team of 25 students worked closely with AC Transit staff, under the guidance of two tutors, one in the digital art and animation department, the other in the audio department, to produce the promotional material.

Here is the final delivered piece now used by AC Transit:

The students’ presentation describes in detail how they had only two months from start to finish to produce the material for what was an 80 million dollar construction project for AC Transit.

They explain how they met with the client in order to fully understand their brief, then divided into subgroups to identify key elements for potential inclusion in their product. They repeatedly interacted with the client, asking questions, sharing and pitching ideas until they were both clear what was required. One of the team summarizes this as “Be experimental, be realistic, be true.”

Their key learning points at this stage of the project:

  • Working as a team member
  • Recognizing the abilities of individuals
  • Communication skills
  • Listening carefully to the brief
  • Analyzing what it required
  • A ‘real life’ task has real life constraints

Next, the students developed a storyboard, into which they built the specific scenes, sounds, etc. that would need to be researched and created. Producing these was not always straightforward, and they quickly found that what might have appeared the perfect element fell way short of the standards anticipated. One of the composers described how he had to rethink his composition, comparing it to when you have your first boy or girl- friend, and “you think they’re awesome” until you are disillusioned by your friends! Another warns “Expect the unexpected!”

Key learning points from this stage:

  • Organisation
  • Resilience, willingness to start afresh
  • Experimenting with new ideas and resources
  • Perfectionism, always seeking to improve the product

The audio and video sub-teams each had their own tasks to complete, and two project managers were responsible for keeping everyone on schedule and informed of each other’s progress. The planning was meticulous; each member of a team knew precisely what was expected of them and when. Sometimes they had to apply their creativity to problem-solving, as happened when they realized that they could not achieve the technical requirements in the time allocated without subdividing their work further. One team member explained how he went into a meeting as a sound manager, but had to learn on the spot how to be a tactful script adviser as he led the writer of the voice-over script through a process of condensing his text to meet the time limit. These were all relevant experiences for professional development and would have been difficult to simulate in a classroom, let alone anticipate.

Key learning points the students cite here are:

  • Time management
  • Efficiency
  • Teamwork, liaison with sub-teams
  • Versatility
  • Learning on the job

Here is the full class presentation:

By the end of the 2 months, the students had produced a finished video, with music and sound to accompany animations and narration. In their YouTube presentation, they summarized their learning as ‘takeways’. In addition, the students articulated aspects of the project that have impacted on them personally. Their comments include:

“Everyone in the team is different so you have to get to know everyone.”

“It’s very hands-on and it’s intensive. Everyone’s relying on each other.”

“It’s the closest to real life experience that you can get.”

“It’s kinda like a footstep into the real world … You’re reacting … a feeling like I’m part of this company and everyone’s working together.”

“Where deadlines are involved, I find myself making critical decisions a lot faster.”

“It challenges all of us; it gives us all something that we can take away.”

And it is not only the students who have gained from this MediaWorks project. The client has supported a learning experience for a team of 25 students and their 2 tutors without paying a cent for their work but knows that they have offered a unique experience to these undergraduates. Robert Lyle, AC Transit’s representative, is fulsome in his praise. In response to a question from the audience, he says that 9 years previously, they engaged an outside agency in producing a media resource. It cost them $65,000 dollars, nevertheless, he continues:

“To be honest: this (MediaWorks) project is leaps and bounds ahead of the original project we put together.”

Here are retrospective comments by participants in the project: