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UIX: What's the future of education? In Grand Rapids, it's all about being unconventional


Whether you're looking to learn coding or would like to explore a career in art or design, there's a host of creative ways you can do that in Grand Rapids. From boot camps to building confidence, organizations like Grand Circus, The Factory and UICA are thinking outside the box when it comes to education.
West Michigan is a great place to learn a thing or two about learning a thing or two.
 
Several universities share the 616 area code, as do classrooms outside of the institutional sector. From cooperative group environments, to long-distance learning, to curriculums contained within the convenience of a mobile app, there is no shortage of educational opportunities in Grand Rapids.
 
Those interested in building upon their knowledge and understanding have been able to do that, and more, through apps, audiobooks and online courses for years. But that's not to say the future of education is based in the cloud.
 
At the West Michigan Center for Arts and Techhnology's (WMCAT) Fulton and Sheldon facility, those in ninth grade and older can launch a career in design, technology, medical informations systems, and other fields. At the Geek Group on Leonard, members can hone their technical and mechanical skills on their own time. At Grand Circus, which recently began offering classes in Grand Rapids, residents join each other for coding boot camps. And at The Factory, web and user experience design curricula are offered in co-learning classes.
 
Grand Circus
 
Damien RocchiFor Grand Circus CEO Damien Rocchi, the Australian-born, Detroit-based co-founder of the company, these secondary or continued educational opportunities  are becoming more and more prevalent as modern professionals look to refine or improve their own skills. Grand Circus's goal is to prepare students for entry-level software development jobs, Rocchi says. During 10-week boot camp courses, a team of instructors and teaching assistants deliver most of the curriculum, supported by a dedicated program manager who focuses on the broader set of student needs.
 
"Since technologies change constantly, we also believe in teaching our students a set of practices/strategies that support lifelong learning," says Rocchi, who holds an MBA from Wharton and helped found Grand Circus in 2013. "We also regularly talk to companies about what skills are relevant, as we strive to constantly refine and improve our own curriculum."
 
Technology is a major concentration of the Grand Circus classroom, of course, but soft skills dealing with communication and teamwork are just as important, Rocchi says. A successful development team can thrive on a variety of talented minds, but those minds need to communicate openly first and foremost.
 
Along with establishing a foundation for processes, Grand Circus students are taught how to break down and overcome the "imposter syndrome." It's the feeling of "phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement,” as psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes put it in 1978.
 
There's no written law that says the work of someone with a degree in computer science is more valuable than that of someone with real world experience, but the stigma indeed exists, and can severely malign the confidence of someone learning outside of traditional methods. According to an October 2015 article in the New York Times, the insidious syndrome has shadowed the careers of Maya Angelou, Seth Godin, and even American presidents.
 
In the Grand Circus classroom, whether found in facilities hosted by Start GardenSpectrum Health, or LINC UP, emphasis is placed on improvement and value, which students can turn around and market to current or potential employers. Rocchi says he's in contact with hiring managers for technical roles at more than 100 Michigan-based companies, recruiters, and city offices.
 
It's a competitive market, so a variety of methods are employed. Every day is different, from the educators' standpoint and the students' alike.
 
Students arrive and organize their work before launching into classwork at 9 a.m. A typical day begins with a morning lecture interspersed with practice sessions and exercises, Rocchi says. After an hour-long lunch, classes transition to lab work either led by an instructor by students in a "fish-bowl" exercise. Challenges like changing partners or a much earlier deadline can be thrown in at any moment to simulate the experience of a real-world environment.
 
Afternoons are reserved for independent or paired work, while students also have the opportunity to complete their labs at home or for presentation in class by the end of the day.
 
An increasing amount of Rocchi's time is being spent on cultivating growth and new business, planning Grand Circus' next moves. But most mornings he can often be found popping in on classes, observing the work that's extended Grand Circus' reach from its headquarters in Detroit to Grand Rapids.
 
"Our students are amazing," Rocchi says. "People often don't appreciate the commitment involved in taking a bootcamp - the financial investment is obvious, but our students (and their families) often have to manage significant personal upheaval while meeting the demands of our program.  I think this says a lot about the drive/character of our students and this doesn't get recognized often enough."
 
The Factory
 
At the fourth floor of 38 West Fulton St., above the tapas being passed around at San Chez Bistro, small groups are sharing in technology, design, and entrepreneurship skill-building exercises.
 
The Factory was originally founded by by Aaron Schaap in 2009 as a coworking resource. Its educational component, known as "coLearning," helps people grow their own curiosity by moving learning "out of isolation into a community that is eager to help co-learners meet their goals," says Henry Morrow, Factory project manager.
 
Henry Morrow

"In that same sense, the learning doesn't stop when a co-learner finishes a course," Morrow says. "We continue to encourage them to connect with the community, take more courses and even step into leadership and mentorship roles. That continuous drive to learn keeps us passionate about education and helps us build a community where the tech talent gap is filled by problem solvers who always want to get better."
 
The Factory has its roots in experimentation, and coLearning is an extension of that foray into the strength of collaboration. Since Schaap and his colleagues spent the first day working together, and as other projects have come to life within the walls of The Factory, attention has been paid to the way people have tackled the problems of their daily work. New challenges would arrive and be overcome by each entrepreneurial pod, revealing patterns of learning and applying that knowledge, the basis for coLearning.
 
CoLearning operates as a state-licensed school, awarding certifications for completed courses, although the coursework is much more hands on than based in lecture. It was integrated into The Factory as a way to supplement the web development, design and project management skills Factory coworkers rely on most often.
 
"They discovered that there are plenty of experienced practitioners in the area who want to share knowledge, so the courses formed using the Factory as the learning space," Morrow says. "CoLearning started under the pretense of just getting people jobs, but would evolve to intentionally include community involvement and mentorship to help grow the person and not just the skill set."
 
Morrow comes from a background in higher education admissions, but he says most his technological skills in front-end web architecture were honed on his own. In developing that knowledge, he also discovered how much faster he was able to learn in a group, discussing the same concepts with others. When he found The Factory, he says, it was a "natural fit."
 
Drawing on what he learned from higher education models, Morrow now applies those strategies for improvement to workshops at the Factory, helping others explore their curiosity and learn more about careers in the digital space.
 
Improvement is hardly without its challenges, though. While a specific coding-based curriculum might be the best thing for one small group, it may be redundant or irrelevant to another. Understanding the various needs of co-learners and developing programs that suit them appropriately is all part of the job.
 
"If we offer a course subject that doesn't grab people or employers, we like to take a step back and evaluate what we should be offering instead," Morrow says. "Co-learners are a great resource to adjust in those situations because we encourage them to let us know what skills they find valuable. We keep the conversation going with local companies as well to see what paths they are looking to take to invest in their people."
 
The Factory's coLearning operation is designed to be more accessible for modern students by offering courses, mentoring hours, meet ups and "Coffee w/ Creators" that can be attended alongside full time employment. And that curriculum is updated just as often as new needs in digital development are identified. CoLearning is currently offering courses in Modern Web and UX Design.
 
"We really value project-based learning," Morrow says. "We've found that coLearners are able to recall the knowledge more effectively when they make something themselves. It's incredibly valuable for those are looking for employment afterwards to be able to show what they can make and explain their problem solving process to employers."
 
As The Factory and coLearning continue to grow, Morrow, Schaap and their coworkers will be looking at more ways to scale the model to other locations, incorporating even more flexibility for working professionals.
 
UICA
 
The Urban Institute of Contemporary Arts is already a popular address for creative trends, but while many may be familiar with the facility's galleries and theaters, there is even more activity in the classroom spaces. It's actually a point of pride for the UICA that often times these spaces overlap.
 
Katherine Williams, Community Programs Coordinator at UICA, graduate of Kendall College, and West Michigan native, is responsible for curating educational opportunities both within 2 Fulton St. W and beyond. Now in its 40th year, the UICA's current programs make use of the community as a classroom, Williams says. The worlds of art and design have practical lessons to offer just as careers in science and math so. And once those lessons have been learned, they can be built upon in a sustaining circle of community improvement.
 
Neighborhood improvement is no better demonstrated than by ArtWorks a nationally recognized educational program for teens at the UICA. The program itself has been around for over a decade, but Williams has been facilitating ArtWorks classes since shortly after joining the institute two years ago.
 
The five-week-long skill-building courses are set up similar to a job shadowing experience for teenagers interested in exploring a career in the fields of art or design. Small groups of students partner with professionals who are already working in the industry, or emerging artists who can help guide the students toward some best practices for creative problem solving. 
 
"They get that real world connection and hands on experience, but where community comes into play with that program specifically, is that each group is partnered up with a client, an organization who has a need or problem for the group to solve," Williams says. "The students really take the lead on finding solutions, coming up with strategies and implementing design or artistic schemes to meet those needs." 
 
ArtWorks brings students, ages 14 through 21, outside the UICA's galleries, into other pockets and spaces within the city, where design thinking and problem solving skills are just as crucial. Along with teen programming at the UICA, the institute also focuses on fostering conversation and investigation with a number of other events and public art installations.
 
"Contemporary art is a representation, or an artist's interpretation of the times that are happening right now," Williams says. "We're in the future as its happening and art is a really great way for our guests to think about, contemplate, and reflect on contemporary culture and society."
 
Much of the art installed at the UICA is visible from Fulton Street, commentary in its own right on the educational benefits of public art. Williams says one of the most enjoyable parts of her job is building bridges in the community, allowing others to bring their own perspectives through the doors of the institute. For a few years now, the Exit Space project, an exhibit in the UICA's emergency stairwell, has been one of those bridges. The project featured Midwestern artists in its first iteration, but it has spread out both figuratively and literally since then.
 
It now operates as an incubator test kitchen for young, emerging artists, and for established artists trying new things, Williams says.
 
The UICA approaches its educational responsibility with docent led tours to help guide conversation, prompt questions, and to assist guests in looking at specific works of art. Small businesses and organizational gatherings are also invited to grow and expand through the humanities."
 
We try to provide that setting. A lot of times for a sales team coming in to do team bonding," Williams says. "We also try to step back and allow people to have their own interpretation of the world."
 
Grand Rapidians looking to set up their own interpretations need not travel far. 
 
For more information on the UICA, visit http://www.uica.org/
For more information on The Factory, visit http://workthefactory.com/
For more information on Grand Circus, visit https://www.grandcircus.co/
 
Photography by Steph Harding
 
Urban Innovation Exchange highlights the people and projects transforming West Michigan through sustainable efforts. Matthew Russell is the editor for UIX Grand Rapids. Contact him at matthew@uixgrandrapids.com.
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