learn / 2014

The Junior Fellows & The Soft Studio

The Junior Fellows & The Soft Studio

Idea submitted in the My LA2050 Maker Challenge by Woodbury University

The Soft Studio, a pop-up incubator & pre-accelerator, is an inflatable research space for budding social entrepreneurs in junior college.

Please describe yourself.

Proposed collaboration (we want to work with partners!)

In one sentence, please describe your idea or project.

The Soft Studio, a pop-up incubator & pre-accelerator, is an inflatable research space for budding social entrepreneurs in junior college.

Which area(s) of LA does your project benefit?

  • Central LA
  • East LA
  • South LA
  • San Gabriel Valley
  • San Fernando Valley
  • South Bay
  • Westside

What is your idea/project in more detail?

The Soft Studio, an inflatable pop-up incubator and pre-accelerator, operates on a principle of randomness by intercepting a wide range of unassuming junior college students who may be completely unaware of their potential to be a social entrepreneur. These students are also unaware of the fact that the Soft Studio is actually a bold intervention to combat a retention reality; a staggering 87% of those students will not go on to complete their education.

Membership to the Soft Studio is earned after completing activities that build creative confidence and establish a minimum viable product. Concurrently, this pre-accelerator will act as a vehicle for primary research to develop a sustainable model of student engagement and retention.

What will you do to implement this idea/project?

The Soft Studio aims to be the nexus of collaboration between Los Angeles County based junior colleges, four year institutions and startup accelerators with the ultimate goal of helping a student contextualize their education and actualize their idea. The Soft Studio seeks to be perfectly positioned - both literally and figuratively - to increase the mere 13% transfer rate from the junior colleges to four year institutions.

When the Soft Studio sets up shop on a junior college campus the inflatable pop-up research space allows our team of mentors to personally interact with each student and help them identify their inherent strengths and intrinsic motivations. We provide access to the appropriate resources, prompt discussions, plan workshops, facilitate role playing and conduct creative exercises all to invoke self reflection and the forging of new connections.

To generate these insights we guide students through the five stages of design thinking — discovery, interpretation, ideation, experimentation and evolution — as they try to provide a new perspective or propose a solution for the social problem of their focus.

After the student has taken inventory of their existing skills and knowledge sets, built creative confidence and gone through all the stages of design thinking they can attempt membership to the Soft Studio and become a Junior Fellow. Membership will yield more resources, seed-funding and continually advising until an idea is ready to go to market.

How will your idea/project help make LA the best place to LEARN today? In 2050?

We’ve heard it all before; the US economy will never be as robust as the last generation’s, global competition has lead to the outsourcing of even our white collar jobs, the internet has eaten away at every major business model and the U.S is lagging in educational rankings but scores highest in student debt. Not to mention that we Millennials are rejecting the social conventions that built this country while on track to becoming the most educated generation in American history with the least amount of “opportunities.”

But, we’re a bit more optimistic than what these catastrophic cliches would have us believe. The Millennials have created a world where we can crowdfund ideas, crowdsource a task, create compelling content in a few strokes with virtually no funding and a wifi signal is all we need to connect and share our lives. We can start a business within days, raise awareness for a cause within hours and delve into the digital archives to learn about any topic at a moment’s notice.

In years prior, money was a major prerequisite to most creation but the economies of scale that the internet has made possible leaves only restrictions of the imagination. How do you teach someone to come up with the next socially disruptive technology? How do you prepare students for jobs that have not been created yet? How do you help someone spot an opportunity?

Currently, as a stopgap measure, we co-teach the Junior Fellows Program, a transdisciplinary research seminar that empowers students to craft new insights into social phenomenons, at Woodbury University. Students are selected after submitting a research proposal making an inquiry about a major societal problem such as food deserts in low income communities, the rise of autism or blatant election fraud in developing countries — social problems that can’t be understood from solely one disciplinary lens making a transdisciplinary approach necessary.

For higher education institutions to remain a viable economic option they have to help students be self-directed learners who use procedural knowledge, analytic abilities and strategy to synthesize prior experience to creatively generate original work that will result in the formation of new knowledge.

The Soft Studio is our attempt to reach beyond our campus and use our methodology to cultivate and empower emerging leaders county-wide. We hope to activate education for the purposes of social innovation.

Whom will your project benefit?

The Soft Studio targets the crop of millennials who, currently floating in and out of junior college, are in a distinct predicament of wanting to pursue something of personal significance but feel anxious over the diminishing options in this increasingly automated and global economy.

Our pre-accelerator is a scalable and approachable solution for any junior college student because we first redefine social entrepreneurship as turning “problems into pay.” The Soft Studio is very frank in its approach to the sometimes idealistic notions of social entrepreneurship. We believe students can both provide a very valuable solution to a real world problem and still fulfill their needs for economic stability and growth at the same time.

Often junior community college students on the lower end of GPA spectrum find the front loaded General Education requirements irrelevant or unrelated to their interests which can lead to increased chances of dropping out. Given the recent surge in research on early intervention and its effects on retention, the Soft Studio will focus on students who may not fit comfortably into the sequence of higher education but who may be more entrepreneurial in spirit.

Although the Soft Studio’s goal is to provide practical and profitable ideas around a student centered problem, we use the studio as an intervention to also establish creative confidence for all participants who complete the workshop.

Our students have gone on to take their research to inform a business plan, serve as the foundation for a non-profit or be the motivation for product design. Ultimately, we want to help them develop a strategic plan for their life’s work that will enable them to be the type of ‘career mash-up artist’ that will thrive in this contemporary environment.

Please identify any partners or collaborators who will work with you on this project.

The Soft Studio seeks to be the intermediary between all the junior colleges county-wide, regional four year institutions and the local network of startup accelerators to establish a pipeline of support for emerging social entrepreneurs.

How will your project impact the LA2050 “Learn” metrics?

  • Percentage of community college students completing a certificate, degree, or transfer-related program in six years
  • College matriculation rates
  • Student education pipeline (an integrated network of pre-schools, K-12 institutions, and higher education systems that prepares students for seamless transitions between high school, higher education institutions, and the workforce) (Dream Metric)

Please elaborate on how your project will impact the above metrics.

Although the reasons for a 13% transfer and graduation rate among California junior colleges are no doubt varied and dynamic, we believe part of the solution starts with a student establishing his or her emotional intelligence.

Colleges often default to advising, and although advising is useful and advisors are well intentioned, we think a new form of experiential advising is needed. We should first start to require students to identify a personal problem that they are deeply affected by which can become the anchor of their learning. We believe part of the problem could be solved if students could perceive higher education through the lens of an entrepreneur, where it is no longer about “the degree” or “the major” but about attaining the resources to actualize and idea based in a deeper conviction.

The ideas each student generates as a result of our pre-accelerator are entrepreneurial in practice, but the core goals of establishing emotional intelligence, a greater sense of belonging and creative confidence translate into potentially higher retention rates. Drawing on a diverse range of methods, from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s research into Optimal Experience to Albert Bandura’s Self-Efficacy theory our methodology helps a student establish their own personal relationship to an external problem.

For a student to value higher education, higher education has to change, but until then, we attempt to coordinate a student’s internal motivation with an external problem, so that they can navigate more effectively through their degree with the aspiration of boosting focus and momentum.

Inspired in part by David Laude’s University Leadership Network at the University of Texas and professor Tim Wilson’s retention intervention with freshman at the University of Virginia, the Soft Studio is also a tool of intervention. We see the Soft Studio not only as an incubation space for potential social entrepreneurs but also a place to begin to unpack what is most difficult to measure; how can the grit that comes from actualizing an idea boost transfer and graduation rates of junior college students?

Please explain how you will evaluate your project.

The evaluation of the program will be determined by tracking the entrepreneurial success of members, their retention rates and their time for degree completion.

We measure the progress that each of these new members makes with the entrepreneurial idea they develop in two ways: through annual interviews with participants and members as well as monitoring the frequency of members use of mentorship support post pre-accelerator.

Through both the interview process and membership use we are looking to establish qualitative metrics to see if the pre-accelerator has had either continued impact on each student’s educational pathway or led them to further develop and launch their idea with our continued mentorship.

Additionally we will be developing a website for all members as a contact point, to see the progress of other members as well as opportunities to combine and collaborate projects based on shared ideas or to provide the missing expertise a particular project may require.

The second quantitative metric is the tracking of student retention rates and the date of graduation of participants and members of the Soft Studio. Each student who either participates or completes the pre-accelerator program will be tracked until they graduate or up to 4 years after their work with the Soft Studio.

Some of the imbedded goals of the Soft Studio are to see if this unique blend, one of mentorship, membership and meaningful innovation, provide students with a greater sense of agency that will translate into to a more deliberate and focused college career that results in more timely graduations, a higher transfer rate at the JCC level and overall greater student retention.

What two lessons have informed your solution or project?

This first lesson was learned first hand. As Millennial professors who are trying to make a living in the same innovation economy we are preparing our students for — with a respective three jobs each — we know that higher education needs to be more dynamic and reflective. The unique blend of economic uncertainty and schizophrenic productivity required of Millennials has made us feel morally obligated to help arm students with the techniques needed to prompt the incubation of ideas in a more conscious, systematic and deliberate way. Currently, universities are not randomized enough to be a realistic reflection of the economic reality.

The second lesson comes from a missed opportunity in higher education. The university can be more than merely a place to learn French or acquire math skills and instead be a place that provides socially sanctioned free time to tinker and experiment with ideas in a very rapid and intense fashion to increase our experiential spectrum while exposing us to a diverse set of situations, people and processes not easily found in most cities.

We are conflicted. We see higher education as both profoundly undervalued and yet over priced at the same time. If we already know that the university and the economy both play a role in our generative and creative processes why can’t we combined both?

The Junior Fellows, and by extension The Soft Studio, is our answer to this question, one that combines the socially sanctioned free time of the university with the problem based limitations of the world where the generative process of insights needs both randomness of the economy but the awareness and attentiveness of a student.

Explain how implementing your project within the next twelve months is an achievable goal.

Based on the fact that the Soft Studio is an extension of the Junior Fellows program, which is going on its 8th year housed within Woodbury University’s College of Transdisciplinary Studies — one of six institutions of its kind nationwide- we have a solid foundation to build from.

Once we have access to capital to make the inflatable pop-up incubator and pre-accelerator a reality then we will begin to establish relationships with all the regional junior colleges, four year universities and startup accelerators. These relationships will need to be continually grown for the long term success of the program.

Please list at least two major barriers/challenges you anticipate. What is your strategy for ensuring a successful implementation?

The first major barrier is having access to the capital needed to established the physical infrastructure of Soft Studio - something that is crucial to the effectiveness to this program. The second major barrier is related to the metaphorical infrastructure. Since our aim is to be an intermediary, we will have maximum impact only if we can have collective impact with the junior colleges, four year institutions and startup accelerators. We are confident we can establish these relationships over time since we are offering something that is “value added” for each of the sectors we are trying to engage.

What resources does your project need?

  • Network/relationship support
  • Money (financial capital)
  • Volunteers/staff (human capital)
  • Publicity/awareness (social capital)
  • Infrastructure (building/space/vehicles, etc.)
  • Education/training
  • Technical infrastructure (computers, etc.)
  • Community outreach
  • Quality improvement research