StepUp Event Recap: Students, Ideas and Lessons in Collaboration

A couple of weeks ago, I was a judge for Step-Up Achieve’s High Tech Innovation Day. The daylong event, hosted by CoCo, brought students from the Greater Twin Cities area together to create innovative solutions to difficult problems like summer melt, financial literacy, access to clean water, and food deserts.

Students are broken into groups, and spend the day developing ideas and working on a presentation to communicate those ideas. Basically, a daylong group project.

If you’re anything like me, you look back on the group projects of high school and college and remember how much they sucked. And yet, in today’s working world — almost everything happens on a team (aka a group project). Which has made me wonder: how is it that we get so little out of group projects in school, but accomplish so much on teams at work? And how is it that high school group projects felt so torturous, but all of my best work experiences have been as part of a team? And…how can it be that High Tech Innovation Day — which appears to be an all-day group project — creates the awesome results of teams and not the annoyance of group projects?

Here’s what I’ve come up with: there’s a critical difference between the group projects of school, and the project teams of work and that is: choice.

In High School and college — outside of the fact that you are all in the same class, you usually don’t have a connection to your teammates. You’re stuck with each other. You may or may not share common values or expectations. You may not even share the goal of getting a good grade or even getting the project done. There’s always that one person who doesn’t do any work, that other who won’t shut up, and a handful of heads-down kids who get stuff done. And then, in the final insult, everyone gets the same grade.

In the real world, projects go better than they do in our teenage years because there is something shared — work values, personal investment in the organization, and mutually beneficial skills. We get to choose our workplaces in a way that we don’t usually get to choose our high school, or our classmates. We’re assigned the people we work with in high school. We choose the people we go to work with.

So why am I saying all this? Because Step-Up’s High Tech Innovation Day is a rare program that shows high schoolers what the real world is going to be like and truly builds one of the most critical skills for being successful at work: collaboration.

The Step-Up students choose to be there. They value the Step-up culture, they value teamwork, and they chose to spend time on a sunny Saturday thinking about difficult, big problems and how to solve them. They chose it, and so they were all invested in it.

They went through real world processes, too. They were presented with a problem, expected to find a possible solution under time pressure, and then had to sell their ideas to the judges. They had background information to keep them focused. They had mentors to keep them on track. And they had free food when the day felt long (and everyone knows the value of free pizza on a stressful project!). This cycle of problem —> solution —> presentation is built in to nearly every job in technology and experiencing a simulation of that experience while still in high school is rare, and absolutely invaluable.

As always, I was grateful to be a part of this event. The students were fantastic, the ideas were spectacular, and I couldn’t be more impressed with the balance of rigor and fun that the Step-Up students get to experience.