The Impact of Out-Of-School Academic Programs:
Why A Tech-Enabled Solution Is Needed to Close The Opportunity Gap For Underrepresented Students

By: Mehreen

Today, I’m launching a new project called fifty-two sprints — my year-long goal to answer 52 critical questions using design sprints.

Let me start by explaining what sparked this idea.💡

After eight of years working in schools, I decided that I wanted to try something new in my professional career. I have learned so much as an educator and have had the privilege of working with some of the best in the craft, but am ready for a change. However, I’m not sure about the what yet. So, I’ve been networking with leaders in the industries I care most deeply about — education, entrepreneurship, and technology.

In a recent conversation with a new friend Mohammed (who is absolutely brilliant), he suggested that I try design sprints — one a week — for a year. For those of you who are new to design sprints, the concept is pretty simple. Identify a problem, and give yourself just five days to prototype a solution. Each day of the week is devoted to a different aspect of the sprint. You can read more about design sprints here.

On Monday, I set my vision for the project. My goal was to create a 4-year roadmap for educators and high schools to better support underrepresented students in accessing STEM and college opportunities. (Spoiler alert: The roadmap evolved into more of a database, but read on to learn about the resulting prototype). As a teacher, I noticed that many selective summer programs and pre-collegiate opportunities — especially those targeting underrepresented groups — are often housed in spreadsheets or outdated blogs and websites like College VineCollege Greenlight, or Get Me To College to name a few. Here are some screenshots of what’s currently available:

Screenshot of Get Me To College website
Screenshot of College Greenlight (Cappex) website

I certainly am thankful that these resources have been put together, and I also know that it’s not enough. If we’re talking about ensuring that programs — especially those recruiting diverse populations — are accessible, then this is unacceptable. Tech is so much more powerful. We can and must do better.

Why do these programs matter? There is a significant body of evidence that suggests pre-collegiate/college-bound programs show an increase in college acceptance rates, enrollment, persistence, and freshman GPA. In fact, according to a discussion paper published by MIT’s Silvia Robles, a STEM-focused summer program for high-achieving, underserved high school students “triples the rate of enrollment at the host institution” (2018). Underserved can be defined as first-generation college-goers, low-income, and/or underrepresented groups in STEM such as Black, Latinx, and/or female students.

Currently, students access opportunities by word-of-mouth, through individual networks, or by navigating to university sites or other external sources. I, along with many other teachers, often spend hours sending direct emails to students encouraging them to apply to various programs. Last spring, my incredibly talented friend Namita built an MVP of a web application called Melan.In that students and admin would be able to use to both find new opportunities and provide support throughout the application process. Check out the MVP here, Namita’s GitHub here, and a full walkthrough here.

What was the resulting prototype? By the end of the week, I created an Airtable spreadsheet with selective summer and pre-collegiate programs. I still have many programs to add, but now have a common platform to house and update opportunities over time. I embedded the shareable view into a simple landing page for anyone to access. As a side-note, I came across the College Greenlight Airtable well after I began working on my prototype and used it to determine ways that I could incorporate more robust add-ons. Here were some of the features I included in my version:

  • Automation — The prototype will send notifications to users for programs with approaching deadlines and whenever new programs are added to the base. Automations will go right to a student’s inbox.
  • Integration — Students, teachers, parents, and school counselors can integrate the link right into their own Gmail or Outlook calendars.
  • Roadmap — Each program has grade level eligibility listed as well as a suggested year to pursue the program so students know which opportunities to prioritize given their age and experience while also getting a peek at what’s available to them in the future.
  • Shareable — Airtable makes it easy to edit, transfer, and share data for individual schools to customize given their region, specific needs, and any additional information they might want to store.
Screenshot of a “test email” that automatically gets sent to a student’s inbox when a new program is added.

What did I learn? The short answer — how to use Airtable. If you haven’t checked it out, I highly recommend doing so. The interface is quite literally everything and easy for beginners. I only scratched the surface in terms of its user capabilities.

The longer answer — we must create systems and tools that rely less on educators and redesign who has access to the information and resources. How can we continue building platforms that demystify the college and career process for all students, while empowering students with the agency to explore opportunities on their own?

I certainly don’t believe this is the final (or best) solution, but if you have feedback or ideas on where to take it from here, I would love to connect. If you know of other products in this space, please share. If you are a teacher/counselor/mentor interested in piloting the prototype, I am happy to add you as a collaborator and register your students. Please reach out to me via LinkedIn or drop a line below with your email.

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