Roots of Success

Take a closer look at how our team is developing tools to help the nonprofit Roots of Success better improve social and economic opportunities for youth and adults from underserved communities.

The Mission: Accessible Career Education & Training

Roots of Success (RoS) provides an empowering educational program to prepare youth and adults for environmental careers. They specifically create educational and career training for individuals impacted by poverty, socioeconomic inequality, and environmental injustice.

RoS’s student demographics

Essentially, RoS provides a work-readiness curriculum of 10 courses that can either stand alone or be integrated with an existing class curriculum. The curriculum is both modular and adaptable: the teacher gets to choose which courses are taught and what is emphasized.

The main focus is on training people to have the skills and confidence to pursue environmental careers — especially in communities they are affected by. There are over 150 possible careers for students to explore, and the core curriculum focuses on improving literacy, problem solving skills, and readiness for interviews and career searching. RoS tries to utilize various methods for presenting the instructional material, from multimedia integration to group discussion to other interactive activities

The Problem: An Opportunity for Scalable Tech

RoS is a small organization with few administrative staff and limited resources: their biggest obstacle is scalability.

Although RoS is already serving hundreds (if not thousands) of students, they lack the tools for curriculum modularity to be effectively expanded to serve even more students. Some difficulties include printing workbooks for every student and hiring enough teachers to lead all classes.

Ken Chen, Blueprint’s project leader for the RoS team, on the project scope: “The purpose of our project is to create an online platform:

  • for RoS to host their academic curricula
  • for admins to enroll students in different modules, and
  • for students to take the courses within a uniform environment whether they are instructor-led or self-paced.”

The system should significantly reduce the administrative overhead for the RoS team in handling all of the course distribution and management. The system will allow students the option to take any course in a self-paced environment without a teacher always being present (the instructional prompts are replaced with corresponding audio recordings). Admins will also have a streamlined and robust platform to rapidly develop their course material and stitch everything together into a full-length course.

Progress Towards Deployment

We’re on progress for completing and shipping the app by the end of April. The minimum viable product that covered RoS’s basic needs was completed last fall; now, our team needs to fill some remaining holes, make the app more intuitive, and ensure that all user flows are streamlined.

Three core features we developed are:

  1. A scalable course builder, so admins can create courses entirely on the platform. There are three kinds of components that admins can create: slides, multimedia (video), and quizzes. Since RoS already has a lot of material hosted on Google Drive, we’ve integrated YouTube multimedia and Google Forms for quizzes. Admins can use drag-and-drop to freely reorder components and subsections.

2. A progress tracker, so students can enroll in courses and allow admins to view their progress. Students take each course in a linear sequence, so that they learn material sequentially. Students and admins can view progress trackers to ensure students are completing sections at the expected rate without falling behind.

Progress bars for each subsection of a course

3. A course registration code generator, so admins can directly enroll students in courses and receive notifications when students have completed them. This streamlines RoS’s administrative flow from end-to-end and automates many manual tasks dealing with signing up for courses.

Course code generators, segmented by teacher for easier readability

Technical Challenges

The technical issues are heavily centralized around the complexity of interactions within our application.

For example, we have two login portals: one for administrators and one for students. However, full utilization of the app involves three parties: administrators, students, and teachers. As a result, admins need to have the ability to enroll students and provide them with their requested course material. Students need to be able to take the entire course through our application, but we must also design the app to be versatile enough that it works with or without a teacher present

Pages, such as the admin’s Course Edit dashboard, can be edited and reorganized in multiple ways. The hierarchy of a course goes: Section > Subsection > Component (lowest level). Every section, subsection, and component has click-and-drag reordering. We also built the ability to transport components into other subsections, or even entire subsections to other sections. We are aiming to offer the user more flexibility in organizing their courses, which comes at the cost of a much more difficult and lengthy development cycle.

We also have to be aware of the way that a student will experience a course that an administrator has organized. UX is especially important with regards to our target audience: people who come from impoverished backgrounds and likely have very little technological fluency. From the developer’s point of view, the organization of everything, from button placement to higher-level workflow, all make sense — but the experience could be totally different for the end user. That’s why we have to test thoroughly and always look at the perspective of the audience that will eventually be using this application. The bright colors in the app that highlight progress and where to go to next within courses are just some examples of making the interface more intuitive.

The main difficulty for our team is setting realistic expectations for the features that our app can encompass. Since we have a fairly large application, it’s very tempting to try to include many extra features. However, we have to manage priorities so that all critical parts are built out and thoroughly tested for reliability. It’s better to focus on getting the subset of mandatory features to ensure that everything is robust, especially since we aim to deploy the app soon.

Final Goals

Ken on his plans for the remaining 2 weeks of development:

“One of the main things I want to emphasize is catering the application for the end user. We have to be extremely mindful of our audience demographic: many of them have little technological fluency, so everything has to be extremely intuitive.

A lot of my attention this semester was focused on UX and ensuring that the user had guidance and prompts within the app to explain features. We also had to think about many ways of potentially misusing the app and plugging those potential hazards.

I want to complete one final feature that allows students to communicate back to admins by requesting additional courses to take after finishing all of their currently enrolled courses. This is important because hopefully the communication becomes two-way. It’s not just the admins/teachers defining the entirety of the students work; the students should also be able to request courses that they are interested in and take initiative themselves.”

Future Use and Impact

RoS’s career training programs and environmental curricula provide the next step towards redefining people’s identities and allowing them to become a better influence on the communities around them.

We’re essentially providing RoS with the tools to expand their program more effectively and scale it such that people in all communities who have faced socioeconomic injustice can have a chance to redefine themselves and break through any barriers to employment for careers in the green economy.

Ken’s personal takeaways from the project: “Personally, I’ve spent a lot of my time since the beginning of high school on peer education. However, most of the things I’ve done were simply providing tutoring services to those who already come from a pretty accelerated background. I tried to expand the scale of what I could do after my junior year by creating a summer program to get youngsters in the community excited about learning science and engineering.

RoS is the first project within the educational field that I’ve worked on that specifically caters towards a demographic that desperately needs guidance and support in order to improve their well-being. It also has an incredible potential for becoming something much larger and impacting many more communities around the nation, so I’m very personally invested and definitely want to see it to its completion.”

Blueprint’s RoS development team (from left to right): Charles Xue, Jason Bao, Ken Chen, Kenneth Steele, and Kelsey Lam

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