When Khaled Shouman found out his internship this summer had been canceled, the junior mechanical engineering major was concerned he wouldn’t have a job this summer. Fortunately, he found a new opportunity with the Playful Learning Lab (PLL).
Through the PLL’s PLAYground project, Shouman’s spent the past two months working on a variety of tasks from flexing his engineering skills by preparing birdhouse templates to translating learning materials into Arabic.
“The PLAYground means a lot to me,” said Shouman, an international student from Egypt. “Instead of being at home just sad about what is happening and losing my internship, thankfully I have an actual job to do and I’ve been meeting amazing people. I’m sure what I’ve been able to do this summer will open doors for me in the future. It’s been a great experience.”
Like Shouman, many undergraduates found their internships cut because of COVID-19. The pandemic also affected elementary students with many in-person summer camps canceled. For a group of St. Thomas students from a variety of disciplines, the PLL was able to provide both a paying job and an opportunity to create a virtual summer program for more than 80 deaf and hard of hearing elementary-age children.
Since mid-June, the PLAYground has supplied free weekly themed boxes of activities and materials to students from the Metro Deaf School and the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf. PLL camp counselors (along with interpreters and staff from schools and community volunteers) host virtual check-ins on weekdays with the children to guide them through playful lessons on everything from nature and magic to science and engineering. With English as a second language for many of the families, the PLAYground offers video instructions in American Sign Language, Arabic, Spanish, Somali and English. The group has also put together three volumes of the PLAYbook featuring pages of fun activities that have been delivered along with crayons to schools, homeless shelters and other nonprofit organizations.
When AnnMarie Thomas, founder and director of the Playful Learning Lab and professor in the School of Engineering and Schulze School of Entrepreneurship, realized many students had lost coveted internships due to the pandemic, she decided to add to the PLL’s workforce.
“I originally thought I’d have 10 people working in the Playful Learning Lab this summer and now I have about 30 students on the payroll,” said Thomas, who noted funds from Cognizant and prize money from the LEGO Foundation have helped to pay salaries. “Anyone who wanted an internship – I hired them all back and gave them all raises. You always save your money for a rainy day and it’s pouring right now.”
“The Playful Learning Lab has provided an opportunity for all the students who are in lab to still be purposeful during this time of uncertainty,” said Thibault, who is majoring in communication and journalism. “We don’t know what the future is going to look like, and in a lot of ways we’re limited by social distancing and not being able to be with people. But we’re finding ways to really use technology to bring playful learning to students over the summer. It’s rewarding knowing that you’re making an impact despite these ever–changing times. We’re finding ways to spread joy to these students by creating a summer for them that incorporates playful and whimsical learning.”
Krista Schumacher and Emma Monson are both elementary education majors and co-leads for the PLAYground. In the spring, they knew they wanted to create summer programming for deaf and hard of hearing children, a community that’s often underserved and that the PLL has worked with before. The women became project managers and created lesson plans, served as virtual camp counselors meeting with kids throughout the week via Zoom and kept all the pieces moving in the right direction.
Working on the PLAYground has helped Schumacher grow into her leadership role, she said. In the future when looking for an elementary teaching position, she said those management skills will come in handy.
“The Playful Learning Lab has given me a lot of experience with working with teachers and really responding to what they need,” she said. “This summer camp specifically has taught me how to use the lab’s strengths to the best of our abilities in order to meet the needs of the community during these ever-changing times. It’ll put me in a good position to be able to talk about responding to the unexpected.”
Monson echoed Schumacher’s sentiment.
“Having this experience with distance learning and working with kids during COVID-19 is going to be helpful because most people my age aren’t doing that right now,” she said. “And the fact that we have everything in five different languages is also important. We saw the need to make the PLAYground more accessible to a variety of people.”
As a PLL member working on the PLAYground, Thibault wears multiple hats – she oversees design and output of lesson plans and content, does website development and design, edits video and oversees graphic design. The role requires a healthy dose of creativity and responsibility. It’s necessary, she said, to make sure elementary students from all backgrounds are represented in the materials and images the PLL uses and that everything is accessible.
“Kids seeing people who speak like them and look like them is important in making them feel welcome and accepted in the space,” Thibault said. “Having that one connection might create a gateway for these students to engage more and be excited about camp. We love embracing everyone’s differences because everyone brings different strengths to the table. That’s how we’re able to create the work we do.”
In the future, Thibault is looking forward to bringing a new mindset to wherever she works and incorporating aspects of the PLL into the job.
“Two main skills we all build on from our work with the Playful Learning Lab are flexibility and innovation, which are attributes future employers are looking for,” she said. “They’re looking for ways to constantly better their companies, their processes, their workplaces, their workflows. And just having that experience – especially during these unprecedented times – of being flexible, finding ways to work with what you’ve got, and creating an impact, is something future employers will find extremely valuable.”