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U.Va. Launchpad program gears up for its second summer in operation

Launched during the summer of 2020, this eight-week, six-credit summer program is relaunching specialized career-focused instruction for students

<p>Founded in 2020, U.Va. Launchpad is a six-credit program of summer classes that combines liberal arts coursework with practical, skill-based experiential instruction to help students prepare for their future careers.</p>

Founded in 2020, U.Va. Launchpad is a six-credit program of summer classes that combines liberal arts coursework with practical, skill-based experiential instruction to help students prepare for their future careers.

As the world slowly moves beyond the isolation of COVID-19, an important question remains — what practices and ideas that came out of the pandemic should be kept? For University administration, the specialized U.Va. Launchpad program is an example of one such idea.

Founded in 2020, U.Va. Launchpad is a six-credit program of summer classes that combines liberal arts coursework with practical, skill-based experiential instruction to help students prepare for their future careers — the program served 125 students during its inaugural summer. This summer, the program will run online between June 21 and Aug. 13, and courses will run Mondays through Fridays from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. Tuition is $3,700 for both in-state and out-of-state students, and need-based financial aid will be available for eligible applicants through the University’s Student Financial Services

In order to give students a worthwhile experience after study abroad and internship opportunities were canceled for summer 2020, Ian Baucom — Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences — worked with Alex Hernandez — Dean of the School of Continuing and Professional Studies — among others, to create U.Va. Launchpad in March and April 2020. Baucom also emphasized that although U.Va. Launchpad is a product of the COVID-19 pandemic, the unique applicability of its career-focused coursework will endure into the future. 

“As much as U.Va. Launchpad was a direct response to the pandemic, its purpose, structure and value to our undergraduate students is expected to live past the immediate need,” Baucom said in an email to The Cavalier Daily. “U.Va. Launchpad is an example of an innovation that came from our response to COVID-19, and we want to build on this program for the future.” 

U.Va. Launchpad 2021 will be divided into two parts. During the first four weeks of the program, students will take a two-credit liberal arts course of their choosing, as well as a one-credit skills-focused “bootcamp” course. Course options include classes like “Environmental Ethics: What Do We Owe to the World?” with philosophy professor Evan Welchance and “Getting the Greenlight: Writing & Pitching for Factual Television” with creative writing professor Suzie Eckl. Bootcamp courses include music professor Becky Brown’s “Art of the Living Web” and statistics professor David Perez-Suarez’s “Performing Data Analysis with R.”

During the second half of the program, all Launchpad students will take a three-credit course entitled “Introduction to Complex Problem Solving & Strategic Decision Making,” taught by Batten professor Brendan Boler. Boler’s required course is a new development this year, as students in Launchpad 2020 picked their course during both halves of the program.

“It's essentially a course that helps break down complex problems and allows students to work on real-world projects either for local business or government entities to help solve their problems,” Boler said. “And at the end of the summer program they will present out a recommendation for a course of action based on the problem statement that the client provides.”

Boler’s required course follows a five-step, hypothesis-driven and problem-solving approach that follows the mnemonic “FOCUS.” The approach comes from a book entitled “The McKinsey Engagement,” one of the course’s required textbooks. The book, a 2008 international bestseller, is an action guide to business solutions used by some of the world’s most respected consulting firms.

“We will encourage students to, first of all, ‘frame’ the problem,” Boler said. “Secondly, ‘organize’ an analysis. Third is to ‘collect data’ on which to conduct that analysis. Fourth is to ‘understand’ the data that is collected that provides insights into the problem they're investigating. And then ultimately the last step is "S," ‘synthesize,’ [where] they're presenting their data-driven strategic recommendation for a course of action for the client.”

The course’s engagement with real-world clients builds upon Launchpad’s ethos of practical applicability which, according to rising third-year College student and 2020 Launchpad participant Stephanie Fissel, is one of the program’s most valuable and impressive features.

“A lot of the skills and the projects you did in the program you could write about on your resume because a lot of them are pretty impressive,” Fissel said. “I had one class that focused on public relations and communications, and the teacher was talking about how he was teaching the same class in a PhD program or a grad program. So the skills you gain in this program are very impressive and definitely can be used in a resume.”

Launchpad’s career focus, as well as its availability during the slow summer of 2020, were what initially drew Fissel to the program.

“[It] was right after first year, and I don't think a ton of first years have an idea of what they want to do … especially during the pandemic,” Fissel said. “I didn't have anything else to do, but it also seemed like the courses they offered were going to teach me a lot and that I could learn a lot from it and put it towards the rest of my time at U.Va. and into my career.”

As an overall experience, Fissel found the program to be enriching and highly instructive. Fissel emphasized that, due to the program’s focus in both the liberal arts and in career-oriented instruction, it provided a wide array of useful skills.

“I just learned a lot of … skills I wouldn't have learned otherwise at U.Va. because the courses they offer aren't like the typical courses,” Fissel said. “One of them was a data analytics with excel class, and then another class I took was a cybersecurity class where I learned how to be an ethical hacker … I'd definitely recommend [U.Va. Launchpad] for anyone who wants to stay busy this summer … even if they're not specifically geared at a certain major, I think anyone could find a benefit from any of the classes.”

Applications for Launchpad 2021 remain open until June 16. Dean Baucom encourages all interested students to apply, as program faculty have grown the program between last summer and this summer.

“We learned a lot from running the Launchpad pilot program in 2020, and we’ve built on what we learned and applied it for Summer 2021,” Baucom said. “Our goal is to help students connect the dots between their classroom knowledge and high-demand skills … and then immediately apply what they’ve learned in a way that will increase their learning and better equip them for lives beyond U.Va. — as citizens and in their careers.”

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