VCU's da Vinci Center Maximizes Online Learning Environments to Expand Access

By Emily Wykle, Director of External Affairs, and Lauren Rast, Assistant Professor, Physics at The University of Alabama at Birmingham


Through support from APLU and USU, the VCU da Vinci Center for Innovation is launching an Entrepreneurship Academy which will bring together underrepresented students from VCU and community members identified by Activation Capital and The Jackson Ward Collective. The programs will provide 21st-century skills to increase innovation and entrepreneurship in the Richmond region.

The Academy includes four learning modules which are delivered in a blended environment, including both synchronous and asynchronous workshops, to ensure access for as many students and community members as possible. The Academy aims to serve 150 VCU students and 50 community members in its first iteration. After completing the Academy, participants are invited to continue their learning through pop-up retail opportunities at the store-front Retail Lab managed by the da Vinci Center.

The Academy will launch in September, but the VCU team has already learned a great deal through the development of partnered recruiting strategies, curriculum creation, and new approaches to teaching and learning. These lessons include:

  • Online learning has its challenges, but it greatly expands access particularly for underrepresented students. For example, some students were able to engage in the content in meaningful ways while they were at work.

  • By developing evergreen content, the Entrepreneurship Academy can ensure a consistently high-quality experience across the program. Previously, guest lecturers may have been brought in on various module topics, resulting in variability across the program. By developing high-quality virtual modules, the VCU team can guarantee the quality and consistency of the learning experience.

  • To engage community members, meet them where they are. Jackson Ward Collective was a ready-made opportunity to connect with entrepreneurs of color rather than rely on traditional university recruiting channels.

  • Grants like COG can provide a catalyst for broader changes. For example, this project is da Vinci Center’s first foray into non-credit-bearing programming and the grant allowed them to ensure they had funding for high quality content and institutional commitment to make the strategic shift.

  • Sustainability in the university environment comes from identifying internal “customers” who buy into the product and can scale it across their domains. For example, the VCU Dean of Engineering will make the Design Thinking module required content for all VCU engineering freshmen.

  • Use technology to enhance the reach of the program. The VCU team is leveraging Startup Tree to deepen relationships between students and community members who participate in the Entrepreneurship Academy.

The cohort-based nature of the USU COG grant positions grantees to learn from one another. From the perspective of the UAB Magic City Data Collective team, the following takeaways from our discussion with VCU are directly relevant to our work and will be instructive as we think about the scale and sustainability of our project.

  • Enlisting the support of internal champions (like, in VCU’s case, the Dean of Engineering) is critical for embedding curricular or co-curricular offerings in existing university structures.

  • Think broadly about credit and non-credit-bearing options. The MCDC program was only offered to existing UAB students, and community members served as staff on the projects. But we are intrigued by the VCU model of including community members as potential customers. We look forward to the micro-credential learning session facilitated by USU to see how we might embed this option in future iterations of MCDC.

  • Maximizing the benefits of a virtual environment that looks different enables these programs to reach a broader audience. The bulk of the MCDC program was online and synchronous, which may have been a limiting factor. We will consider more asynchronous options to engage a wider group of students and community members.