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UAB Students and Birmingham Community Leaders Propel the Magic City into the 21st Century

By Garret Westlake, Executive Director, VCU da Vinci Center and Erin Webster Garrett, Assistant Vice Provost for REAL, Virginia Commonwealth University

Through the support of an Association of Public Land Grant Universities (APLU) and Urban Serving Universities Community Opportunity Grant (USU), the University of Alabama at Birmingham has successfully created and launched an inaugural cohort of students and mentors known as the UAB Magic City Data Collective (MCDC). MCDC brings together students, researchers, and data experts in project teams to provide the information that Birmingham leaders need to move the Magic City (Birmingham) forward into the 21st Century.

The inaugural cohort of MCDC students will conclude with a Demo Day on August 17th, 2021. Demo Day provides an opportunity for the UAB team to highlight the successes of the first cohort of students and mentors developing data-based insights that can be shared with the Birmingham community.

We got a chance to check in with UAB leaders to identify and share the lessons learned from both of our teams. Here are the top key takeaways from our discussion:

1. Timing and Recruiting

The main constraint that UAB faced was running the MCDC program within one summer session.

Future UAB leaders recommend starting the recruiting process earlier and extending the duration of

the program for future MCDC cohorts. They also recognize the importance of telling the students stories. This will help recruitment in years to come, having participants of the first cohort will provide marketing and recruitment benefits to both the students and community members in the future.

2. Community Engagement

The Birmingham community was instrumental in this project and provided qualified mentors for the

MCDC students throughout the summer program. Continuing to keep the local community and business leaders engaged will be key to future cohorts. Hosting their first Demo Day on August 17th

will be a great opportunity to measure the success of the experience in its first year. Many of the projects are based around dashboards that hopefully can be implemented and adopted by the businesses and communities they were built with.

3. Diversity

Having a diverse student population was and remains a priority for the program and UAB was

excited that despite a smaller than expected cohort the students participating were from diverse


4. Virtual but Connected

Making the most out of the virtual experiences has been a challenge for many programs over the past year and a half. The UAB team recognized the challenges of the format and at the same time

saw success in the mentorship of the cohort from program sponsors. The VCU da Vinci center team has enjoyed the opportunity to work, learn, and grow together with the UAB Magic City Data Collective team. We appreciate this opportunity to share our experiences and learn from each other through the development of each of our programs. We will use the following notes to grow from our discussion as we both continue to build and measure our projects.

  • There is great importance in selecting the right partner organization(s). UAB shared their experience and relayed the importance of identifying a local organization or business that has had past success in that area.

  • Take the time to identify the spaces and partners that already have existing infrastructure to be able to mentor and implement co-created solutions.

  • Don’t underestimate the time it will take to recruit the right students for the program.

  • Tell the students and community partners success stories throughout the entire experience. Track the successes and wins using data and metrics.

  • Allow the space for students and community partners to showcase their collective work with a cumulative experience. (UAB’s Demo Day is a great example of this)

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