Embarc

How great systems design helped a revolutionary educational program grow

Embarc is a Chicago-based non-profit focused on experiential education — providing outside-the-classroom learning opportunities to low-income high school students.

The organization sends students on “Journeys” — hands-on experiences to parts of the city they may have never seen. Journeys focus on themes such as career, college and cooperation and include things like job shadowing at restaurants, collaborating on museum curation, building robots, and tons of additional experiences that expose students to new opportunities.

Embarc is a game changer for often overlooked populations in Chicago’s poorest schools:

  • 96% of Embarc students graduate high school
  • 93% of Embarc students enroll in college
  • Embarc students out-perform their peers in pretty most measures of school success
  • Every $1 invested in Embarc puts $7 back into the local community

Embarc didn’t come to Table XI to create this success — they came to us to scale it.

Bringing kids out of the classroom and into spaces all over Chicago is enriching, but logistically challenging. And with CPS looking to expand Embarc into new areas and entire schools, the non-profit needed a way to enable exponential growth cost-effectively.

Bringing systems design engineering to an organic process

Before expansion, Embarc had a three-part process for implementing Journeys:

  1. Principals or teacher(s) gain approval and funding to bring Embarc to a school.
  2. Embarc coaches and program managers work directly with individual teachers to plan Journeys, develop pre- and post-Journey classroom activities, and lead each Journey.
  3. Embarc staff, teachers and students engage in an action/reflection cycle before, during and after each Journey. This enables students to effectively prepare for each Journey, to have meaningful experiences during each Journey and to apply what they’ve learned to other aspects of their lives after each Journey. 

This approach is both highly-effective and resource intensive. Embarc needed to build a process that would over time give teachers all the necessary expertise and tools to run a successful Journey without needing Embarc staff to be directly involved with each aspect of the experience.

 

“Table XI dug deep into the behavioral and functional aspects of how the Embarc team works on the “ground” - what their behaviors, actions, challenges, roadblocks for efficiency and growth were.” 

Jim Cohen, Founder of Spark and strategic consultant to Embarc

 

How we developed a blueprint for growth

Imran Kahn, Embarc’s CEO, approached TXI to define a process capable of enabling the organization to exponential scale. Embarc needs to double the number of students participating in their program each year, without doubling staff. 

Our work focused on Embarc’s partnership with the newly-opened Englewood STEM High School. The school had committed to a four-year partnership with Embarc that would scale from 400 students in year one to 1,600 students in year four. 

 

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We started by locking ourselves in a room with Embac staff and deconstructing all of the steps, systems, content and considerations involved in creating and leading great Journeys.

 

“Table XI dug deep into the behavioral and functional aspects of how the Embarc team works on the “ground” - what their behaviors, actions, challenges, roadblocks for efficiency and growth were.” 

Jim Cohen, Founder of Spark and strategic consultant to Embarc

 

Our goal was to enable Englewood STEM teachers to take an increasingly active role in the planning and execution of Journeys. And, in the process, reduce the need for Embarc staff to play a hands-on role.

Together with Embarc staff, we developed the service model using eight steps:

  1. Aligned Embarc’s model to the curriculum needs of Englewood STEM. This meant finding the overlap between the skill sets that Embarc speaks to and that STEM needs.
  2. Audited Embarc’s existing tools and materials to find out which work best for the school’s goals and to identify gaps that needed to be addressed.
  3. Planned new Journey activities, locations and partners. Current partners can’t be overused, so we needed a lot of new options to help the program grow.
  4. Defined program goals for the upcoming years, as well as roles and responsibilities
  5. Streamlined and Journey planning and leadership tools and guides
  6. Mapped overall program progression across a four-year timeline to enable Englewood STEM teachers to take an increasingly active role in program management
  7. Conducted teacher training sessions to build confidence and capacity
  8. Identified program needs in terms of both logistical support and required activities to be shared across Embarc staff andEnglewood STEM

As Embarc expands, the model we defined will enable them to reach far more students and teachers effectively and efficiently. First at Englewood STEM and then across Chicago.

How we prototyped what the future interface could look like

To help Embarc and any future investors get an idea for what a scalable interface could look like, we used all of our research and developed clean and simple idea for them. 

The platform prototype was a website that gives educators the tools necessary to run the entire Journey process. Using InVision, we made a wireframe — essentially a basic outline — of what this digital self-service system could look like.

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Screens from the Embarc prototype

The platform dashboard is personalized to the teacher, with visual data covering the experiential learning touchpoints as students progress through the Embarc program. The system can potentially use data to recommend other experiences based on students’ previous performance. It also allows teachers to choose an objective like “courage” “curiosity” or “collaboration” and build activities devoted to those goals.

“The value here is that the solution was both tech and non-tech (organizational / operational), cost effective and scalable commensurate with the growth and budget of Embarc.”

Jim Cohen, Founder of Spark and strategic consultant to Embarc

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