Program Design TIG Week: Research Activism for Youth: Facilitating a Virtual, Community-based Skill- Building Program by Asma M. Ali & Myles Castro

We are Asma M. Ali Ph.D. and Myles Castro MPH of the Sinai Urban Health Institute [SUHI] in Chicago. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we recently changed the format of SUHI’s Research Activism for Youth [RAY] program from an in-person into a 100% virtual program.

RAY is a 6-week community-based program that empowers youth ages 16-19 that aims to make positive changes in their communities. The program introduces topics of community-based action research, qualitative and quantitative methods, developing community relationships, public health careers, and the role of community-organizations in facilitating change. Each year, the program culminates with a youth-identified, researched, and developed presentation on a community health-related topic and their proposed solutions.  

However, moving to on-line learning required careful consideration and modification of several aspects of the program design and delivery. While many of our tips seem like common-sense program design, they require special attention for youth learners. Below are some of our lessons learned for changing the delivery format of these programs for youth:

Hot Tips:

  1. Consider the special needs of youth learning research skills. Developing lesson plans with learning objectives for each virtual session to maintain focus on essential program goals. Youth learners required shorter sessions, several breakout discussions, and more focused activities than adults to practice newly learned research skills. The RAY program had 1.5 hours each of in-person synchronous time and asynchronous course work to promote maximum opportunities for learning. 
  1. Consider the technological needs of youth living in disadvantaged neighborhoods. Access to an electronic device and basic software was critical for virtual participation in the program. RAY provided these resources to youth lacking access to required electronic devices on a rental basis. Alumnae mentor-initiated discussion of these needs were utilized to reduce any stigma-related barriers. Also, the program was delivered online using the youth-friendly BaseCamp for content management and GoToMeeting for weekly “live” virtual delivery. The platform provided a place to store assignments and activities. Frequent reviews and utilization in- class of platforms and resources supported ongoing participant engagement. 
  1. Feature talented speakers and engaging sessions. A blended synchronous and asynchronous format helped RAY participants practice skills and engage deeply with the content.  Guest speakers were invited for half the virtual sessions to discuss the application of new skills like qualitative research, community organizing, public health careers, and community-based work for social change. Guest speakers continually engaged with participants throughout the course to discuss skill applications within community contexts.
  1. Replicate community-building opportunities of the traditional in-person youth program. Without unstructured time to build group relationships, community-building for virtual programs must be intentional and flexible. For RAY, weekly in-class time offered ample opportunities for large and small group discussions. However, we also invited former program alumni to help support peer discussion sessions between the virtual sessions. In addition, youth participants connected with program facilitators and guest speakers to learn more about their work. 

What other tips do you have for creating engaging on-line programming for youth learners? 

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Program Design TIG Week with our colleagues in the Program Design Topical Interest Group. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from our Program Design TIG members. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

1 thought on “Program Design TIG Week: Research Activism for Youth: Facilitating a Virtual, Community-based Skill- Building Program by Asma M. Ali & Myles Castro”

  1. Hi Asma and Myles,

    As a program coordinator, who has also had to transition in-person programming to the online format as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, I appreciated your article and hearing about your insights. It is no easy feat transitioning student/youth programs into an online format especially with the urgency required by the pandemic!

    I found that many of the tips you shared applied to both the youth programs I help run (for students in grades 11-12), in addition to those for our younger students (grades 7-8). In particular, I’d like to make some connections and share some insights I’ve learned from adapting our highschool to post-secondary transition program to 100% online delivery, and what we did to help increase student engagement. These programs, OLTS and STOMP, have run for over 15 years, and include a few in-person programming days at the start and end of the program, in addition to a few weeks of online, asynchronous learning. In that sense we were lucky that the majority of these programs were already being conducted online, but we still faced significant challenges when transitioning the in-person portions of these programs, which are crucial in setting a tone for the program, getting students acquainted with the program learning management system (LMS), and engaging in the program over the weeks asynchronous online learning.

    We decided to spread out the synchronous content that would normally take place in-person over 3 full days, to a number of shorter sessions spread out over a number of weeks. This was necessary in order for the program to be delivered in a way that was both manageable for students but also considerate of the fact that most of our students were also spending their school days in an online learning environment as well due to the lockdowns taking place within our Province. We had sent out a number of surveys to parents and students to aid in our planning for the delivery of the virtual programming and found that this option was the most well-received.

    Like you, we also invited guest speakers for some of our synchronous sessions and this was often one of the most well-received and impactful parts of those synchronous Zoom sessions. Additionally, our program utilizes teaching assistants that are assigned to small groups of students. Over the course of the synchronous sessions and asynchronous online learning, TA’s and students are able to build connections with one another, which have been vital in being able to support student learning and engagement in an online environment. Opportunities to have human connections, in the synchronous sessions and during the optional check-ins that TA’s offered to students (via email, phone or zoom call), helped students to remain engaged and motivated, especially during the asynchronous, online learning portion of the program.

    The utilization of icebreaker games at the beginning of sessions was a great way to help TA’s get to know their students and also allow students the opportunity to connect with each other. We found that using “low stakes” activities, that didn’t single out students, and that could be played over a zoom call, such as anonymous “either or” style games, worked really well with our students. Providing breaks for students at the halfway point of sessions was also useful to allow students to move around and take a break from being at their computers during synchronous sessions.

    One challenge that we faced was encouraging students to turn their cameras and microphones on during synchronous program sessions. We gave our students the option to participate with cameras/microphones on/off as not to further student anxiety. We noticed that when in smaller breakout room activities/discussions, some students would turn on their cameras and it made such a profound difference to the engagement of the group and the discussions that resulted. I am curious to know whether you had a similar experience in your program and if you used any strategies to encourage students or help them feel more comfortable keeping their cameras on?

    Kind regards,


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