Q&A: Exploring the Training Opportunities to Augment Learning (TOTAL) Incubator Project
Digital learning initiatives are happening across the BU campus. This Q&A series highlights innovative ideas, collaborative thinking, cutting-edge perspectives and those leading the digital teaching and learning charge.
The DL&I Incubator team is pleased to announce the launch of Training Opportunities To Augment Learning (TOTAL), a digital app that allows biomedical trainees to attend career and professional development events held at Boston University and eight Boston-based partner institutions.
The project team, led by BU School of Medicine’s Barbara Schreiber, associate professor, Department of Biochemistry, and Amanda Bolgioni-Smith, associate director of Evaluation for Boston University Clinical and Translational Science Institute, identified the need for professional development activities in the STEM workforce and set out to develop an innovative, training platform.
“Traditionally, PhD training for biomedical scientists was geared toward careers in academic research. Knowing that this is only one of many career paths available to our trainees, it is critical that we provide professional development opportunities including skill building for the current and ever-changing job market,” says Schreiber. “The challenges are to identify the jobs and skills required to secure the jobs and importantly, to be able to provide opportunities for our trainees to develop the needed skills to secure the satisfying careers to which they aspire.”
With support from Digital Learning & Innovation’s Incubator, BU IS&T, and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund Career Guidance for Trainees, the TOTAL project team did just that.
When describing project goals and objectives, Bolgioni-Smith says the digital platform will help defuse some of these workforce challenges by providing area trainees with a personalized system of alerts. Users will have access to a wealth of events, trainings, and networking opportunities at Boston University and other Boston-based universities and institutions including Northeastern University, University of Massachusetts Boston, University of Massachusetts Medical School, Tufts Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, Massachusetts Biotechnology Education Foundation (MassBioEd), and Boston Postdoctoral Association (BPDA).
DL&I connected with Schreiber and Bolgioni-Smith to discuss how and why the project was initiated, the technology team behind the build, the power of partnerships, measuring success, and more.
DL&I: How was the TOTAL web app pilot project initiated?
Schreiber: We were awarded an NIH Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST) grant called BU’s BEST whose mission was to come up with programming to prepare PhD trained biomedical scientists for the current and ever-changing workforce. Analysis of the job market helped us to design professional development programming. With sustainability of the program in mind, TOTAL was initiated with funds from Burroughs Wellcome Fund Career Guidance for Trainees and Digital Education Incubator. The goal is to partner with other units at BU as well as area institutions to share programming so as to avoid duplication and broaden the scope of options available to students and postdoctoral researchers. As the opportunities are shared via a software application (app), we reached out to the Digital Education Incubator for support. With their help, the goal is to expand the project beyond the biomedical science community so that other disciplines within the university can use the model to engage their trainees in opportunities related to their career paths.
DL&I: What services/opportunities will TOTAL provide?
Schreiber: TOTAL is an app that allows sharing of professional development opportunities for trainees from across various units, departments, and programs at BU as well as those at area institutions. Biomedical Masters students, PhD students and postdoctoral researchers learn of and sign up to participate in activities that suit their specified career goals. Considering the biomedical career spectrum (academia, industry research, science policy, law/compliance, business/administration, science communications), offerings include workshops, seminars, career panels, site visits, etc. The trainees sign up and identify the skills and/or biomedical career path(s) of interest. With workforce needs in mind, each event is tagged to identify these skills/careers, and trainees learn of opportunities that are specifically tailored to their interests.
DL&I: Please describe the experience of building the TOTAL digital platform; successes and challenges.
Bolgioni-Smith: Needless to say, COVID-19 has posed a major challenge for us. When envisioning the app in 2018, the expectation was that TOTAL users in the Boston area would attend events in person at the local universities. Due to COVID-19, some universities have not been offering professional development programming as in the past and of those who continue to do so, essentially all the programming has been shifted to remote delivery. This has led to many people logging in safely from their homes to attend these events remotely. It’s easier to attend but the networking aspect and the critical in-person interactions with the facilitators and other participants are lost.
“We are indebted to BUMC IT, particularly Chris Dorney, Peter Flynn and Al Dahler. They truly helped make our vision become a reality.”
DL&I: What are some features of the TOTAL web app that you would encourage users to leverage?
Schreiber & Bolgioni-Smith: TOTAL is a progressive web app that can easily be added to a phone. Each activity is “tagged” to indicate what skill and/or career path it addresses. TOTAL users can identify their interests so that they are apprised of professional development opportunities that may be of interest to them. We encourage users to take advantage of this feature so that when they receive word of an opportunity, they should look into it further as it was “tagged” with their stated interests. They can then put these events onto their TOTAL calendars so there’s a list of those activities the user has chosen to attend. We encourage users to participate in events on both BU campuses as well as at the other collaborating institutions as this affords great opportunities to meet and network with other trainees, faculty, staff, etc. We highly recommend for everyone to download the TOTAL App on their phone so they can utilize all of the features of the app.
Instructions on how to add TOTAL to your phone:
Android: Visit https://mytotalcareer.org/ on your phone and there will be a popup giving you the option to add the App to your Home Screen (with the option after to receive notifications).
iOS: Visit https://mytotalcareer.org/ in Safari (this does not work in Chrome), click the share button in the bottom middle of the Safari screen and click ‘Add to Home Screen.”
DL&I: TOTAL is a consortium of Boston area institutions. Why is this partnership important?
Schreiber & Bolgioni-Smith: For those of us working on TOTAL, reaching out to others on both campuses and in other institutions has afforded us the opportunity to meet and share ideas regarding professional development for biomedical trainees. Thanks to Burroughs Wellcome Fund, Digital Learning & Innovation and BUMC IT, TOTAL will not only help in achieving sustainability of the programming started with BU’s BEST, but it will enable expanding these efforts by consolidating resources with our collaborators. Moreover, the collaborations will allow for additional networking and pooling of ideas regarding skill development for the current and future biomedical workforce. Lastly, future expansion of TOTAL will hopefully pave the way for other units and disciplines to tailor the app to their needs. These amazing partnerships are critical for the long-term success of the TOTAL platform because all of these partners share the events that their institutions host. Without them, we would have much fewer events and our trainees would not be able to network and meet other students across the Boston area.
DL&I: What are your long-term goals and how will you measure program success?
Bolgioni-Smith: As TOTAL continues to grow, we look forward to increasing our partner universities and organizations in the area. We expect that TOTAL will enable trainees to go to events that they would have not otherwise been aware of.
Another long-term goal is to have others adopt TOTAL for similar collaborations in other regions across the country. Various national networks such as Graduate Career Consortium and scientific societies might also participate. We would love it if TOTAL led to more graduate students and postdocs in the area networking with one another catalyzing a Boston graduate student association much like the Boston Postdoc Association. To measure program success, we will monitor attendance over time at TOTAL events and determine whether those in attendance are coming to events hosted by collaborating organizations/units other than their own.
“The goal is to expand the project beyond the biomedical science community so that other disciplines within the university can use the model to engage their trainees in opportunities related to their career paths.”
DL&I: For colleagues with a new digital education idea, what advice do you offer?
Schreiber & Bolgioni-Smith: Having the idea is the easy part; with no expertise in programming an app, we could not have done this without the help of many others so we advise reaching out to those with varied expertise to get a sense of whether your idea is realistic. In our case, we are indebted to BUMC IT, particularly Chris Dorney, Peter Flynn and Al Dahler. They truly helped make our vision become a reality. We are extremely grateful to Dr. Deborah Fournier for her help in designing, evaluating and launching this platform and to Dr. Linda Hyman for her insights as we embarked on TOTAL, for her support as we worked through multiple glitches and for coining the acronym TOTAL.
We also suggest reaching out to the staff of the Digital Education Initiative; Chris Dellarocas, Romy Ruukel and Diana Marian provided not only financial support but also advice and encouragement during the development of this project. Thank you all.
Learn more about the TOTAL Incubator project and visit mytotalcareer.org.
About the Author: Maureen McCarthy is the Communications Manager for Boston University’s Digital Learning & Innovation and Editor of DL&I News.