Griptape’s learning challenge offers a roadmap for student-led education

young woman looking into a microscope

Traditional learning environments are designed for a fictitious “average” student, forcing nearly every student to take a passive role and be told what to learn, and when and how to learn it. For many young people, this often results in a lack of engagement and a failure to be adequately prepared for a life of meaning and purpose in the 21st century.  

When learners are in the driver’s seat, they are more likely to discover and develop their passions, which in turn allows them to make a deeper contribution to their communities.  

That’s why GripTape, a grantee of Stand Together Trust, created the Learning Challenge, an initiative that gives young people aged 14-19 the opportunity to complete a 10-week project of their choosing and design — fueled by the learner’s passions and interests with no strings attached. Participants are given full decision authority through the project, a mentor — called a Champion — to lean on for questions and support, and $500 to fund expenses. 

“As youth, parents, and education professionals, we’ve experienced the role that passion and decision-making play in igniting young people’s pursuit of learning —  and the damaging impact their absence has,” Mark Murphy, founder and CEO of GripTape, explains. 

Inspired by a conversation with youth expressing frustrations about the limitations of their learning environments, the GripTape Learning Challenge has given more than 2,000 young people a funded opportunity to pursue a learning project of their choice. And importantly, only 1/3 or less of the time for the project can be in adult-led classes— youth themselves envision, design, and direct every aspect of their learning project. This part is crucial because when young people take ownership over their learning, according to GripTape, their mindsets, skills, and behaviors shift.  

From application to execution of their projects, teenagers have the opportunity to chart their own course. They set their own goals, determine their approach, and reflect on their actions over the course of the 10-week project.  

One young person, after writing an essay in school about antibiotic resistance, applied to the GripTape Learning Challenge specifically because the opportunity would help her conduct an experiment and gain hands-on knowledgeabout a topic she’s passionate about. She used the $500 to purchase petri dishes, bacteria, antibiotics, and other lab supplies. She conducted experiments for 10 weeks, advancing her learning far beyond her initial essay. In the end, she published and promoted her learning. 

Another learner sought to study feminine hygiene among women who are homeless. Particularly, she learned that period products are often the most requested item at shelters, but they aren’t often donated — meaning women are either skipping meals to be able to afford them or using unsanitary options like rags or plastic bags. Inspired to give women who are homeless equal dignity, this young person sought the GripTape Learning Challenge specifically to receive resources to afford travel to visit with women in shelters, research the issue, build a website to raise awareness, and organize drives in her community to collect period products.   

Both of these youth stated in their Learning Challenge applications that they wanted to pursue these projects in order to hone their research skills and become a more informed global citizen.  

This is what it looks like for learning to prepare young people for a life of meaning and purpose in the 21st century. The proof of that comes from the voices of youth themselves. 

Learning for their own development and for the good of society 

One young person, 18–24 months after their journey stated, “The most important thing I have learned from GripTape is self-awareness … and having an understanding of knowing why you are failing on something … and the ability to audit myself deeply so I can succeed.” 

Another young person said, “Before GripTape, I thought I needed a teacher to teach me stuff. Now I know I can … learn by failing and trying again.”   

And it’s not just young people who noticed changes. One parent commented, “This whole thing of focusing, setting a timeline, and completing something from start to finish … GripTape helped her understand the importance of thinking through what you need and how you plan to go about it.” 

Additionally, in a study with students and parents, GripTape found that: 

  • 94% of youth since completing their Learning Challenge feel confident enough to try to take an active role in creating new learning opportunities that match their interests.  
  • Three-fourths report they have proactively worked with adults or other learners to create those new opportunities to better match what or how they want to learn.  
  • 90% of learners agreed that GripTape helped them clarify what they are most interested in learning. 
  • 89% of learners reported that in the 6-12 months since completing their Learning Challenge they have taken on more leadership roles than they would have previously. 

There seems to be a magic to the GripTape experience that not only ignites a love of learning in young people but compels them to share what they’ve developed in their communities. In fact, young people’s experiences with the Learning Challenge are so impactful that peer-to-peer referral is the biggest source of program growth.  

With such positive results from multiple internal research efforts, GripTape has partnered with Cornell University to conduct a formal 3-year evaluation aimed to “help [them] better understand how, why, and for whom the GripTape experience is so impactful.”  

The GripTape experience teaches young people how to self-direct their learning, set their own measures for success, and develop their skills and adapt their behavior to achieve their goals. With no limitations on what, when, or how learning happens, the GripTape Learning Challenge shows young people that there are no limits on learning — and that’s a lesson that will serve young people and society well.  

To see examples of GripTape students’ Learning Challenges or to apply, visit here. 

GripTape is supported by Stand Together Trust, which provides funding and strategic capabilities to innovators, scholars, and social entrepreneurs to develop new and better ways to tackle America’s biggest problems. 

Learn more about Stand Together’s K-12 education reform efforts.