I’ve meant to write this post about outreach rowing for a while now. I want to preface this by saying that we have made some progress, but we have a way to go. In this post, I share the progress we have made in making rowing more accessible in Tulsa. I will also include some details on how we are engaging schools and providing on-site rowing experiences.
In the summer of 2016, I stepped down from my role as Head Coach of the Tulsa Youth Rowing Association (TYRA). My atrial fibrillation was continuing to bother me, and I was just plain tired. I had given everything I had, and I needed to take a break.
In the Summer of 2015, TYRA went through a strategic planning process that resulted in a document that would help chart the club’s progress.
I was invited to a board meeting six months later. I agreed to do communications and advancement for the club. Tulsa Rowing Club was involved in designing and developing a new boathouse because the old one was subject to an arson attack in January 2016. I have written another piece on our recovery from that tragedy here.
After I joined as communications director, the cognitive wheels started to spin again. We had been doing a great deal of work about diversity and inclusiveness at Holland Hall as a faculty. In addition, I had been blessed with a teaching award in 2017, called the Collins Award for faculty excellence.
As a result of that award, I took my family to Washington, DC, to look at museums and visit friends. One of the experiences I had while I was there was visiting Potomac Rowing Club, where fellow Boston University teammates Jon A Clark and Ray Sontag ran various outreach rowing programs. One of those programs was an outreach program that facilitated rowing experiences for inner-city kids funded by a grant from the city. At that point, I learned about Row New York and all of the work they were doing to provide more access to the sport.
Following this, Holland Hall sent me to the People of Color Conference in Anaheim, CA, where I learned more about racism and its impact on society.
As a part of our process, Adam Kupetsky (then Club President) asked for feedback from similar community organizations. The feedback we received was that the club’s strategic plan was too focused on what the club needed from the community and overlooked the club’s obligation to give back to the community in some way.
These conversations and experiences clarified that making the sport of rowing more accessible to the community needed to be a priority for the club. As a result, gROW Tulsa was born.
To begin with, we knew we needed a vision for our outreach rowing endgame. It was also essential for us to have documentation to show others where we wanted to take our program. This document would help others decide if they wanted to invest in our vision and join us for the journey.
This method is a form of backcasting — starting with the goal in mind and working backwards. It’s similar to developing a crew for the water. First, identify what key performance indicators or benchmarks you want to reach and then, in turn, figure out the steps of your process to get there.
A big key to start our outreach rowing initiatives was to find a community partner that could support our efforts. This organization ideally will know more about working with BIPOC and economically disadvantaged families and have infrastructure already in place in the community.
For us, the organization that has helped us the most is The Opportunity Project.
When we first started gROW Tulsa, we weren’t sure which schools we could start in. The Opportunity project provided the key we needed to start our pilot program at a school called Hale Junior High. They provided training, support, and helped us keep our expectations grounded.
I remember thinking that I just wasn’t sure if our RowingSTEM program was going to be successful. The executive director of the Opportunity Project was on hand to remind me that even if zero kids show up for your club, you should keep coming back. Being persistent was vital.
Another community partner that we reached out to was the Tulsa Regional STEM alliance. They have been very supportive, particularly as our outreach program has a STEM focus (read on for more information). They allowed us to present at their annual meeting, which meant we could continue to spread our message and create more partnerships in our community, such as with the Girl Scouts.
USRowing has just started a podcast called – The Swing Of Things. The first episode of this podcast discusses diversity and inclusion in outreach rowing. Amanda Kraus moderates a discussion with Patricia Etem, Daphne Martschenko, Arshay Cooper, and Kevin Harris.
I found the episode very helpful in understanding why our outreach efforts were taking time to develop. Arshay offered insight into why boathouses and teams were not attracting a more diverse group of people even though they had made programs accessible.
Arshay’s observation was that representation was just as necessary as accessibility. He continues to say that working on boathouse culture is vital to recruiting kids from different backgrounds. One of the keys to creating a welcoming culture is to earn the trust of the adults that those kids trust. In addition, it is crucial to address the awkwardness that can sometimes occur when you introduce new members to an organization. As a result, we have made connections with the Tulsa Dream Center and another organization known as The Zone. Again, we were connected to these organizations by The Opportunity Project (see above). We are finding that building these relationships takes time.
We recently ran a summer camp specifically designed to be available for free for outreach kids. While the camps were successful, we could not get any Dream Center kids to attend these camps. According to our contact at the Dream Center, the main roadblock was that the parents weren’t comfortable letting their kids go on the water. Many were not strong swimmers, and there was recently a drowning on a local lake.
We are in the process of developing an information packet to address some of these fears. This information packet will contain the various safety protocols we have to keep kids safe on the water. The more parents know that their kids are safe, the more likely they will attend activities on the water. Education is at the forefront of everything we do. Parents need to learn about the sport of rowing. It’s essential to break things down to the fundamentals.
There are also stories to tell. We are working on telling the story of where a sport like rowing can take you. I think that the kids see the rowing machines at the schools we partner with. However, they don’t know where this journey could take you in terms of college opportunities and the value of the sport.
The initial outreach program that we developed was a STEM-based curriculum that integrates with rowing activities on the Concept2 rower. The curriculum started with a few activities to address concepts such as measurement, map reading, and power.
I was interested in obtaining the data points for the force curve on the PM monitor. This idea led me to use my app development skills to build an app that could capture those points. The force curve provides a graph of the derived force on the machine’s handle at a timed interval during a stroke. Therefore, a force curve is created each individual stroke. With force plotted on the Y-axis and time on the X-axis, the average force x time provides the impulse created during the rowing stroke. The Concept2 PM does not measure force on the handle but uses a derived measurement based on resistance in the fan cage. For more on force curves, please visit this page which includes my USRowing presentation on Understanding Force Curves To Improve.
The PM monitor on the Concept2 rower collects and derives many different metrics about rowing performance. We saw this as an opportunity to use this data to teach concepts such as graphing, data analysis, slope, speed, power. Because the PM monitor measures, captures and derives so much data, it made sense to build an app that could sync with the monitor and captures all of the data. This data could be processed later to help students understand physics, mathematics, and data analysis. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention how supportive Concept2 was with providing technical support as I developed RowingSTEM.
Over time, our RowingSTEM programs have grown in number. We currently serve three schools in Tulsa Public Schools in after-school programs. Additionally, we have established another RowingSTEM program in Union Public Schools, which runs as a part of the academic day. I see this as a big win because the school is an Alternative School and serves students that need a different kind of educational experience that traditional channels do not provide. Our RowingSTEM program is an excellent example of out-of-the-box thinking, and I am so thankful that the school principal saw the value when I demonstrated how the app worked with the Concept2 machine.
Five years ago, it was tough to get schools to listen to our message about the benefits of rowing to their populations. However, we have partnered with the athletic department of Tulsa Public Schools and applied for the Erg Ed grant provided by the George Pocock Rowing Foundation and USRowing. We did not receive the grant when we originally applied in 2019 but were subsequently successful in 2020. This support has provided 20 Concept2 rowing machines and physical educator training to implement a “unit” of rowing in physical education classes. Our Erg Ed Program is set to roll out this fall given that we were unable to initiate it for the 2020-21 year due to COVID and the fact that TPS was remote for the majority of the academic year.
Because we have created value in the public schools around us, we have achieved an ability to recruit student-athletes and have created more awareness of our club in the community.
The pilot RowingSTEM program at Hale Junior Higher was an up and down experience but was ultimately very rewarding. The kids were receptive to our program but were also fairly distractable. Ground rules for the length of bathroom breaks and the use of cell phones, for example, needed to be set.
At the beginning of the second semester, I researched how to create organization and focus in after-school programs. I came across an activity that helped empower the kids to develop the values and focus they wanted to bring to the club.
The idea was simple. I got a big piece of paper and drew a rectangle inside it, leaving a clear border around the outside of the rectangle.
I then asked the kids to write down all of the attitudes and behaviors they thought would positively impact the program. They then spent the next few minutes writing their ideas for the inside of the rectangle.
After this, I asked them to write down all of the attitudes and behaviors that they thought didn’t belong in our rowing club. Again, they spent some time writing those things outside of the rectangle along the borders.
By the end of the exercise, we had filled the piece of paper with the values we wanted in our club and those we did not.
I then took the paper home and then condensed the main themes into bullet points. After visiting the print shop, I had a poster in my possession that contained all of the positive club values for our club.
I took this back to the school the next day and asked the kids to sign it, which they did. A few of them paused noticeably before signing it. My suspicion for these kids was that they knew that they were signing a contract of sorts. That meant monitoring themselves at the club and needed to be accountable for the values they created.
As a result of this process, the club ran much more smoothly after going through this process. You can access the file below.
We are in the process of developing surveys to help us understand if we are making an impact on those that we serve. With the help Of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation and the Tulsa Regional STEM Alliance, we now have a before and after survey that our STEM outreach rowing programs take when they finish one of our courses. The basic aim is to discover if the student we serve have improved their relationship with STEM and are curious to explore rowing further.
We have just started to collect this data. However, early results indicate our students have increased their interest and accessibility to STEM. Time will tell, and adjustments need to be made to develop curriculum and experiences that integrate rowing activity into STEM programming.
It has taken us four years to get to this point. I feel like our outreach rowing journey is just getting started. There have been many occasions where I have found myself wondering if programs like RowingSTEM are worth the time invested in it. Sometimes enrollment isn’t great, and I often wonder if what we are doing translates into favorable outcomes. Questions circulate my mind such as whether we are making an impact?
It didn’t help that COVID came into being when our RowingSTEM programs began to take off. However, we spent the time developing new apps (See Erg Math) and curriculum and continuing to raise funds for what’s to come.
It is worth building a program that provides access to rowing for kids who wouldn’t usually have the chance to row. When I work with our faculty sponsors and interact with children, I feel good that I am part of an opportunity that wouldn’t exist otherwise.
We don’t have it all figured out. Own next move is to migrate students from our after-school programs onto the water. We are most certainly not a Row New York …yet! We are building awareness and opportunity and will take our victories where we can find them.
As the new school year looms on the horizon, we anticipate much growth to look forward to. I am hopeful that Erg Ed and our RowingSTEM programs will continue to drive interest in all of our programs. Each Erg Ed machine has been outfitted with a large sticker on it with our website address. We will continue to build partnerships and work on fundraising to further our mission and growth. If you wish to make a donation to help our efforts, please click this link to head over to the TYRA website. We appreciate any contribution you can make to help us make rowing accessible to any student-athlete that would like to start their journey.