Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

24 Millennials Rode the Rails and This Is What They Learned

August 27, 2013

A classroom on wheels, vintage wheels.

The Millennial Trains Project is a modern-day experiment in learning.  It’s indicative of a generation that’s seeking education beyond the classroom.   And piling into a 1950s train car across America is one way of doing it.

MTP took 24 Millennials across the US to pursue their passions this August.  Each of the participants had to design a project and crowdfund $5,000 to secure a seat aboard.   That in itself was a learning lesson in marketing.  How do you sell an idea?

 Millennials are craving for experiential learning, As much as we all love the Internet, we want experience and learn by doing.Patrick Dowd, Founder of Millennial Trains Project

Ann Yang, a Georgetown student, sold the idea to colleagues at the DC co-working space, 1776.  Lindsay Patross used her Pittsburg blog community to raise $3,000 in less than 48 hours.  Lakshmi Gopalakrishnan, a UNC Master’s student, hit the streets, and found generous souls in strangers. 

Lesson #1: Get a community to care and support your vision.  Useful experience for the real world.

But the train journey itself was an experimental classroom, a “moving lab” as Patrick Dowd, founder of MTP, refers to it.  As we transited from city to city, the participants projects were put to test.  What may have held true in Denver, may not apply in Omaha, or Chicago. 

“The journey ensured that their perceptions were not based on isolated experiences.” Dowd emphasizes.  Rather, they had to work on a larger scale.

Lesson #2: Getting the bird's eye lens was critical.  

Matthew Stepp, a DC-based expert on energy, wanted to go beyond the Beltway to meet innovators in the heartland.  He aspired to get beyond the “cynicism” of DC and meet scientists, technologists, and activists that are pioneering alternative energy in the country.   In each city, he convened over a dozen minds, discovering sustainable sources of energy.

Now, back in DC, he’s working to set up a “State Energy Innovation Tracker” that will host data on state-specific projects and an interactive map of energy innovators across the USA.  The localized projects, he said, will serve as fuel for advocacy and policy reform. 

Traveling by train, stopping in numerous cities, not airport lounges, allowed the participants to engage more intimately with local communities.  And on the other hand, given that we traversed 3,000 miles in less than two weeks, the journey illustrated the vast scale of opportunities and challenges facing our country.  

Lesson #3:  While textbooks can tell students about those opportunities, the train let them experience it first-hand.  That is also one of its distinguishing factors from online courses, or MOOCs.  MTP is rooted in reality, not the virtual domain.

“Millennials are craving for experiential learning,” Dowd notes. “As much as we all love the Internet, we want experience and learn by doing.”

In-field experience coupled with mentorship aboard the train elevated learning.  Venture capitalists, journalists, entrepreneurs, and professors provided lectures in an idyllic setting - a vintage dome car, covered in glass.  Symbolic for a journey of exploration and learning.  As the mentors spoke, the train wove through the Colorado Rockies, the Nebraska Prairies, and Appalachia.

Lesson#4: Given the variety of the speakers and the diversity of the participants, the train became a space to cross-pollinate ideas.  

Artists were learning from entrepreneurs; entrepreneurs were listening to academia.  It was the ideal mish-mashing of ideas, of interdisciplinary dialogue.  It was a throwback to the liberal arts approach.  Contrary to modern-day start up incubators that focus on specifically on tech, entrepreneurship, or design, MTP embraced everyone.

Lesson #5:  Build a community.

And the conversations lingered into the night, starting at dinner and ending at 2 am.   As the hours waned away, an antique guitar from Omaha became the focal point. Participants sang songs, and strummed retro ballads, passing it around the dining car.  The conversations kept traveling as well - from weightier discussions of philosophy and purposefulness to lighter moments of laughter and storytelling.

It was a communal experience, as much as it was a personal journey.  It was a time to disconnect and reconnect, to evaluate a life of purpose, and to grasp the diversity of our country.

This is how Millennials are eager to learn - to see it, hear it, and feel it first-hand.  The people they met along the way had stories to tell - those stories became their textbook.  Rather than tour guides, they composed their own images, snapshots of a community based on these stories, vignettes of a greater whole.

If you're interested in applying for the next journey, keep an eye out on the Millennial Trains website for details on the next leg - LA to Miami - in March 2014.

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