Through experiential learning, nonprofit MindDrive Kansas City helps students unlock opportunities.
By Katy Schamberger
On Saturday mornings, most Kansas Citians are likely sleeping, running errands or spending time with family. Yet within the unexpectedly cavernous rooms of Minddrive’s Dutch Hill headquarters, local high school students are hard at work in one of two classes: Automotive Design Studio or Contemporary Communications, completing projects and coursework that aren’t merely a practical supplement to their in-school education—they’re, quite often, the keys to a better, brighter future.
On a Mission
Founded in 2010, Minddrive’s mission is “to inspire students to learn, expand their vision of the future and have a positive influence on urban workforce development.” It’s undoubtedly a lofty goal, but Minddrive uses a practical, three-pronged approach guided by a powerful motivation.
“Minddrive is about providing a hook to get kids engaged in their education and give them an opportunity to have a different view of their futures,” says Linda Buchner, president of Minddrive. “Programs like this keep kids in tune to innovation and what jobs are being created—we expose them to these opportunities and show them what’s possible.”
Minddrive works with 40 students from 15 schools in Kansas City’s urban core, targeting a demographic that’s frequently underserved and, in some cases, unnoticed. “Lots of our students aren’t engaged at school because of apathy,” Buchner says. “They don’t believe they have a future.”
The solution? Minddrive’s rigorous, engaging combination of classes, mentorships and events, all of which give students an in-depth, firsthand view of the possibilities that await them.
Building the Team
Minddrive began as an after-school program, yet co-founders Steve Rees and Tom Strongman (along with Buchner) quickly realized they needed an off-campus space to accommodate larger projects, namely full-size cars.
With the new space came heightened recognition of the program. Instead of going to schools to recruit prospective Minddrive participants, interest has spread via word-of-mouth. Interested students complete a five-page application that includes several essay questions, all of which are designed to help the students share as much information as possible. “We want to learn as much as we can about the students,” Buchner says.
After applications are submitted, the Minddrive team interviews parents to ensure they’re able to provide transportation and support. Participants are selected early in the school year, after which they begin a 32-week curriculum that’s focused on automotive design or contemporary communications.
Although the coursework is designed to be immersive and fun, there’s no doubt that Minddrive is a rigorous program. Take, for example, Minddrive’s absence policy: students are allowed only two absences throughout the year, a rule that helps teach them accountability and responsibility.
Yet Minddrive is also a place for positive feedback, an influential environment that helps instill a powerful lesson: the art of failure. “We give our students lots of positive feedback,” Buchner says. “They’re allowed to fail and still be successful because our program is all about teamwork. And if you’re not failing, you’re not trying hard enough. You have to step out of your comfort zone, and that rings true for our students who have started that process by participating in Minddrive.”
Journey of a Lifetime
Thanks to Minddrive’s innovative curriculum, students aren’t merely stepping out of their comfort zones — they’ve got their feet on the gas pedal (no pun intended). This year, Minddrive students are creating a completely converted electric car from an old model Volkswagen Karmann Ghia. The car will be used to strike molds for subsequent ultra-efficient prototype vehicles. In the meantime, students are transforming the original vehicle into a “kit car” that’s ideal for urban and neighborhood use since it travels at relatively low speeds for short distances.
And that’s not all. Minddrive students also participate in an annual field trip. Instead of heading to another part of the city, students travel across the country for a chance to share their work with other communities. Last year, Minddrive students and leadership led the hugely successful Social Fuel Tour, during which social media posts were converted to energy that powered an electric car from Kansas City to Washington, D.C. This year? The adventure gets even bigger.
“We’re always trying to push the envelope on tech,” Buchner says. “This year, we’re taking two drones and electric cars to northern California and will travel down through San Francisco, Carmel and Big Sur. Our message last year was about how experiential learning can translate to jobs. This year, it’s all about preserving beauty using alternative fuel cars. And what better place to do that than in northern California?”
The excursion won’t just be an unforgettably scenic road trip. Buchner and others are working to coordinate with other schools, Rotary clubs, environmental groups and other stakeholders in the northern California area so that Minddrive students can give presentations about their cars and their work. They also plan to go to Stanford and tour Tesla, unforgettable opportunities that relate back to Minddrive’s mission of showing students what their future holds.
“These are the kids that will be the innovators of the future,” Buchner says. “We want to show them what’s possible. They’ll meet people and make connections. They won’t be the same when they get back.”
Plan for Success
Changing lives, unlocking future opportunities — that’s what Minddrive is all about. And there’s no doubt the program is succeeding. Buchner recounts one story of a painfully shy Minddrive student from Lincoln Prep. Now a sophomore at OSU, the student has a 4.0 GPA, is pursuing a career in sports marketing and came back last summer for two internships: one at VML and one at Minddrive.
The testimonials don’t stop there. One student praised Minddrive because it gives her a feeling of belonging to something. “She said none of her friends are dedicated to anything,” Buchner says. “She’s proud to be part of something.”
And that something is slowly changing the perception of education and student opportunities in Kansas City. “People are so drawn to Minddrive because it’s a positive story about education,” she says. “People in Kansas City crave a solution, yet it’s also common for people to be apathetic about education. Minddrive relies on the community getting involved.”
When Buchner interviewed Minddrive donors about their motivation to invest in the organization, a common theme emerged. “They’re more interested in leveling the playing field,” she says. “We don’t know where the next innovator is coming from. There’s a saying about a ‘rising tide that lifts all ships.’ If we can all think about ways to provide access for underprivileged kids, our community can be that rising tide.”