"Media Sandbox" Blends Once Separate Skills

May 4, 2012

Milennials. Digital natives. Generation Z.  Many terms describe the young adults who’ve grown up with technology.  They carry pocket devices that contain more computational power than was used to put a man on the moon.  From kindergarten through college, educators are re-tooling their classes to prepare students for a quickly evolving media world.

Michigan State University is no exception.  All semester, five student teams have been competing to design a multimedia campaign that explains the university’s new communications strategy, the “Media Sandbox.”  On Saturday,  one of those teams will be announced the winner.

Remember your first sandbox?  Put down your iPod a second and think back to what toys used to look like; what they felt like in your hands.  Your plastic shovel.  Your bright red dump truck.  Toys that built stuff. 

The thing about sandboxes, though, is that sometimes you can’t see the toys.  They’re buried out of sight, waiting for someone to dig them up and rediscover their potential.

That’s a little like what’s happened at Michigan State University’s College of Communication Arts and Sciences.

“In years past, journalism, advertising and telecommunication were in separate silos, and neither the faculty nor the students spent much time with each other or got a chance to work with each other,” says MSU telecom professor Bob Albers.  “And now, it’s very different.”

Albers directs the Media Sandbox, a new multi-disciplinary curriculum that draws on all of the college’s storytelling modes.

Until now, comm majors had to wait until their junior year to get their hands on real audiovisual equipment.  But students who entered the inaugural program this spring had a very different experience.  Teams were tasked with producing full-scale advertising campaigns about the Media Sandbox targeting high school seniors who may soon come to MSU.

Like any college project, the Media Sandbox began with research. 

“We really experienced what the Media Sandbox was,” recalls student Victoria Zou.  “We got to talk to so many different types of people, figuring out, what do you love?  Why do you do the things you do?  And I think we really wanted to stay true to that, and showcase that entire campaign.”

The teams blended video, print ads and social media to build a message they hoped would convey selection; the idea that high schoolers will be wanted and welcomed into the Media Sandbox program. 

Student Robert Smith says he had to learn as much about his audience as possible.

“I’ve just learned so much about developing an actual advertising campaign that’s cohesive with research that’s functional and effective,” Smith says.  “I mean, if you’re producing an advertising campaign and if you don’t have research to back it up...what are you producing?  It’s a message that’s not going to reach anybody.”

But to paraphrase Thomas Edison, there was often some inspiration to balance the perspiration.  Victoria Bujny discovered her best moments came not when she tried to channel her creativity, but when she procrastinated.

“I would just have these ‘a-ha’ moments,” says Bujny.  “I would have to put it down, and my friends would be like, ‘where are you going?’  I’m like, ‘I’ve got this genius idea.’  So, I think the greatest takeaway I got is, you don’t need to force creativity; it’s going to sneak up on you.  And that’s when you’ve really got to take hold of it.”

Communication arts instructors at MSU have high hopes for their new curriculum.  Media Sandbox director Bob Albers foresees more advanced classes running more smoothly in the near future.

“This is way better for them because they’re prepared from the beginning to do the things that they really want to do, and it’s way better for us as professors,” Albers notes.  “Because instead of having to teach basics and fundamentals when they come to us in their junior year, they’re ready to rock and roll.”

Student Robert Smith is looking even farther, though he’s still got one eye on the here and now.

“I’m ready for a career like this for the rest of my life doing exactly what I’m passionate about, and that’s what the Media Sandbox is and that’s what we learned,” Smith says.  “And I hope that that’s what we left to resonate with the judges.”

The judges have made their decision.  Each team will earn a cash prize, with the first place group receiving $5,000.  The winners will be announced Saturday evening at the College of Communication Arts and Sciences alumni dinner.