This blog is the final installment of a four-part series exploring the learning process taken at Vancouver's CityStudio, a collaborative hub which has university students design and implement projects related to Vancouver's Greenest City goals.
Using the process of dialogue, Simon Fraser University (SFU) students Jaclyn, Michelle and Becky answer a weekly question about what makes CityStudio important to the development of education.
What is the greatest possibility you see in having students work on projects that address real-world challenges? In what ways were you able to contribute this past semester?
Becky Till, fourth-year SFU student in human geography:
I could answer this question in one sentence: you stand to empower a generation of people to be engaged with, motivated to, and capable of addressing real-world challenges.
Sounds pretty good, no? The best part is this is not some far-off possibility. I just witnessed 20 students, including myself, become proof it can happen.
The difference between analyzing real-world challenges in a classroom and addressing them through self-realized projects in the city is like the difference between reading about how to ride a bike and shedding the training wheels for the open road. As we trust our children to find their balance, we must also expect students to use their skills towards solidified contributions.
Each of the students in this program, no matter how different, all had something to offer.
This doesn’t mean we’re all going to go off and become politicians, CEOs, or lawyers — professions traditionally known for making or breaking our future. A few of us are on that path, but others are headed towards becoming writers, personal trainers, actors, naturopaths, musicians, teachers, architects, social media consultants, urban planners, and mothers. What do these jobs have to do with impacting real-world challenges? Everything. We are not facing one-dimensional challenges. We are facing challenges that require many types of thinkers and doers to learn to translate themselves in the effort to work together. Diversity is an asset when balanced with a dash of unity.
The most exciting prospect lies not only in training people to fill powerful roles, but also in teaching them to be powerful in any role.
This semester I have become more engaged than ever before with Vancouver (as a group of small communities and a city), my own neighbourhood, local politics, my fellow students, my professors, and an array of mentors. I have also learned to deeply value the input of my peers instead of hoarding away my ‘golden ticket’ ideas. How much stronger do ideas become once enhanced and enforced by others?
I am walking away more able. This term, I was tasked with three major jobs: collaborating with three other students to find and work with city staff to execute a project that would add significant and lasting value for the City of Vancouver and the community (all in two months); creating a self-driven project that cut into and embodied my personal interest in the program; and planning and hosting a large-scale, open-house event, with a public dialogue, in a dauntingly big building to showcase the work of 200 students.
These are no small tasks. I became an entrepreneur, a project manager, and an event planner, and not in some cute camp counsellor sort of way. I had to pull this all together in a serious and consequential environment — in my own city.
The program is over now and I’ve scored a rad job as field researcher this summer, a position many of my peers are envious of. But as the date of my departure moves closer, I find myself reluctant. There is no doubt I will gain valuable experience and skill researching out there, but it takes me away from the projects I have started here in a city I have begun to think of as my own.
Michelle Vandermoor, third-year SFU student in environmental geography:
Sometimes it feels as though all of the challenges unfolding across the earth’s surface are being funnelled into a deluge that pours heavily onto Burnaby Mountain where I study at SFU (indeed, its often quite wet here). We students are exposed to some pretty heavy stuff in our undergraduate careers, and especially in the first two years when we are introduced to the biggest, most terrifying concepts in our disciplines.
As a geography student, my first two years have involved getting to know urban sprawl, imperialism, industrialization, globalization, and especially climate change. I’ve written several essays, read many textbooks, and viewed countless slides on the topic of climate change.
I think for many of us, the reality of climate change comes in waves of panic and apathy; pressed and preserved between the pages of a textbook, the challenge of climate change seems beyond me as a student, and its solutions even farther away. I picture dry, cracked landscapes; flooded shorelines; and a single polar bear perched precariously on what little ice remains. It seems as though any viable solutions could only come from our professors or the authors of our textbooks — and even they do not have it figured out. Climate change, for all intents and purposes, has been unreal to me.
Through my project work at CityStudio, however, it has suddenly become quite real. I think when we refer to projects that address “real-world” challenges here, we are referring to a shift from projects that consider these challenges hypothetically to projects that present a solution to these challenges along with metrics for their success.
Remember, I’m not a climatologist, nor an oceanographer, nor a policy analyst: I’m a student pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in geography at SFU; but no matter where we are in our education or career, I think we still have a lot to offer to even the most difficult issues.
This semester I have addressed climate change through my newly-discovered — and now irrevocable — infatuation with trees. As part of the Greenest City 2020 Action Plan, the City of Vancouver aims to increase its urban forest by 150,000 trees to utilize the many benefits of trees, which includes their ability to store carbon and mitigate climate change. Intrigued by the idea of creating the world’s most spectacular urban forest in Vancouver, my team and I asked ourselves how we could meaningfully contribute to this target.
We found ourselves pouring over research, making long distance phone calls to staff from cities across North America, and sitting down with local organizations in order to generate the best ideas for how to encourage residents to plant trees in their backyards. This week, we will be meeting with the Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation to explore ways to bring these ideas to fruition through programming.
The image of a sapling is so full of promise.
Jaclyn Bruneau, fourth-year SFU student in communications:
In the words of Duane Elverum, one of two CityStudio co-founders, students don’t take this course, they make this course.
Students make suggestions about the process of the program, criteria, due dates, guests, and exercises, which are moderated by the instructors themselves based on what they are sure is fixed.
This creates an environment where students are allowed to attend to their own needs and intuitions, confirming that there is space for their invention and discretion. Why does this matter? It matters because placing as much emphasis on personal growth as we do on career and educational growth cultivates more well-rounded entrants into the workforce. We do this by having self-awareness and self-improvement at the forefront of our minds, providing a base for all other things to stem from.
By giving students this chance, we assure them that there will always be space in the world for new, creative ideas. I would argue that there is no section in commerce, politics, life, where there isn’t a solution somewhere for a problem in need of fixing. Our sectors and selves tend to get stubborn, to act internally, and repeat the same mistakes. After all, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
As a writer, I often find myself stuck with the inability to look at a piece in a new way. I open myself to one of my peers to give it a set of fresh eyes, running with open arms toward criticism and feedback. I tend to find relief and direction in even the smallest of suggestions that I would otherwise have been unable to take notice of, as a subjective creator. The same idea can be applied to governments who give students the space to tackle real-world challenges. For projects that the city may not feel they have time for, or concepts that are underdeveloped, students have incredible power to reinvigorate.
The city also benefits by having projects completed that diversify the scope of their work. All we really need for students to get involved with government, is reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s requirements for females to become writers — a room of our own (the CityStudio building at 1800 Spyglass Place) and a sum of money to cover basic expenses. I’m certain the students will come pouring in.
I have contributed more generally by giving myself to the process wholly. I, and several others minimized other commitments as a way of honouring the commitment that we all held, to not only the tasks assigned but to our peers. In a closing exercise, we took five minutes to interview the person sitting next to us provide advice for a future CityStudio student, as a way of weighing the necessary contributions and expectations. The answers, which ranged from trusting the process, jumping in, and being honest, were things that we emphatically nodded our heads at when people voiced.
The relationship that CityStudio has introduced between post-secondary institutions and municipal government is only one example of a beneficial, symbiotic relationship that adds a wealth of experience, diversity and breath of fresh air for all involved.