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How is CityStudio Changing Education?

This blog is the first in 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.

Question #1: How has your experience at CityStudio changed the way you view education?

Jaclyn Bruneau, fourth-year SFU student in communications:

We probably all have a fairly similar idea of what a 120-credit post-secondary education looks like. We sign up for tutorials and labs that correspond with lectures. We sit in halls with hundreds of forward-facing eyes.

   Jaclyn Bruneau

We attempt to extract sound bytes from professors, testing our abilities to predict exam material. We hoard the earth-shattering sources we sometimes discover on our quest to complete The Impending Term Paper. Along the way, we’re likely forced into a group project or two with people just as eager to divide tasks quickly and cleanly.

Admittedly, I had a vague idea of what CityStudio might be like. I had heard about SFU’s Undergraduate Semester in Dialogue through the grapevine and mused about what it would be like to work on so-called “real-world” projects. It seemed utopian to imagine a space where students were entrusted with tasks typically reserved for people finished their degrees, or in higher levels of education.

For some reason, even in my own mind, as a student, I caught myself echoing the common mentality that undergrads are unfit for jobs that grant significant responsibilities. Unfit, that is, until the ultimate, degree-granting moment — as if cap and gown day is a tangible, justified threshold where minds in a Petri dish become minds who run the lab; where students who get good grades become people responsible for their own piece of the pie and receive compensation for the fruits of their work.

CityStudio is not only a group-work-heavy collaboration between students from varying backgrounds and different institutions but a place where development and refinement of individual strength is encouraged, and actually inevitable. Many people who have forever detested group work have realized ways to not only tolerate the process but to enjoy it, verifying that group work in post-secondary is not flawed by existence but likely by design.

As someone who identifies as more of an introvert, I confidently attest to the comfort of this setting. There seems to be an increasing trend to incorporate more symbiotic processes; in educational settings from the preschool to PhD level, as well as in workplaces of a wide array. This should in no way suggest that the introvert, or the process of solo information-absorption and -generation is in exile, in fact it is crucial.

However, CityStudio has encouraged me to foray into the richness that accompanies sharing my own information which also enables unprecedented access to the ideas of my peers. For these four months, we abolish the notion of information hoarding for individual, grade-growing benefit. When it is established that everyone is expected to not compete on parallel lines, some pretty electric things start happening.

Michelle Vandermoor, third-year SFU student in environmental geography:

As a geography student, I think in terms of space. Prior to this semester, I understood learning as something that happened within a large, rectangular room with 20 to 500 seats in rows, all facing the same direction. While this is still a legitimate space for learning, CityStudio has introduced me to a few more options.

 Michelle Vandermoor

Learning can happen in a community centre, at a local business, on transit, and around a street corner. Learning can happen at Development Services in City Hall while exploring how the permit processing experience might be improved for residents. Learning can happen at Evergreen's urban orchard while discovering how youth can become engaged in Vancouver's Greenest City 2020 goals.

Learning can happen at Soulfood farm while identifying what resources might help a social enterprise build capacity in the Downtown Eastside. Learning can happen in the CIRS building at UBC while observing students from all disciplines brought into the same space and introduced to sustainability topics.

Learning can happen at the Vancouver Parks Board office where staff share their successes and challenges in moving projects forward. Learning can also happen at Cities Summit while becoming part of a conversation about how cities can look to students for solutions to real-world problems.

Education seems to delineate where and when learning occurs through time schedules, room numbers, and departments. The spaces in which learning can happen, however, are not limited to the seats one may occupy in a lecture hall.

When the city becomes the classroom, learning becomes something that is limited only by one's own imagination and willingness to engage in issues and in conversations throughout the city. When the city is the classroom, projects become more meaningful, students become more invested, and are motivated to do and become more.

Becky Till, fourth-year SFU student in human geography:

Well, what was my view of education coming into this? As a student who took five years off because of a deep disappointment with my first year experience, I really had to want to be there this time around. I also work and pay for it all myself — so I try to get the most out of every class. But even with that, there is a word I use way too often to describe my life as a student — isolated.

       Becky Till

When I sit in my spot on the sixth floor of the SFU Burnaby library (the one with a view of the mountains) slotted into my panel-sided cubical, like a horse with blinders meant to curtail side vision, I have to force myself to look forward. Day after day I sit, focus, read, critique, synthesize, and articulate. All extremely valuable skills I know will continue to enrich my life. But what will I do with it all? Why does it really matter? I’m being educated, but I’m not being taught how to apply myself in any meaningful way. We are teaching people to look forward instead of look around.
So when I heard about the CityStudio program it seemed like an opportunity to widen the scope. And it has. This program has not only offered me a chance to research a topic but encourages me to turn that research into projects that will add value to the city and community. I am being taught how to see a need and fill it, how to make ideas reality, and how to wager bureaucracy in the process. Humans have a kind of magic. We can think of an idea, it’s just something in our brain, and then we can make it real. This is powerful stuff. It’s like being let in on some undiscovered secret — oh I can leverage change in the broader community as a student? Huh, how about that.
Since the first week of this program I have not thought about grades. Instead I think about who I can connect with to make sure my projects have a meaningful impact. My GPA has become a measure of how well I can build partnerships, communicate, and listen to people at all levels. An ‘A’ means I am being equal parts compassionate and productive as a team member. I am satisfied because people are impacted in a positive way by my work.
So how has my view changed? Well, I guess you could say I took my blinders off, and the view got a whole lot wider.

Read Blog #2: Expanding Learning through Dialogue

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Jaclyn Bruneau, Becky Till, and Michelle Vandermoor are three students attending CityStudio, a collaboration between the six public post-secondary institutions and the City of Vancouver in an effort to have students design and implement projects supplementary to the Greenest City 2020 goals.

CityStudio is regarded as SFU's Undergraduate Semester in Dialogue's "Semester in the City," fusing the upper-level stream for interdisciplinary students with the opportunity to learn beyond classroom walls and engage with local community. The program is formed around dialogue, inviting thought leaders from the public, private, non-profit and academic domains into an equalizing conversation devoid of formal presentations and on the premise that everyone is an expert of their own experience.

Students learn through the dialogue process and complete projects under the guidance and advice of people in the very fields in which the projects aim to leverage change. Instead of working around a numerical grade, students devote energy toward ensuring the projects are as meaningful as possible.

In lieu of this style of learning and through a series of four blog entries, the three will explore what makes CityStudio unique and important as a consideration for the development of education as a field.

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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.

I spend at least two hours commuting on public transit every day to and from CityStudio. Before this semester, no space made me more uncomfortable. Now, I simply relish in it.

There is no doubt I have become privy to an expansive web of inter-connected networks I had no idea existed. In months past, I have sat with my 30-year-old professionally employed roommate and listened to her express her concern over not feeling connected to anything broader. She does not feel particularly engaged with Vancouver even though she wants to feel that way. It struck me that before this course I felt exactly the same way.