Cities around the world will spend trillions of dollars in the next decades responding to the demands of population, energy, resource depletion and climate change. These changes will affect everything we do: where we live, what we eat and how we work and move. Many cities are setting ambitious targets, but very few are on track to meet these goals.
University students know about these immense challenges. During our years of teaching and developing curriculum, we grew frustrated hearing the same plea from students over and over again: I am ready to contribute and make real change now but I'm not learning how to do it in my classes.
This is not surprising. Upon entering university, undergraduates embark on a 4-year hiatus from the world. We line them up in dark lecture halls to listen passively, read dense textbooks disconnected from real-world issues, write essays for their professors' eyes only and ask them to memorize, memorize, memorize.
For too many of the 1.2-million students in Canada, the university experience leaves them feeling confused, anxious, unprepared and in debt just when they are expected to embrace the future following graduation.
Our young citizens rightfully expect universities to provide them with high-quality learning experiences that are social, flexible, interdisciplinary and relevant in order to learn how to improve our cities and create a better world. They may need the information and degrees that universities offer, but they also crave experiences that will teach them how to become changemakers, innovators and social entrepreneurs in our cities.
Committed to helping our universities provide these experiences for students, we welcomed the challenge issued by Mayor Gregor Robertson and councillor Andrea Reimer for citizens to submit ideas to help Vancouver become the Greenest City in the world by 2020. We proposed a new school called CityStudio that would simultaneously create deeply engaged learning experiences and help the city achieve its goal.
Supported by the City Manager, we invited students from our six Vancouver postsecondary institutions (British Columbia Institute of Technology, Emily Carr University, Langara College, Simon Fraser University, University of British Columbia and Vancouver Community College) to receive credits working inside City Hall and with communities on Vancouver's sustainability problems.
Imagine the teaching hospital model applied to City Hall, opening its doors to students for hands-on learning. The city would be the classroom where students would undertake projects making Vancouver more green, healthy and affordable. Of the 800 ideas presented to the city, CityStudio was voted into the top four – mostly by students – and launched as a pilot project.
Our three program areas – a capstone project studio, a network of postsecondary partner courses and faculty, and a convening and consulting service – have involved 1,700 students from six Vancouver campuses working with 36 City staff and 94 community advisers and professionals, creating 53 neighbourhood projects. Students alone have contributed 50,000 credit hours of learning and action towards the City of Vancouver's Greenest City Action Plan and Healthy City Strategy.
A good example of the kind of projects students work on include designing and building new community gardens in Vancouver parks as part of the city's Access to Nature and Food Policy goals. With the help of city staff, students create budgets for master plans and material purchases, as well as design and build garden elements including furniture and small buildings.
In another project, Keys to the Streets, students placed 5 pianos on the sea wall and in parks for a two month period last summer. Diverting free Craigslist pianos from the landfill, the team arranged media and communications, sponsored piano moving, tuning, and community stewards who would report problems and install rain tarps. Supporting the City's goals of Zero Waste and public realm activation, the pianos were host to constant impromptu neighbourhood concerts, music videos and public events.
These projects have taught us that university students can do far more than we ask them to do in their classes. They can take on real world challenges and create positive change in our cities. The real learning is in the how – they co-create with multiple stakeholders, facilitate dialogues, manage projects, raise funds, and implement pilots to demonstrate longer-term viability. We have also learned that these projects activate and energize changemakers and innovators inside city hall, universities and communities, nudging them to launch their own initiatives.
CityStudio's model is unique but we're part of a worldwide movement creating more meaningful learning experiences to help young people impact the world. Denmark's Kaospilots, Stanford's d. School, Berkeley's Project H, SFU's Semester in Dialogue, London's Year Here, Mozilla's Open Badges, Chicago's Experience Institute, and Ontario's new Studio Y are showing us what education can be, and what it should be for.
These initiatives do not deliver courses in the traditional university format. The learning is not compartmentalized into autonomous subject areas and students are not tested on their capacity to remember content. These new schools provide immersive, interdisciplinary, project-based experiences that require integrated thinking where students are evaluated on their ability to understand complex problems and execute real solutions. We recommend universities follow this example.
We are all striving to fully engage and equip new generations of changemakers and social innovators who are determined to make this planet work. Students are telling us that they are ready to do this now and we need to be listening.
Duane Elverum and SFU's Dr. Janet Moore are Co-Founders and Co-Directors of CityStudio Vancouver. In 2013, CityStudio was the first Canadian recipient of the Ashoka U Cordes Award for Innovation. This article is part of a series produced by Ashoka Canada's Learning Networks initiative to showcase innovative solutions in education.