Health sciences professor Meghan Winters


Hotly debated transit referendum enriches student learning

February 27, 2015

By Carol Thorbes

Simon Fraser University health scientist Meghan Winters and local government are collaborating on motivating a lackluster voting population to think deeply about a pivotal issue, vote on it and get others to do the same.

The upcoming Metro Vancouver transit referendum on whether a proposed half-percent sales tax increase should be implemented to fund transit improvements is driving Winters’ course in Health and the Built Environment. It explores how city design features, such as transportation options, nurture or undermine public health. SFU’s CityStudio is a collaborator, is bringing Vancouver City Hall staff, university students and community stakeholders together to conceive innovative and experimental city design solutions to resolve challenges, such as traffic congestion.

Winters’ and CityStudio’s shared goal is to help students realize their power to engage citizens in improving Vancouver’s healthy livability.

Through assignments, the students are also addressing the low level of youth engagement plaguing the upcoming referendum.

“The students are encouraged to examine local links between health and the built environment within the context of the impending transit referendum,” explains Winters, who keeps her stance on the issue out of her teaching.

Course assignments include a blog post on transportation choices available in students’ neighbourhoods, and a media project to encourage youth participation in the referendum. Guest presenters from various community organizations also explore key citizen concerns regarding the Metro Vancouver transit tax.

The course’s hands-on approach sets it apart from other classes that Ericka-Jade Mulherin, a fourth-year health sciences major, has taken.

“Other courses also make the case that the built environment is one of the ways in which we can maintain the quality of health for Metro Vancouver’s fast-growing population,” she says. “But this course differs in that we are encouraged to instigate the changes we want to see; changes that will advance public health.

“There is a lot of misconception around what the transit tax entails. My peers don’t fully understand how much it will cost them, or that plans to oversee how the revenue would be invested are being put in place. Our assignments have tasked us with the responsibility of communicating such information clearly so that people become engaged in this very important issue.”

Says Winters: “These assignments and dialogue opportunities will allow the students to develop different communication skills, apart from writing papers and midterms. They are learning how to make information more accessible and to create messages that mobilize the youth community. These are hugely beneficial skills that will help them transition beyond the university.”