March 16, 2022

CityStudio Vancouver offers instructors a path to community-based learning projects

City staff, students, faculty and the Vancouver community work together to make Vancouver a more sustainable, equitable and joyful place to live.

One of the pillars of Simon Fraser University’s strategic vision is community engagement. But how does that engagement happen?

For instructors who want to connect their students’ learning experiences with the world around them, one path is CityStudio Vancouver.

CityStudio describes itself as “an innovation hub that brings together City staff, students, faculty and community to co-create experiential learning and applied projects to make Vancouver more sustainable, equitable and joyful.”

The independent organization began in 2011 as a collaboration between SFU and the City of Vancouver and has expanded to include additional academic partners, including UBC, BCIT and Langara College. The model has been replicated across Canada and in Australia and Norway.

CityStudio staff members develop project ideas with City staff, match those projects with faculty members at the partner institutions, and then support, facilitate and promote the co-creations between students and City staff. The collaborations generally take place within a course environment, and SFU-affiliated instructors and students typically carry out five or six projects each term.

CityStudio director Miriam Esquitín is a passionate advocate of this partnership model because of the impact the experience can have on students, City staff and the community: “These projects are real, current and pressing civic issues. Our model is about coming together with openness, creativity and joy to address them, which ultimately transforms us and makes us feel connected to each other and to our city.”

A project that checked all the boxes

Zafar Adeel, a professor in the School of Sustainable Energy Engineering (SEE) at SFU’s Surrey campus, is in the middle of his first CityStudio collaboration.

The challenge—to design a more environmentally friendly solution to power the Stanley Park Miniature Train in Vancouver—was presented to him by CityStudio program coordinators Nina Abizadeh and Kelly Gardner. He saw it as an ideal fit for his SEE 410W: Sustainable Energy Design Project I course.

“It basically checked all the boxes of what a perfect project should be,” he notes, including a “hard-core” engineering challenge with a sustainability focus for his students and a public-facing element that could, with the help of CityStudio communication and engagement coordinator Renée McMillen, bring visibility to the relatively new SEE program.

Adeel’s students met with the members of the train operations crew during the first week of the course and have had multiple scheduled and informal contacts with CityStudio and City of Vancouver collaborators since then. They are now hard at work on a battery/motor option that is both environmentally friendly and economically feasible.

Adeel sees the real-world nature of the project as a valuable benefit for his students: “To have something like this in their resume—you know, ‘We created this wonderful solution for Stanley Park’—I think that’s a pretty prominent example to put on your resume.”

He is also full of praise for the role CityStudio staff have played in facilitating the experience.

“Creating the relationship is a great credit to CityStudio’s function because if that were not there, I don’t think we would even have this project.

“[It] actually takes a lot of the stress out of engagement with an industrial partner, so to speak, because they have done this before.”

He is already anticipating future collaborations: “For the instructors in our school who are always looking to have real-world examples that can be embedded in their courses, I think there are lots of opportunities.”

A flexible approach to designing learning experiences

Anne-Marie Nicol, an associate professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences, has partnered twice with CityStudio.

In the first case, CityStudio approached her with a list of possible projects because of her previous involvement in a public health campaign.

She chose a challenge that focused on emergency preparedness, and in Spring 2021 students in her HSCI 495: Applied Health Science Project course developed Colour, Kits, and Connection, an initiative that used artist-designed colouring books and community engagement to educate the public and boost the number of emergency kits owned by Vancouver residents.

In Fall 2021, students in her HSCI 412: Health Communication course completed a project titled Beat the Heat. In that case, the idea for a project focused on raising awareness and preparedness related to extreme heat events came from Nicol herself in response to the impacts of the “heat dome” that struck British Columbia in Summer 2021.

She was impressed that CityStudio was “flexible enough to realize that this was something worth addressing” and able to find a City partner at short notice. She used the opportunity to experiment with a format that treated the entire class of 40-plus students as a single team divided into five sub-groups with responsibility for particular aspects of the project.

The result was a unique learning experience and a campaign that won the “Staff Pick” award in CityStudio’s annual Hubbub project showcase.

Nicol recognizes that the project framework might not appeal to students who prefer a more structured course format, but “for people who like tackling real-world challenges, working in teams, dynamic learning environment, controlling their own learning journey, I think it’s a really good fit.”

And she sees the experience as something that can add meaning to her students’ academic work.

“I think as a student I would really like to feel like what I was doing wasn’t just a term paper, it was something real that I could point to.”

Explore opportunities for participation

CityStudio issues regular calls for participation and welcomes inquiries from faculty members.

“We invite instructors from any department with an interest in experiential learning to contact us,” says Miriam Esquitín. “There are so many opportunities for students and classes to participate in creative and innovative learning experiences in the community. We are here to connect you and facilitate the experience.”