School of Cities / News

Toronto as Urban Laboratory: Community-Engaged Learning in the Urban Studies Program

By David J. Roberts, Assistant Professor, Teaching Stream, Urban Studies Program, University of Toronto

It has become almost cliché to describe Toronto as the laboratory in which our students learn about the world, but for students enrolled in Introduction to Urban Studies II course (INI236), community-engaged learning opportunities across the city provide a key component of the educational experience. As an early facilitator of community-engaged learning, the Urban Studies Program at UofT’s Innis College has been placing students within community organizations as part of the introductory course for nearly a decade. The hope is that through working in community organizations on projects that these organizations have identified as a key need, students will appreciate the course content as well as the complexity of life in Toronto in new ways.

Each year, course faculty solicit potential community projects from community organizations throughout the city. Each organization submits a proposed project for Urban Studies students to undertake that addresses a pressing community need within their organization or the communities within which they work. The professor then works to match students and facilitate their placements during the winter term. This past year, projects ranged from homework support and mentoring, to working to staff food and clothing banks, to the building of a buddy bench for an arts-based after-school program.

Additionally, for the first time this past winter, students were placed at the Ralph Thornton Community Centre (RTCC) where they worked with staff to conduct a building user audit and survey to better understand who is using the community centre and for what purposes. As Susy Glass, the volunteer coordinator at Ralph Thornton explains, “The UofT students were instrumental in the success of the building census, they were placed throughout the building asking users to participate in a short survey. The students spoke with over 400 of our building users and collected valuable information about why they come to our building, how often, and how they use it.”

This project not only helped RTCC better understand its community, but also gave students an inside look at the integral role that community centres play in fostering community capacity and vibrancy. In reflecting on their experiences, one student summed it up in this way, “I learned a lot through the placement at RTCC. [I learned] about all the different roles and effort that it takes by many volunteers and staff so that the centre can operate effectively. For my role, specifically in administering the census survey, I learned about how many people take advantage of the services and programs at the centre. The range and diversity of people that use the centre surprised me and it shows what a positive effect the centre has on the neighbourhood. The experience taught me how important and beneficial it is get involved with the community.”

Students who chose to be placed in a community-engaged learning option use their experiences as the basis of their final paper in which they work to bridge the work they did in their placements with the course material. Additionally, they present their experiences and findings in the form of a poster session open to community partners and the university community. It is in this final component that all of the elements seems to really come together.

My hope with our community-engaged placements is that participation in them helps the course material, which includes discussions on the nature of citizenship, urban challenges, and the variety of ways in which individuals within cities work to engage to make the city a better place, comes alive in ways that augment what we study in the classroom. For many of the students who have participated, this seems to be the case. Innis Principal Charlie Keil remarked after attending the most recent poster session, “it is really interesting work that the students are doing, and the amount of social awareness it promotes is pretty impressive. It is a great opportunity for them.”

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