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Manuel Jacinto helped build non-profit townhouses for Habitat for Humanity during 2008 Reading Week - photo courtesy of Asuka Yoshioka
Manuel Jacinto helped build non-profit townhouses for Habitat for Humanity during 2008 Reading Week - photo courtesy of Asuka Yoshioka

UBC Reports | Vol. 54 | No. 9 | Sep. 4, 2008

Aspiring Planners and Engineers Bridge Divide

By Brian Lin

Aspiring civil engineers and community planners at UBC are getting a head start in the art of cross-disciplinary collaboration thanks to a unique arrangement that brings together graduate, undergraduate and real-world classrooms.

“Civil engineers and planners typically work together as professionals and often face challenges in communicating ideas from different perspectives,” says Susan Nesbit, instructor of Civil 202, a required course for approximately 100 second-year undergraduate students. “But there’s virtually been no linkage between the two professions at the educational level.”

Last year, Nesbit and Margo Fryer, an assistant professor in the School of Community and Regional Planning (SCARP), synchronized activities in their respective courses and created a one-of-a-kind learning experience. Graduate students in Fryer’s course served as mentors to Nesbit’s teams of undergraduate civil engineering students. Each team chose a non-profit organization in the Metro Vancouver Area and carried out projects during Reading Week designed to further their understanding of social and environmental sustainability.

“The activities are intended to show our students how to work with organizations and individuals from diverse cultures,” says Fryer, who is also founding director of the UBC Community Learning Initiative, a university-wide effort to help faculty and students incorporate community service-learning in learning activities.

Civil engineering student Jeffrey Wong helped build cold frames for the YWCA rooftop garden, which provides vegetables to low-income families living in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Cold frames serve as miniature greenhouses that allow seedlings to germinate in late winter for transplanting in early spring. Wong’s team opted for boiled linseed oil instead of synthetic chemicals for wood treatment, and recycled windows and shower doors for glass panels.

“I witnessed the contribution of each team member and learned the complexity of social issues,” says Wong. “This experience has been an invaluable asset in understanding my role as an engineer, and what I can contribute as a citizen to my community.”

“We all have stereotypical ideas of particular professions,” says Fryer. ”By bringing students from these two professions together, we hope they’d get past those superficial impressions and learn to bridge different cultures and perspectives.”

SCARP graduate student Asuka Yoshioka led a group of eight engineering students and helped build non-profit housing in Burnaby, B.C. for Habitat for Humanity. “The experience reinforced the ideas I have of a career in planning,” says Yoshioka.

“As professional planners, we’ll be working with people who have different expertise and perspectives, and it’s our job to ensure that we are all communicating and working together to achieve the common goal. This course gave me first-hand experience of what it’s like to work with people with very different approaches.”

Fryer and Nesbit will be offering their courses jointly again this fall but not limiting community service-learning projects only to Reading Week. “We’ve heard from engineering students that they’d like to be involved in the assessment and design of the projects,” says Fryer. “We also heard from our community partners -- all of whom have signed on to participate again this year -- that they’d like more flexibility in the length of time students are involved.”

The key to a meaningful community service-learning experience, say Nesbit and Fryer, lies in the reflection. “That’s where students make the connection between what they’re learning in class with what they’re doing in the field,” says Nesbit, who places a high emphasis -- 15 per cent, to be exact -- on students’ journals for their final grades.

For the graduate students, who are charged with providing feedback to their undergraduate teammates and receive feedback from Fryer on their own journals, the process also develops mentoring skills and provides undergraduate students with a level of personal attention atypical in a large introductory class.

“Being a mentor was also incredibly rewarding,” says Yoshioka. “ When I did my undergraduate degree, I often felt like just a student number in the masses. I think the engineering students appreciated the time and effort we put into replying to each student, and reading and replying to the engineering students’ journals was a real pleasure for us as well.”

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Last reviewed 04-Sep-2008

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