University-city partnerships: Paving new paths for students’ success

Zhihao Chen and Saskia Kemp standing in front of project cities posterAt Arizona State University, students are presented with many opportunities to gain hands-on experience in their field by learning outside of the classroom. One of these is our relatively young Project Cities (PC) program. PC helps students develop professional skills, apply classroom knowledge to real-world projects, and build networks with other students and professionals with local municipalities. A total of 21 classes and 329 students have participated in Project Cities over the course of four semesters since the program started in fall 2017. PC staff interviewed two ASU students who had been involved in our program multiple times about their experiences with Project Cities. The first of these was Zhihao Chen, an entrepreneur and recent graduate from ASU’s Environmental Resource Management (ERM) program. The other was Saskia Kemp, a senior, also in the ERM program with a minor in Sustainability. Chen and Kemp first worked with us in fall 2017 alongside the City of Apache Junction on their “Sustainable Solid Waste Management Systems” initiative. This project consisted of two parts: a solid waste complaints analysis and an environmental health safety analysis. Both described their experiences as beneficial for establishing connections within the industry. They also appreciated that this program allowed them to address challenges that required real-world solutions and application of their classroom knowledge. Following their first semesters with Project Cities, both students pursued additional PC-related projects; Kemp enrolled in a second PC class partnering with Glendale, and Chen pursued a continuation of the initial project with Apache Junction. The following dialogue and summary come from an interview with PC staff about both students’ experience in the program. Question: What has been your biggest highlight working with Project Cities? Answer: “We have laid the foundation for Sustainable Solid Waste Management in the City of Apache Junction. It feels great to think that the future waste management policies will be based on our recommendations,” said Chen. Kemp particularly enjoyed presenting her work to city officials and representatives and receiving valuable feedback from them. Q: In your view, how do classes with a project-based learning (PBL) component compare with classes that don't have a PBL component? A: Both Chen and Kemp acknowledged the fact that classes with a PBL component provide great opportunities for students to experience hands-on learning in their relevant fields of interest. “PBL can fulfill the gap between theoretical knowledge and practical experience. It helps students network as well,” mentioned Chen. “Applied projects surpass other classes. They give us a scope to apply and comprehend our knowledge in the real industry,” affirmed Kemp. Zhihao Chen and Saskia Kemp standing in front of project cities posterQ: How is this work valuable to the city partners? A: The students believe their work has a larger impact than the immediate project they completed. Kemp says that Project Cities supports a thriving symbiosis between the city and the ASU students, as both were required for the program to find success. She believes the best part of the process is that students often get to see the changes they proposed to the city become a reality. Recalling his sustainable solid waste management project with the Apache Junction, Chen said, “The future policy of waste management in the Apache Junction will be based on our report. It is an accurate and precise report, and I believe it has great value for policy makers in the city.” Q: How has the Project Cities program helped you expand and develop your professional network and relationships? A: According to Chen and Kemp, the program allowed them to work with people from both private sector entities and the local government, potentially helping them land a job or internship after graduation. Kemp said that Project Cities helped her build strong relationships with market professionals, learn about the latest job openings with the city, and supported her professional development. She stressed, “The industry is actively looking for people who are getting the degree. Through Project Cities we come in the lime light and are able to add valuable contacts to our list.” Chen reflected, “For me in particular, it helps my own venture to set up pilot scale projects with the cities that I have worked with. I think it will be great to also bring parties from private sectors, such as environmental consulting firms, equipment manufacturers, and environmental startups. There may be more innovative solutions for environmental challenges if there are more parties with different backgrounds.” Launching students into the professional world Based on Chen and Kemp’s responses, it’s clear that students find value in a program like Project Cities, which provides support for project-based learning. These are two of several students to return to PC-aligned classes, with a desire to continue working closely with the local professionals in the PC network, before finishing their degree at ASU. A primary goal of the Project Cities program is to function as a launchpad into the professional world; experiences like these bear out the opportunities inherent in project-based learning. Project Cities is a member of the Educational Partnerships for Innovation in Communities Network and is administered by ASU’s Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability and the Sustainable Cities Network.