Stephen P. Robinson Collaboration Grant Report: The Lovett School and The Westminster Schools
Wednesday, April 27, 2016
Posted by: Christina Mimms
Dr. Stephen P. Robinson Collaboration Grant
Atlanta 2.0: Urban Design Fellowship: An academic collaboration between The Lovett School and The Westminster Schools
The Lovett School (GA) and The Westminster Schools (GA) are rivals on the sports fields but collaborators when it comes to the classroom. In 2013, the two schools joined to create a summer course to encourage students at both schools to take an active role in improving the quality of life in the city of Atlanta. Atlanta 2.0 (ATL 2.0), a course taught jointly by a teacher from Lovett and a teacher from Westminster, was born, allowing students to engage with civic leaders, tour a broad spectrum of Atlanta neighborhoods, and examine an array of current literature about contemporary urban life. Students worked to identify problems in the city, research potential solutions to those problems, and ultimately propose said solutions to a panel of Atlanta’s leaders in government, business, education, law, medicine, and the arts.
View their video presentation from the 2015 SAIS Annual Conference here.
The course, which has run for three summers, focuses on the theme of “Beauty, Community, and Public Space.” Students study communities from English Avenue, to Little Five Points, to the Beltline, with a particular eye towards recognizing the beauty around them and how communities make use of common spaces. They study street art, parks, urban gardens, and development projects while meeting with a range of business and community leaders.
After building a foundation in urban issues and the design thinking approach to problem-solving, students focus on a particular neighborhood, getting to know as many residents and community leaders as possible and understanding the challenges and opportunities in the neighborhood. In 2013 and 2014, they focused on the Bolton-Riverside community, a transitional neighborhood just a few miles from Lovett and Westminster. In 2015, they focused on Adair Park, on the Beltline. Ultimately, each student team (comprised of both Lovett and Westminster students) proposes a specific “solution” to an urban problem, drawing inspiration from the tactical urbanism movement.
From the beginning, Atlanta 2.0 was as much about collaboration, critical thinking, and problem-solving as it was about the specifics of the city of Atlanta. The course powerfully broke down stereotypes between Lovett and Westminster students; as the students worked together, they realized there are fewer differences between students at the two schools than they had imagined. The course also forced students outside the “Buckhead Bubble,” as they were exposed to geographic, economic, and social dimensions of the city which they had never before imagined. Not only did students break down barriers between their schools, they started to understand a more complex, nuanced, and diverse city.
Atlanta 2.0 was conceived and constructed as a course in which students would do something. By design, the course has no home base — students meet in a pre-determined location each day — so that it is neither a Lovett course nor a Westminster course. Each day, students are out in the city, exploring and understanding new neighborhoods and issues. The work that truly sets the course apart, however, is what comes in the final week, as students propose solutions to specific problems. Empowered, students identify the human and physical resources they need, line up interviews, develop prototypes, and work through group dynamics and real-world obstacles. The course concludes when groups formally present and defend their solutions to a panel of experts.
Within three weeks (approximately 90 course hours), students develop a foundational knowledge of the city and the design process, immerse themselves in a particular neighborhood, and prototype a solution to a problem. Along the way, they are also learning to think critically about difficult issues; work in a diverse group with people they have never met before; assert their ideas in front of business and community leaders; and revise their ideas repeatedly in pursuit of a workable prototype.
In summer 2015, the course focused on the ways in which the design of Atlanta’s public spaces can impact community development. Students came to understand public space and community through the lenses of business, economics, and sustainability, to complement the lenses of beauty and aesthetics that drove the course previously. Students engaged with the Atlanta Beltline, Ponce City Market, and other public space initiatives designed to make our city more sustainable (economically and ecologically), sociable, beautiful, and functional. Their proposals included three possible iterations or phases: 1) small, grassroots, based in tactical urbanism; 2) midterm, inexpensive, but with a longer lifespan; and 3) strategic development, with fewer obstacles in terms of time and money, allowing for more dramatic stages on a macro scale.
As is clearly evidenced in the development of The Beltline and Ponce City Market, business development, community development, and beauty can and should work together, and the most powerful business decisions are those that are grounded in empathy — the first stage of the design thinking process. The course design assumes we learn best through experience, expedition, problem solving, the integration of studies, and a commitment to public service.
Atlanta 2.0 has been valuable for several reasons, including the following:
1) The course models collaboration between two independent schools whose relationship was traditionally grounded in athletic rivalry. The students collaborate through extensive group work. The teachers collaborate through their shared planning and execution. Academic administrators at the two schools collaborate to solve problems and determine the course’s guiding philosophy. In all respects, Atlanta 2.0 signals the power of an academic experience that is jointly constructed and that transcends any one school’s students, faculty, or culture. Atlanta 2.0 is a small glimpse of what two or more institutions can accomplish when they work together
2) Lovett and Westminster (along with many other independent schools across the country) are looking for opportunities for students to learn in more immersive settings, allowing for deeper learning that is harder to achieve in a standard 45, 60, or even 90-minute block during the day. Atlanta 2.0 provides an opportunity for students and teachers to see what a three-week intensive teaching block is like.
3) No school is independent of its setting. For students at Lovett and Westminster, understanding the specific context of the city of Atlanta is critical. We believe that interacting with the residents and leaders of the city, outside of the traditional school building, is one of the best possible ways for students to learn about the city. Further, this practice of civic engagement is critical as we prepare students as leaders and citizens, compelled and empowered to act with empathy in an increasingly diverse landscape.
When asked to explain her reasons for taking this course, one student responded, “I am fascinated by the ability to experience many different cultures within one great city. I think a diverse city is the perfect classroom; there are so many things to learn within a city that cannot be taught in a building. There’s no better way to explore problems than to see them in action, and then create solutions using information that can only be gained by integrating yourself with the people and places that are causing the actual problem.”
We are grateful to the SAIS and the Dr. Stephen P. Robinson Collaboration Grant for the financial support which allowed Atlanta 2.0 to provide generous financial aid to course participants in 2015. Pictures from summer 2015 are available at www.instagram.com/atl2.0.