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Service-Learning in Smart Communities Gives Students Real-World Career Experience

SCI Cleveland brochure

By Nichole Stevens

UT’s multi-disciplinary collaboration with the city of Cleveland, Tennessee is “ a powerful partnership,” said Kelly Ellenburg, campus coordinator for service-learning.

Ellenburg works in a rustic, brick Tudor-style house on Melrose Avenue. Visitors there will find her diligently working away next to her Smart Communities Initiative Design Assistant, Taylor Dotson.

The Smart Communities Initiative program gives UT students hands-on experience as they tackle civic projects through a suite of UT courses, all focused in one city, county, or special district a year.

Dotson was recruited by UT’s service-learning office after her experience as a student working with the Smart Communities Initiative in Cleveland, Tennessee, about an hour and a half south of Knoxville. She is a fifth-year architecture student at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and a local to Cleveland, so working with SCI literally hit close to home for her.

“When you’re in courses, you’re typically  not out in the field and you’re buried in books,” Dotson said. “You don’t get too much real-world experience. This type of atmosphere gives you the hands-on aspect you wouldn’t get normally.”

Kelly Ellenburg

Kelly Ellenburg

Dotson and the other students in her class were assigned work on reuse and redevelopment options for areas of a 90-acre site in downtown Cleveland. The site includes a number of vacant and blighted buildings, many of which were once used for industrial purposes. Several students visited the site to assess possible changes that could include parks and bicycle trails to better connect the area to nearby amenities and services.

Next semester, another UT course will do a follow-up analysis and look at options for redevelopment of one of these vacant buildings into a possible “makers lab” for local art education, production, and start-up businesses.

2014 was a pilot year for SCI, and both Ellenburg and Dotson consider it a great success.

“I felt like the city was really helpful with everything. They helped us shape our design and overall were very receptive,” said Dotson. “It was a really rewarding experience for all parties involved.”

The role of SCI is to work alongside the partnering community, not to supersede it. “The next step is for Cleveland to decide how they would like to move forward,” said Ellenburg. “Student projects, for the most part, are designed to empower the next step by presenting a plethora of options to the city.”

UT Service-Learning has been accepting applications for next year’s SCI partnership. By mid-February, it will announce the next city, county or special district to work with SCI for the 2015-16 academic year.

Projects for Cleveland included land use, design of physical structures, streetscapes, storm water mapping, transportation, and city branding, among many others. Ellenburg said she would like next year’s projects to include a greater focus on social and economic opportunities as well. Projects could deal with leveraging opportunities with small businesses, local food systems, community gardening, local farm-to-table programs, career preparedness initiatives or housing and affordable housing that are in line with job opportunities.

Cleveland Gazebo

Cleveland, Tennessee

“The hope is that Cleveland can use (completed SCI student) proposals to generate funding,” said Ellenburg. “The scale of the partnership is what makes it so exciting, as does the way it creates a place for people with different gifts, talents, and areas of expertise.”

Service-learning courses allow students to engage in career-building experiences. Students network with possible employers, government leadership and local residents in the community.

SCI operates on a large scale and involves 15-30 courses each year. Projects relate to economic viability, environmental sustainability and social integrity within that community.  Through service-learning courses like SCI, students develop a better understanding of complexity and applications of what they learn in class.

“I think with Cleveland and other communities we’re looking at right now, it’s very beneficial for them and the students,” said Dotson. “I hope it continues. It’s really just wonderful.”

The Smart Communities Initiative was nominated as a Partnership that Makes a Difference. Click here to read more.