Pittsburgh: Where the City Is the Classroom

As director of City as Our Campus at Winchester Thurston School in Pittsburgh, I spend a lot of my time connecting students, faculty, and community partners. We discuss authenticity and agency — the importance of students directing their own learning experiences, investigating questions that interest them, and finding the answers themselves.
 
These are not new discussions here. At Winchester Thurston (WT), a pre-kindergarten to grade 12 school of 700 students, we’ve embedded experiential learning into our program since our founding in 1887. City as Our Campus, established in 2004, is a part of this tradition, as it emphasizes key skills students need to succeed today and in the future: critical thinking, creativity, communication, and a passion for lifelong learning.

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A visit to an abandoned steel mill is an important experience to learn about Pittsburgh’s industrial history. Photos credit: Jason Cohn/Winchester Thurston School
 

City as Our Campus helps to extend the classroom beyond the school and into the community. Students often utilize spaces as part of their learning. This student is surveying a local park as part of a class assignment.


Community Connections

 
In all grade levels, students engage in deep, hands-on learning experiences as they connect with Pittsburgh’s rich resources. Connections range from doctors visiting a science class to walking tours focused on local immigration to yearlong post-AP courses in upper school with forays into the wider community and interactions with community partners, such as local nonprofits and environmental groups.
 
City as Our Campus is integral to WT’s daily curriculum across grade levels. The work begins in the elementary grades. For example:
  • First-graders study architecture and urban planning to learn how and why communities are designed and built. Classes take walking tours of local neighborhoods, teachers lead discussions about community design and co-teach with architects to learn about the architecture field, and students construct their ideal community.
  • Third-graders spend their entire year learning about Pittsburgh’s history by visiting historically and culturally significant sites, such as an abandoned steel mill and a former military fortress, while discussing forces, including immigration and urban renewal, that have shaped our city.
  • Fifth-graders learn about immigration by interviewing people who immigrated to Pittsburgh from other countries and creating oral histories saved in an online archive through a partnership with SLB Radio, a local radio production company for children.
 
In middle school, students discover new interests and take on more responsibility in different classes.
  • Sixth-grade science students partner with Beechwood Farms Nature Reserve for a yearlong study of horticulture and pollinators. Toward the end of the class, students design and plant gardens throughout the city.
  • Seventh-graders in language arts participate in walking tours of local neighborhoods, then write poems reflecting on the neighborhoods.
  • Eighth-graders in social studies are paired with community experts on social justice, and complete a research paper on an equity topic of their choice.  
 

Urban Research and Design

 
In upper school, students can choose among several yearlong courses, including Urban Research and Design, Research Science, Multicultural America, and Lit City, an English course that explores literature set in Pittsburgh and/or written by local authors.
 
In Urban Research and Design, which is open to juniors and seniors for post-AP history credit, students work alongside their instructor Michael Naragon to address systemic problems in creative ways. Naragon, history and social studies department chair, encourages students to tackle issues they’re passionate about.

Michael Naragon, history and social studies department chair, helps students to conduct site visits and explore the city in his Urban Research and Design course.

Last year, students spent the first half of the school year reading about efforts to revitalize cities and create sustainable communities. Then, they dove into development projects in Pittsburgh, including redeveloping Arsenal Park, a neglected neighborhood park, and reimagining an abandoned produce terminal in a gentrifying neighborhood. Students conducted site visits and met with the Urban Redevelopment Authority, master site planners, business owners, community members, and other stakeholders, such as the local city councilman. The first half of the year culminated when students presented their proposals to the community leaders with whom they worked.
 
Their proposals for the park focused on solutions to storm water runoff; new amenities, like an outdoor classroom space for local families, which could also benefit a partnership with the neighboring public school; and considerations for increasing accessibility into the park. The proposals for the produce terminal centered on maintaining the structural integrity of the building while allowing for mixed-use solutions for restaurants and shops, expanded studio space for a neighboring art organization, and multipurpose space that could be used for neighborhood pop-up fairs. Both proposals also requested changes to the local streetscape so it would be more commuter-friendly.
 
In the second half of the year, students applied their knowledge of urban redevelopment to a community issue they cared about. Student inquiry spanned disciplines, including economics, environmental science, urban design, race, class, and city politics.
 

More Real-World Learning: Research Science

 
Another upper school course, Research Science, emphasizes applying science through integrated projects, and uses the engineering design cycle to develop prototypes. Each year, upper school students work individually or in small groups to address a problem. In this effort, they research, design, and fabricate a product using WT’s computer-aided design modeling and 3D printing capabilities, along with electrical circuits, sensors, and microcontrollers. Recent examples include a 3D-printed lower-leg prosthesis for children in war-torn countries, a tool to assist Parkinson’s patients with fine motor skills, an air pollution monitor for home furnaces, and a robotic pothole detector for use by city vehicles. 

The students work to meet their project goals while course instructor Graig Marx, science department chair, assists and instructs as needed. Each student or group is paired with an expert in the students’ selected topics. These community mentors are college professors, industry professionals, or product end users. Students meet with their mentors for guidance and critiques as they develop their products through the year.
 
Mentors serve other purposes as well. They confer legitimacy upon students’ work and help classroom teachers expose students to new ways of thinking and opportunities to learn new skills about a topic they care about.
 
During projects, faculty add to their own understanding. Marx gains in-depth knowledge about the students’ topics and learns new ways of using equipment, while maintaining his role of facilitator and collaborator.


Graig Marx, science department chair, assists students in his Research Science course with the design and fabrication of projects that address an issue or need in the community.
 

Faculty Initiative

 
Faculty passion has fueled the success of City as Our Campus. About 80 of our pre-k to 12th grade teachers participate in the program. Teachers continually design and implement projects, units, and courses using Pittsburgh’s vibrant and historic community resources. I work closely with faculty members in all disciplines and grade levels to forge partnerships beyond WT’s campus, transforming organizations, institutions, and businesses into co-educators.
 
At WT, we encourage teachers to propose new projects, and provide them with mentoring and financial support to enhance their curriculum. By connecting with experts in various fields, using resources around the city, and introducing students to content in tangible, meaningful ways, faculty often find the City as Our Campus experience to be as powerful for them as it is for their students.
 

Sharing and Learning Together

 
Winchester Thurston has been participating in NAIS’s Innovation Kitchen, where we have shared our program as an example of independent school reimagination. In June 2017, the Edward E. Ford Foundation awarded Winchester Thurston a grant to work with a team of researchers from University of Pittsburgh to document and evaluate the program’s effectiveness. As part of this project, we will host a national conference for independent schools to learn how to effectively engage students in community-based learning experiences. The coLearn Conference will be held on June 25–26, 2018, at Winchester Thurston School in Pittsburgh. We also offer a Toolkit of resources for schools interested in learning more about our approach to community-based learning.
 
Author
Adam Nye
Adam Nye

Adam Nye is the director of City as Our Campus at Winchester Thurston School in Pittsburgh. He previously worked at Thinkery (Austin Children’s Museum) and Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.
 

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