This post is part of the Urban Affairs Forum Engaged Scholarship Series. If you are interested in writing about local elections in the places you live or study, contact Andrea Benjamin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Aaron Weinschenk
I have the pleasure of teaching an upper-level political science course called “Urban Politics & Policy.” In order to help my students connect what they are learning to real-life situations, I have them (in small groups) create economic development plans for actual U.S. cities. To make the project challenging, I usually pick 6 or 7 struggling U.S. cities and assign them to the groups. (This year’s cities are Detroit, Toledo, Buffalo, Tucson, Stockton, and Memphis). I want students to have to think seriously about issues like poverty and unemployment that are so common in many of today’s urban areas. The groups work on their plans over the course of the semester and at the end give 20-30 minute presentations to the class and turn in professional economic development reports, which are usually around 25-pages.
I developed this project for a number of different reasons. First, I really like the idea of applied assignments or projects that are problem-focused. It is very likely that after students graduate they will have to do something similar to what we do in this project—analyze a problem, develop a plan to address it, and build a strategy to support their plan. Second, the project leaves a lot of room for creativity. I’ve been doing this project for about 5 years now and have seen students develop some amazing ideas. A few years ago, one group went to so far as to learn a rendering software and create images of how they envisioned certain parts of their city looking. In their plan, they spent time describing how their proposed changes might contribute to the local economy. Third, the project is interdisciplinary. By their very nature, economic development plans integrate ideas from a wide range of fields (e.g., economics, marketing, history, psychology, environmental science, planning, business, etc.). It’s really neat when students integrate ideas from their majors or other classes they’ve taken into this project. Finally, this project is a great opportunity for students to work on their communication skills. I always tell my students that the more you present, the more comfortable you get. The classroom is an ideal place to practice.
As you can imagine, this project challenges students. They often struggle to find good information about their cities. Or, they are overwhelmed by the severity of the economic problems their cities face—they can’t believe that unemployment is 20% or higher in some places and have no idea how it could be addressed. I’ve found a few strategies that help. First, I carve out 4 full class periods where the students are able to work exclusively on this project. Since it is a large portion of their overall grade in the class, I believe that students should have some class time to work on the project (they are required to work on it outside of class as well). Second, faculty support is important. During group work days, I am available to answer any questions that emerge and listen to ideas. When students face a challenging project but know they are supported, I believe it creates an environment where they can thrive. Finally, I try to integrate useful sources and databases into my lectures to model for students what high-quality information looks like. For example, in one of my lectures I show them a poverty mapping tool from The New York Times, which many groups then go on to use as they are collecting demographic information on their cities.
Overall, this project is exceptionally rewarding both for me and for the students, and I plan to continue doing it in future classes. In the future, I might try to partner with an actual city in the area. It could be really neat to have students work with on a plan (or part of a plan) that a real community later implements.
Aaron Weinschenk is Associate Professor and Chair of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. He received a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 2013. His research interests include voting behavior, campaigns and elections, political participation, and political psychology. To date, he has published over two-dozen peer-reviewed articles in journals such as Political Research Quarterly, Political Behavior, Electoral Studies, American Politics Research, and the Journal of Elections, Public Opinion & Parties.