Universities have tremendous, untapped potential to engage communities and actively address sustainability concerns, but such engagement must be done in ways that benefit not only students but also communities. There is a long history of well-intentioned but destructive efforts of universities working on communities, but not with them, generating benefit to students, faculty, and the institution itself, but leaving little benefit to the community. Structures of engagement that maximize benefit and minimize harm for all parties are key.

Many issues related to social equity and sustainability, such as climate change, the national obesity epidemic, economic security, and general community quality of life are addressed at the city scale; yet, progress in addressing these critical issues is slow. Lack of knowledge is not necessarily the barrier to moving forward; rather, the impediment for city officials and local communities is often a lack of ability to envision and implement projects and ways of working that are different than the status quo. In theory, universities have two primary resources that can address these community needs: (1) faculty who are experts in a variety of relevant fields; and (2) students who are idea generators, fresh thinkers, and unafraid to put ideas out in the public domain for debate and discussion. Communities, likewise, have two primary assets to offer in engaging with universities: (1) an unending list of "real world" project needs that span issues, disciplines, and skill sets; and (2) citizens, including specialists who understand the complex and often competing demands of these projects, who can give honest feedback on a range of learning areas: from technical content to soft skills, such as public presentations, engaging with clients, cultural competency, accepting criticism, facilitating public process, and helping students fully understand the economic, social, and political constraints inherent in going from theory to practice. Despite the potential connection, universities are not always viewed as resources to tackle these problems, as many communities have had poor past experiences with faculty or students that only marginally engage with them, focus almost exclusively on pedagogic goals, and ultimately undermine trust.

A key question, then, is how do we match—in an impactful, applied, community-generated, trusting, real-world fashion—the expertise and energy that already exists within colleges and universities with community interest and need? The Sustainable City Year Program (SCYP) at the University of Oregon, now entering its fourth year, presents such a model. Each year SCYP solicits projects from a different Oregon community and matches those project ideas with up to 30 university courses, 15–20 faculty, and 500 students across more than 10 disciplines. Because it uniquely takes advantage of typical institutional structures, the model is replicable, adaptable, and scalable for many communities and institutions of higher learning everywhere.

The remainder of this article will describe how this program is structured so that it equally benefits communities and the university. It also addresses some commonly voiced barriers for multidisciplinary, engaged learning, and it highlights the multiple benefits that we have seen for students, faculty, and the communities that have participated in the program.

A Story

Tatiana Havill came to the University of Oregon from a small town in part to be exposed to a broader cross section of life. She studied digital arts, which allowed her to explore ways of expanding her artistic creativity within a contemporary medium. Her coursework introduced her to new concepts and techniques that were illuminating, engaging, and generally satisfying. Tatiana also got involved in various environmental groups on campus, satisfying her interest not just to learn in the classroom but also become engaged in action that positively affected the world around her. In her first three and a half years at the university, these two worlds did not intersect. While they were engaging, her digital arts courses rarely focused directly on anything applied, let alone having to do with sustainability. That all changed, by chance, when she registered for a course responding to city officials who wanted wayfinding signs that could help create a sense of place, spur local economic development, and increase walking and biking.

Like many cities across the country, Springfield, Oregon, wanted to revitalize its core downtown, redevelop old industrial sites, spur economic activity, enhance general community livability, and do all of that in a sustainability-minded fashion. Yet also like many cities, Springfield struggled to translate general policy goals into daily practice, especially around sustainability initiatives as the city staff often lacked time, skills, training, or political capital to help develop and move new ideas forward. The community's need for help on issues of urban revitalization, economic development, enhancing community livability, developing better walking and biking infrastructure, and more, was so great that city staff refined existing lists of project needs in a way that university students and faculty could potentially work on. Moreover, with explicit approval of the city council and mayor, and the buy-in from staff from within many city departments, the city council approved a budget of $300,000 to facilitate a partnership with the university, committed full-time equivalent staff from multiple city departments, and identified additional community stakeholders and organizations to engage throughout an entire academic year of partnership. The allocation of resources demonstrates the seriousness with which the community wanted to engage.

One specific area of interest to Springfield city staff in public works and in economic development was to upgrade the city's wayfinding signs to simultaneously help residents understand their city, assist those passing through to navigate the city more easily while learning a bit about it, help navigation for those on bicycles and walking as well as driving, and to do so in a way that strengthened the sense of place characteristic of different areas of town. While city staff knew what they wanted in general, they had neither the time, capacity, nor at times the skill sets necessary to creatively address how to move forward. Staff were open to new ideas but had little capacity to generate designs internally. And while the University of Oregon was only a couple of miles away from Springfield and many staff were actually graduates, there was very little history of working together and little insight as to how to connect with students, faculty, or classes to help with these interests.

Applied coursework is not a requirement for the digital arts degree, and Professor Ying Tan, prior to this wayfinding project, had never integrated working for a client into the classroom. While Professor Tan was not opposed to this type of engaged learning, it was not part of her core pedagogical approach to teaching, and she had received no training in how to carry out such a class successfully for both students and the community. Developing approaches to engage with the client prior to the course, during the first week of the course, midway through the term, during finals, and after the class all seemed like extra work, yet an initiative that would have value if it could be managed properly.

This is a conundrum of modern higher education—students in many disciplines that are desperate for publicly engaged learning, communities that are hungry for access to fresh thinking but unclear how to access a university, and professors who are either not trained in publicly engaged scholarship, not interested in it, don't recognize its value, or simply do not have the time to do it properly. Knowing how to match the hunger of students, needs of communities, and time, skill, and intellectually oriented constraints of faculty is key. The potential impact on students and communities of a replicable model that could successfully manage matchmaking between community-driven needs and universities of all types across the country would be tremendous.

Tapping the Untapped: Using Regular Courses in Extraordinary Ways

The Sustainable City Year Program at the University of Oregon is a radically simple and new model for bridging the gap between universities and communities. It is simple in that, in many ways, it is a continuation of a long tradition of applied learning that has been part of higher education for decades. It is radical because (1) its projects are community identified and driven, (2) it mixes disciplines and faculty at an unprecedented level, and (3) its scale and breadth exponentially magnify the level of engagement as well as the pedagogic and community-based impacts. Unlike many service-learning efforts that focus mostly on student experience and a higher education perspective, SCYP project work is community driven. Projects are identified by the community, scopes of work are jointly developed by community partners and faculty, city staff and elected officials engage continuously and robustly with students and faculty throughout, projects are part of community goals and work plans as set by the elected leadership of the city council and the mayor, and communities demonstrate the seriousness of their interest in engagement by having significant investment via dedication of staff time and paying a program fee that helps coordinate and direct resources across the university.

The model is also unique in that SCYP relies on existing classes, existing instructors, and existing curricula and an opt-in, bottom-up university model that makes it easy for up to 30 different courses to participate in the program each year, making the model adaptable to many different types of institutions regardless of their conscious commitment to publicly engaged scholarship. As of the 2012–13 academic year, five programs are replicating SCYP in Pennsylvania, Iowa, Minnesota, and California, from major research universities to small liberal arts colleges. Many more are planned to begin during the 2013–14 academic year.

SCYP annually harnesses more than 500 students across more than 10 disciplines to give at least 60,000 hours addressing sustainability issues identified by city staff within a single community each year. Thus far, at the University of Oregon, faculty have opted in from arts administration, product design, city planning, architecture, business, law, economics, public administration, interior architecture, geography, journalism, landscape architecture, digital arts, and civil engineering. A program at Portland State University has also participated in this model. In addition to Springfield, the program has worked for a year each with the cities of Gresham and Salem, and will be working with Medford (all in Oregon) during the 2013–14 academic year. None of these cities are where the university is located (Eugene). The New York Times has called the program "perhaps the most comprehensive effort by a U.S. university to infuse sustainability into its curricula and community outreach" (Burnham 2010), and it has done so by capitalizing on the resources that already exist within universities—students, faculty, and courses. This model connects applied learning to community-driven needs, projects, and partnerships that ensure that all parties to the partnership benefit equally.

Learning by Doing: Professional Skill Building

Traditional classroom learning serves many students and subjects well, and the core educational experiences of most students happen on campus within a lecture or lab format. For highly technical or theoretical fields, such approaches may be entirely adequate, but for many future professionals who work with public issues in some way, this traditional approach is limiting. Today, many professionals are expected to know how to work across disciplines, collaborate in teams, understand local community politics, publicly present their work orally and in writing, and possess a host of other "soft" skills that are critically important in today's workforce. Some of these skills can be taught and practiced within a traditional classroom, but many cannot, and many students seek out applied learning opportunities as part of their education (Weinstein, Agrawa, and Dill 2008).

One approach to expanding this skill set is through applied or experiential learning opportunities. Experiential learning encourages the development of transferable, professional skills, such as working in collaborative teams, developing public communication skills, and creative problem solving, and can result in a more rewarding educational experience for students (Kotval 2003). In these settings, students work on real-world projects in conjunction with real-world partners so that student work is both grounded in actual professional situations and accountable to an outside audience providing professional input and critique to students as they learn. Some argue that, more than just providing richer educational experiences for its students, universities should also support service learning to help provide desperately needed assistance to local communities or agencies (Checkoway 1997).

That said, it is understandable that more courses do not include a service or public engagement component. Many instructors have not been trained in or exposed to such pedagogy and do not understand how to lead them or are simply unaware of their benefits. Moreover, many instructors may be hesitant to develop full community-engaged courses because of the time commitment for the students and community partners. Therefore, developing opportunities for instructors to connect easily to such programs, without their needing necessarily to be the lead champion for such projects, may be a key for engaging more faculty and students in applied, experiential opportunities as part of their education.

While communities may have needs that could benefit from university engagement, it is often difficult for them to know how to access a university's resources. In many communities, past engagement by faculty and students has occasionally caused more harm than good. Thus, a structure that depends on the development of community-initiated, community-driven, and jointly community-led projects is necessary to ensure that benefits accrue to all participants.

This is the backbone of the SCYP structure.

How SCYP Works

A three-step method delineates the SCYP process at the University of Oregon that allows for a robust community-centered engagement that takes advantage of regular university courses taught by faculty who may or may not be dedicated to applied scholarship. Essentially, SCYP matches a multidisciplinary set of courses to a community-identified set of projects over an academic year.

Step 1: City applies and is accepted to the program

Cities apply and compete to be accepted as the SCYP Partner City in any given year. This process acts as a catalyst for developing community-generated project ideas, ensures that elected officials and city staff are prepared to engage with students seriously, and helps ascertain that there is a serious commitment to moving forward with appropriate student-produced ideas. Successful applications include five key elements: (1) 15–20 potential projects that can be accomplished in ten-week academic terms; (2) projects that are community generated and involve a broad set of local partners, ensuring that there is full community buy-in, and are part of the city's proposed work plan for the upcoming year; (3) projects that address sustainability issues; (4) explicit buy-in from the top, including the mayor, city council, and city manager; and (5) the city's demonstrated financial commitment to the university for the cost of running the program. Multiple city departments and other community organizations are often involved in the creation of the application and then later in the work itself. Past community partners have included the city manager's office and the Departments of Urban Development, Public Information, Engineering, Police, Parks, Libraries, Transportation Planning, Facilities Management, Housing and Social Services, Public Works, and non-city entities such as the United Way, private developers, neighborhood associations, the American Institute of Architects, transit districts, the State Department of Land Conservation, bicycle advisory committees, and more.

Step 2: Faculty express interest in working with the city

Once a city is selected, the projects identified in the proposal are distributed to faculty across campus to ascertain which instructors are interested in working on one through their courses. Four different outcomes emerge from this matchmaking process: (1) a direct match between city project and course; (2) a close match, but some alterations are needed; (3) no instructor steps forward to work on a proposed city project; or (4) faculty propose ideas to the city that were not originally identified in the proposal. Throughout this matchmaking process, SCYP staff and university leadership along with city staff and municipal leadership work to pair individual faculty with their counterpart in the city to define and refine projects that can be meaningful for the city and appropriate learning opportunities for students. The instructor and city staff person define scope, schedule, and deliverables and continue working together until their project is complete.

Step 3: Coordinators within the university and city facilitate systems to carry out the work

A key element of the success of SCYP is the establishment of coordinators on campus and in the city for the yearlong engagement. For example, Salem estimated that for each of their 15 projects, one to three city staff spent two full days a month on the project and an internal city coordinator spent 20 hours per week on SCYP activities. City staff define problems, provide information, accompany students on site visits, and participate in reviews of student work to ensure that they are developing viable solutions. A full-time SCYP program manager coordinates the university side of the partnership. She or he manages the application process, matches faculty and courses with city-identified projects, facilitates creation of scopes of work for each project, manages the budget, organizes events and communications, and oversees final reports for the city. While the actual coursework occurs over a single academic year, the engagement that prepares for this work often starts six to eight months earlier.

"Where Do the Bolts Go?" - Wayfinding Project in Springfield, OR

The following project example is typical of the 25–30 classes that are engaged in this program each academic year (more descriptions are available online at Recall that Springfield wanted to enhance its sense of place and help people navigate around and through the city. A digital arts class was engaged to develop specific designs for wayfinding signs.

Prior to the start of the term, city staff and the instructor agreed on a scope of work and collected or created background documents needed for instruction. The first week of the term, a range of city staff met with the class, explained their interests, shared the work of the students in a previous class that had done some complementary work, and gave the digital arts students permission to think creatively and broadly. SCYP staff, with minimal work by the professor, handled arrangements for city officials' class visits. Because the project was developed locally, it was not difficult to engage community members. Students were free to ask questions and to seek clarification to understand how their design ideas would be implemented. For most students, this class was their first and only experience of engaged scholarship, so this meeting was also the first time they engaged with a client and were forced to think of their creative work in terms of an actual, applied use.

Midway through the term, five weeks later, students had their first opportunity to present their initial ideas to their classmates and to city staff. Students gave formal presentations—a first for them in front of a professional client—and city staff gave their honest feedback. Designs were colorful, creative, and city staff were generally impressed and energized by the fresh thinking and possibilities represented by the student work. Students heard from city staff how their designs helped give them new ways to think about who they were as a community and helped clarify a sense of place that city officials had not really understood themselves.

But making wayfinding signs is not just a conceptual exercise in creativity—to be put into practice, they must be built and installed. And when staff asked, "Where would you put the bolt on that sign?" or "How would I fasten that triangular design to a street pole?" or "What material do you envision that sign is made of as we have a limited budget?" the students gave a collective, embarrassed response equivalent to "I never thought of that." With the other feedback given, students had their charge for the remaining five weeks of the term. At the same time, notwithstanding the honest criticism they gave to students, city staff were thrilled by what they saw and immediately took the student posters (with permission) and displayed them around city hall for staff, elected officials, and the public to see. While not in a final form, the creative thinking the students produced catalyzed discussion in city hall and helped a large swath of city leaders to begin thinking about their city, and the way the city is communicated to its inhabitants and visitors, in a different way. The ability to have these designs in the public realm was a tremendous asset, and city officials communicated the enthusiasm initiated through the midterm project work back to students during final reviews, partially closing a loop with students to help them see the value and impact of their creative work.

Five weeks later, city staff again came to campus—they were the primary community stakeholders for this individual project—for final presentations. Students again professionally presented their work, and this time focused not only on their design ideas but also on how their ideas could be put into practice given budgetary and functional constraints of production and installation. Students retained their creativity, modified their proposals based on community feedback, and used the real-world constraints—where to put the bolts—as instigators for additional creative thought. City staff again gave critical and constructive feedback on student designs and, in some cases, directly discussed how students did not respond to their clients' previous feedback. Students received the critiques well and practiced responding and engaging with their client in productive ways. Most students did incorporate the previous feedback (see figure 1 for an example of student work) and returned with new design ideas that left staff thrilled with the progress, especially given that the innovative designs were now combined with thought about materials, fabrication costs and processes, theft and graffiti, and other practical issues that were necessary for the community to put any idea into practice. And seeing these design ideas in a more final form again accelerated how the community might see itself differently moving forward. From the city perspective, the project was reflected upon like this:

Throughout the course, city staff participated in constructive feedback sessions with students. Students and faculty called these sessions mid-terms and finals, city staff looked at them as critical points in time to catch significant issues or influence the idea generation. It was early in these critical points that staff began to see the vast wealth of ideas and images students were capable of bringing to the table and the way in which the university served as a "safe" venue to cultivate and propose these ideas. While the images were immediately striking and beautiful in quality, the most refreshing realization was that even the most "out of the box" idea was grounded in sound and innovative theory. The images were not just pretty pictures done by students with strong graphics skills, they were vibrant images displaying well-thought-through ideas about how we could move forward in practice (Griesel 2013).

Figure 1: One student's wayfinding sign design ideas, complete with plan to fasten to existing street posts.
Courtesy of the author.

And beyond the technical design work, issues of sustainability guided the purpose of this work by helping people use more sustainable forms of transportation (walking and biking), by enticing travelers passing through to stop and experience the city (local economic development), and by helping create a sense of place for existing residents.

What it is Not

Given its unique approach, briefly explaining what SCYP is not can also give an indication of what it is. Here is what the program is not:

1. Top down. The SCYP model requires no administrative approval at any level of the institution as it simply takes advantage of existing courses taught by existing instructors.

2. Outside the faculty. Because the program uses existing instructors, it does not require hiring new experts or instructors to carry out the work.

3. Service learning on communities. Projects are identified and initially framed by the communities themselves and only go forward after an iterative process between key community stakeholders and faculty where they jointly agree to a scope of work that satisfies both community and educational needs. Thus, this model is done with communities as full partners.

4. Limited to host city. SCYP is not exclusively focused on the host city of the university; in fact, the University of Oregon's host city has not participated in the program to date. The SCYP model frees up our institutions to serve a broader geographical region and diverse set of communities, cities, metropolitan regions, or rural areas.

5. Single-course service learning. SCYP is a multicourse, multidiscipline approach toward learning and catalyzing community change. The scale and scope allows a broader engagement of community stakeholders and decision makers and creates buzz on and off campus in ways that are often not possible with single, isolated course approaches.

6. Curriculum developers. Because SCYP uses existing faculty to apply their expertise toward sustainability issues, there is no centralized curriculum to create and disseminate. The model does not require that such expertise be concentrated in any one discipline.

7. Required that faculty participate. Participation is voluntary by faculty and volunteering one year does not commit anyone to a subsequent year (although most faculty choose to remain involved). Faculty who do not want to or do not see the value of being part of the program do not need to participate. We have been pleasantly surprised at the number of faculty who do want to engage. Faculty do not necessarily get any additional recognition by the institution for participating, but participating requires little additional effort due to the service of SCYP staff.

8. Consultants or substitute staff. The core of SCYP is to take all the ideas and work that students normally turn in to faculty at the end of the term and share those insights with a community partner as well. In this regard, students and faculty are not consultants, nor substitute staff, but idea generators and idea developers that can help educate city staff and the community, and that can help all community stakeholders engage in nonthreatening conversations about future opportunities for the community. For communities, students are more able to generate ideas and facilitate public conversation than staff or consultants typically can due to risk aversion and conservative problem framing.

9. Campus facility oriented. The program is not focused on enhancing the sustainability of campus, although the university could easily be the client if they were able to demonstrate commitment to the engagement in ways similar to cities.

10. Free. Cities that participate pay to ensure professional engagement, quality products, and a coordinated approach. For example, Salem paid $350,000 and Springfield paid $300,000. City funding is typically decentralized and comes from multiple sources across city departments and other community stakeholder groups in $10,000–$20,000 amounts.

11. A replacement for other service-learning efforts. There are many excellent examples of service-learning efforts across different disciplines and universities, and SCYP is not a replacement for any of those efforts. Rather, SCYP is a new, additional effort along a spectrum of applied learning approaches, but one that is multidisciplinary, much larger in scale, and takes advantage of the huge wealth of regular classes and existing faculty. SCYP can engage other service-learning efforts on campus, so it is an inclusive model as well.


There are two different ways to look at the outcomes of this work—from the student perspective and from the city perspective. Both are relevant to this type of community-engaged teaching and scholarship. Students report the following benefits from participation in SCYP:

1. Leadership Opportunities: Students are challenged to work closely with real clients; these opportunities build professionalism and develop confidence.

2. Addressing Real-World Issues: Students consider the impact of ideas present in their disciplines on real communities. They expand theoretical concepts beyond the classroom to consider a broad array of potential implications, and they develop an understanding of the complexities and requirements involved in civic projects.

3. Access to Professionals: Students work with city staff, local professionals, elected officials, and community leaders; many students form professional relationships that can lead to job opportunities after graduation.

4. Interdisciplinary Education: Students have the chance to experience and work on projects integrated across disciplines. Their work is informed by the richness of collaborating with their peers, and they develop new perspectives by working with students outside of their own disciplines.

From the community perspective, there are both short-term and long-term gains reported. In terms of sustainability, cities are trying to reverse course on 70 years of development patterns and public policy that supported land-use sprawl, automobile-dominant transportation, and a different mix of industry and economic activity than is the norm today. Reversing course for communities will not happen immediately just because of student involvement, but students can accelerate change and alter the basic policy, plans, ideas, and framing that cities use to guide all future activities. The following city perspective related to a project focusing on a key urban redevelopment site is a typical reaction from community partners:

In the time since the students presented the final ideas and images to the property owner and City staff and officials, hope for the "big box" brownfield has grown. The images are often carried from development meeting to development meeting by City staff as a way to illustrate "what we want" in development and what we are willing to partner to pursue. The site's exposure to student ideas brought a youthful and optimistic energy to the development community's discussion about its potential. Some of the ideas were traditional in nature but added a fresh angle, others were extremely innovative and "out of the big-box." The student influence on the redevelopment site will likely be looked at as a classic case of fresh eyes, eyes new to a situation, pushing boundaries and reinterpreting what may have become an otherwise routine and non-extraordinary redevelopment exercise. By illustrating examples of the extraordinary, students challenged staff and property owners to think more innovatively and demand more from the redevelopment of the forgotten site, a site truly filled with now-realized potential (Griesel 2013).
In some cases, these fresh student perspectives can have immediate impact, such as ideas from one of six project teams in a business school course that, when implemented the following year, started saving Salem $1 million per year by creating efficiencies in the municipal waste stream, discovering ways to redirect waste as industrial inputs, and generating electricity directly from the waste stream (Knox-Bush 2013)

In Gresham, commenting on a redevelopment project that included extensive community engagement and participation with underserved Latino and Slavic communities, one city councilor "called the UO students' ideas fresh, innovative and better than anything he'd seen from the six developers who made pitches for the project," that "it was way beyond anything that's been presented before," and that "from a citizen engagement point of view, it's the best thing I've seen in the three years I've been on the City Council" (Stine 2009). Such comments are common and frequent by all the stakeholders that have been involved, whether from the public, private, or nonprofit sectors.


This article began with the story of Tatiana Havill, her regular digital arts class, a professor who did not regularly engage in applied pedagogy, and a community desperate for some creative and fresh thinking about how to create place, in part through better signage. In the end, this digital arts class was an amazing success—students learned in ways only possible through direct engagement with a client, the partner city has an entire suite of brilliant design ideas to wrestle and engage with, and thanks to the support provided by SCYP staff, the professor smoothly linked the two with very little effort beyond what she would normally do in class. The key for both the community and this class was its connection to a new model of publicly engaged scholarship. SCYP is an infrastructure designed to harness the resources of universities for the public good in ways that add value, not work, for faculty, allows students to be their creative selves, and gives a range of community stakeholders access to fresh thinking that can change community practices.

SCYP exists to challenge students and a city partner to think critically about barriers to sustainability and to work together to design creative solutions, although the pedagogical model underlying SCYP has much broader applications. Universities are in a unique position to help on a variety of issues—both immediately through engaged learning, applied research, and service projects and long term through the training of the next generation of professionals. Students hunger for coursework that combines the theoretical with the applied and desperately want to contribute their work toward sustainability goals. Students regularly generate innovative ideas as part of their regular, non-service-based classes that communities could use, but those ideas usually only appear in term projects for professors to grade. Students also desperately want to learn from other disciplines—to learn the language and perspectives of others, to understand a bit about what other disciplines are good at, and to fully understand and appreciate their own disciplinary contributions toward making a better world. And communities are equally looking for access to ideas and ways to engage new thinking in politically safe ways that can result in improved practice and community benefit.

Publicly engaged scholarship is a natural way to bridge this divide and SCYP represents a new, highly replicable and scalable way to simultaneously provide students with the knowledge and skill sets to make a difference in the world and to assist communities to do their work better in the process.

The Sustainable City Year Project Q&A

Public's editor Jan Cohen-Cruz asked Schlossberg and Larco a few questions with Imagining America constituents in mind:

Jan Cohen-Cruz (JCC): Isn't the trade-off in inviting the participation of any faculty member in SCYP giving up a pedagogical frame specific to engagement? How do students reflect on the meaning of civic participation in their lives and that of their community? Do students experience the collective impact of the project?

Marc Schlossberg/Nico Larco (S/L):This model does not replace other engaged learning efforts that campuses offer, but adds to the spectrum through taking advantage of regular courses in a new way. The model developed because many faculty thought it wasteful that term paper/project ideas students submit for their regular courses typically never see the light of day, even as community members might find value in some of those ideas. At its most basic, we just shine a light on student work and allow the public to see it, which is a huge improvement over the status quo. To make student effort responsive, we ask the community to define the issues and co-develop scopes of work for projects along with faculty.

At the basic level, students are just doing their regular class[work] that may happen to have an applied project component. They do not necessarily know that there are 25–29 other classes on campus working with the same city. While we think there are tremendous opportunities to exploit the vast number of disciplines and classes involved such that students are working across fields and in joint teams, the model doesn't require it, as that is extra work that would dissuade some faculty from engaging. That said, over time students from different courses have found ways to engage with one another. Students can see the broad swath of effort at our annual kickoff event and end-of-year celebration. But while more engagement across disciplines would be great and something we are looking to pursue, we know that faculty will only participate if we make it as easy to be part of the program as doing their regular teaching.

Formal student reflection on the engagement experience is dependent on what the instructor asks as part of that class. Again, we are meeting faculty where they are and around what they are comfortable with, but using their skills, expertise, and classes to connect with community-driven projects rather than not.

JCC: Given the ten-week semester time frame, the power of the program seems more about immediate ideas than ongoing work together, which is often part of the engagement model. You've articulated the advantages of this time frame; what are its limitations?

S/L: Much can happen over ten weeks because the project scope has been taken care of far ahead of the beginning of the academic term, and the projects delivered are the same in our program as would be delivered in the classes if not out of our program. For years, many of our ten-week courses have included applied projects that are now directed toward the SCYP city. It's fast in the quarter system. Semester classes may get more depth.

In terms of ongoing community benefit, projects are linked explicitly to existing work plans and city goals, so student-generated ideas that are seen as valuable to the community get incorporated into the regular business of community decision making. Student engagement is thus more of a catalyst for new community activities, helping re-direct decisions and actions in new ways. Some follow-up work or ongoing engagement between community and university may develop, but this model does not require it. Our experience is that this short burst of high-energy, massive engagement provides more than enough for the community. They are ready for a break from new ideas at the end of the year to work on putting ideas into practice.

The limitations of engaging through ten-week terms are fairly straightforward. Just as students are getting fully up to speed on course content, the term ends; although this is true for classes whether they are part of SCYP or not. That said, the fact that hundreds of student ideas generated in ten week terms are incorporated into city work plans demonstrates that even with that short duration, there is real value that students can provide for community practice.

JCC: Engaged scholarship emphasizes partnerships between campuses and communities. Since cities pay to participate in SCYP, isn't the relationship client-provider? Given the city is contracting for certain outcomes, can't that skew what happens in class?

S/L: SCYP works based on a relationship of mutual trust and partnership more than that of client-provider. Cities are not paying for courses, but for the professional coordination of everything that is required to carry out such massive engagement. Unlike a relationship with a consultant where a city may have specific outcomes it expects, in the SCYP model no such explicit deliverables can be delineated at the time the relationship is cemented via contract. Instead, faculty can describe the types of outcomes that students typically are capable of producing based on past students and past terms. For cities, this can be slightly uncomfortable in that they are paying a fee, but do not have full control or guarantee about the content they will receive. Yet cities participate explicitly because they want access to fresh thinking that they cannot necessarily envision ahead of time. To be successful, we work with cities up to two years ahead of time, building relationships, establishing trust, and setting expectations about what students can and cannot produce in their coursework.

In terms of skewing course content or potentially limiting student creativity, our experience has been the exact opposite. Project scopes are co-developed between faculty and a project lead in the city with either party free to back out if a scope of work cannot be agreed upon. Given that this is an opt-in model, however, faculty want to have some direction as to what would be useful for the community and then use that context to help form the structure of course projects. Again, students are not contractors asked to design a specific widget at a predetermined set of specifications; they are generally given a vexing issue and asked to apply their training to come up with interesting and creative ways to address the issue. City staff want the range of ideas and creative thinking, as it is that diversity of ideas that will ultimately help the community focus on a direction to pursue. We have repeatedly heard from city staff and community partners that the projects developed by students broadened what they originally considered to be the issue and went well beyond any expectation of what they would receive.

JCC: In SCYP, the university is contracting with a city administration, not a "community" in the sense of not-for-profit, nongovernmental agencies and residents. What are pros and cons of the city rather than CBOs in this role? Doesn't this keep power in the hands of city administrators regarding changes, whereas one reason for partnering with CBOs in engaged learning is to bring more voices into decisions making?

S/L: The notion of separating "the city" from "the community" seems to be an unnecessary and unhelpful distinction in the work of SCYP for two primary reasons. First, in a representative democracy, the city is the community, vested interests and all. City council goals are developed over decades through many means, almost always including community task forces, commissions, advisory groups, public forums, community meetings, council testimony, elections, and so forth. We work under the assumption that projects developed with city staff, consistent with city goals, are directly related to these ongoing public processes that form the core of democratic decision making at the local level.

Second, we ask city staff to identify a range of community stakeholders to involve in projects, including formal nonprofit organizations such as the United Way or arts councils, community advisory groups, private sector associations, and residents in parts of the community where city staff feel they have little relationship or trust. As appropriate, students often go beyond such suggestions and reach out further—door to door, through churches, through community organizations—engaging a much wider swath of voices.

Nothing in the SCYP model would prohibit working with a CBO as the lead as long as the scale of engagement was large enough to have impact, the work was connected to goals of the organization, and those who could utilize student ideas are engaged and involved. There are few CBOs that could take the lead in these ways; the United Way might be an exception in many communities. Noncity and non-CBO partners, such as a school district or transit district, could also be the lead.

JCC: You use certain terms a bit interchangeably although for many scholars there are significant differences. How are and are not SCYP courses service learning, applied learning, community engagement, and public scholarship and practice?

S/L:The guiding philosophy of SCYP as a pedagogical model is that it will only work if there is value-added for everyone involved. We use the above terms slightly interchangeably because SCYP shares elements of them but are not solely within any one characterization. In terms of service learning, SCYP helps provide service to a range of community stakeholders, although primarily through the city structure rather than directly through nonprofit organizations. The contractual component of the SCYP model and the existence of a professional project manager on both the university and community side of the relationship makes the engagement much more of a mutual partnership than what may exist for students receiving service learning credits for community project work.

Applied learning is certainly a core aspect of the SCYP model as students engage through their courses and only if those courses have an orientation to tackle real-world projects and issues identified by a local community. These courses are generally not solely focused on the project, but also cover conceptual and theoretical material with the project comprising one component of an overall course's focus. Likewise, "community engagement" is a core element of SCYP as the applied coursework comes about through a process of community-based identification of need and active engagement of a variety of community stakeholders. Whereas many classes outside of SCYP may incorporate an applied project developed by the instructor without consultation of any community partner, SCYP projects do not exist unless developed in partnership with community members.

Perhaps the closest conceptual description of the SCYP model is that of public scholarship and practice, which includes elements of collaboration, reciprocity, generativity, rigor, and practicability (, although with some caveats. As delineated in the main article and in the answers above, SCYP follows a deep collaborative model with expectations established long before courses begin. Projects are jointly developed by community and faculty leaders. Community stakeholders engage with students in the classroom and students engage with the broader partners in the community, using such interaction to inform idea generation and project work. Midterm and final projects are publicly presented on campus or in the community, with all student ideas compiled into a synthesized report that remains in the community. However, the primary engagement lasts only for one year with some follow-up projects occurring, but with the focus of the SCYP engagement moving to another community the subsequent year. Thus, SCYP is not a typical ongoing university–community partnership but is a shorter-term engagement designed to accelerate longer-term community change by the community itself. Assessment and evaluation primarily occur within the context of individual courses using standard means of student feedback so as not to add additional work for participants. That said, faculty continue to opt-in, new cities continue to partner, and other universities are launching successful copies, providing key pieces of "market feedback" about this unique pedagogical model that does not quite fit within other existing labels.


Burnham, Michael. 2010. "In Oregon, Students Seek Key to a Sustainable City." Journal of Planning Literature, August 23.

Checkoway, Barry. 1997. "Reinventing the Research University for Public Service." Journal of Planning Literature 11 (3): 307–12.

Griesel, Courtney. Springfield SCYP Program Manager, personal communication, April 2, 2013.

Knox-Bush, Courtney. Salem SCYP Program Manager, personal communication, January 31, 2013.

Kotval, Zenia. 2003. "Teaching Experiential Learning in the Urban Planning Curriculum." Journal of Geography in Higher Education 27 (3): 297-308.

Stine, Mara. 2009. "Students Wow Rockwood with Ideas." Portland Tribune, December 28.

Weinstein Agrawal, Asha, and Jennifer Dill. 2008. "To Be a Transportation Engineer or Not? How Civil Engineering Students Choose a Specialization." Transportation Research Record, no. 2046: 9.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Creative Commons License