‘Real-world’ projects: Balancing student learning and community need

This post is republished from Into Practice, a biweekly communication of Harvard’s Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning

ForsythAnn Forsyth, Professor of Urban Planning, incorporates projects with clients into many of her Graduate School of Design courses, from semester-long endeavors to optional assignments. Students gain experience designing sustainable and healthy cities by working with and producing reports for government, educational, and non-profit organizations.

The benefits: While students can learn new perspectives researching a case or scoping a theoretical project, partnering with clients offers a chance to understand political, ethical, and technical dimensions and manage time with real stakes. “Students are required to meet with the community, relate to people, and collect data in that context. It adds a certain ethical commitment.”

The challenges: “It’s a fair bit of work on the part of the faculty member, both in preparation and in follow up,” says Forsyth. She typically recruits clients whose projects align with students’ timelines and abilities, is in communication with them all semester to stay ahead of concerns or problems, and makes herself available after the semester for follow-up and continuity. Forsyth says project capacity could be increased with assistance from a dedicated staff person. Another alternative she is currently experimenting with is for students to find clients via their own personal connections (from prior internships, for example). 

Takeaways and best practices:

  • Build in the flexibility to fail. Assigning more students than necessary ensures project completion. “They are addressing real human needs in these projects, but students are not professionals—they are learning.” In the best-case scenario, groups simply have additional research and report-writing capacity.

  • Plan for collaborative work setbacks. Student learning is amplified by working together—a reason Forsyth incorporates teamwork instruction into her qualitative methods course—but observes that collaboration doesn’t come naturally to all students. “Some students are very vocal about their dislike for peer assessment, and not all students do their share of the work.” She has occasionally reorganized a team to allow a project to progress.

  • Design and define semester/project markers. With larger projects, creating a thorough timeline with stated deliverables helps students track project elements, including: touring the city, generating ideas, identifying stakeholders, scoping, and collecting data. “It’s a really choreographed structure in order to decrease the likelihood that the students don’t produce.”

Bottom line: Project-based courses require extensive preparation, client and process management, and post-course follow-up work. But they also provide opportunities—like participating in the redevelopment of Gateway Cities or developing health impact assessments—for students to integrate their classroom education with client and community engagement.