When the Sidewalk Becomes the Classroom

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When the Sidewalk Becomes the Classroom

When assistant professor Michael Niedzielski began thinking about a project that would give his UND geography students some real-world experience in designing maps, it was no coincidence that it led to collaboration with the University’s Center for Community Engagement.

Niedzielski (need-JELL-ski) wanted students in his cartography and visualization class to take on a project that could be useful beyond the walls of the classroom.

“Why don’t I have them work to create maps that can be used by the community?” he asked. “Students will benefit because they can apply the skills they learn in the classroom to the real world at the same time they’re doing community outreach and public education.”

Lana Rakow, director of the UND Center for Community Engagement, noted that the project Niedzielski envisioned was not only an ideal fit for the Center, but that it also provided an opportunity to link his students with ongoing efforts to assist the Near North Neighborhood, one of Grand Forks’ oldest residential areas. The Center began working with city officials and neighborhood residents in 2008 after Mayor Mike Brown launched the Mayor’s Urban Neighborhood Initiative (MUNI).

“Our role is as a facilitator who helps link the partners and their needs,” she explained. “What kind of research are people asking for? What are their needs? How can we facilitate in bringing that together? We really do have a critical research role that way.”

Putting feet on the ground

Last fall, Niedzielski and his students began doing the research and collecting the information needed for the Near North Neighborhood mapping project.

“We gathered the information, starting with identifying a need and then either by walking around the neighborhood with GPS receivers, taking photographs, or contacting city officials for the necessary data,” said graduate student Bruce Muller, Grand Forks.

“We then put it all together in one complete package. The project enabled us to not only apply a basic set of skills, but also to figure out how to solve a problem that we defined with the help of the community.”

The students also met with Grand Forks City Councilman Eliot Glassheim, who lives in the neighborhood and represents its residents in the North Dakota Legislature. They consulted with the Near North Neighborhood Association and worked with the support of the Center for Community Engagement, which funded publication of the maps.

Prosper Gbolo, a graduate student from Ghana, was initially skeptical about the project, but acknowledged that it was a good learning experience.

“This course was different from some of the courses I have taken because of the approach and the practical or hands-on experience we received,” he said. “As a future academic, I learned how theoretical discussions could translate into practical projects.”

The end result was a series of six maps providing a wide variety of information about the Near North Neighborhood in a visually appealing format. The maps show:

  • Community improvements made with Knight Foundation funding from 2009-2011.
  • Home improvements made with grants from the city’s Front Porch Project.
  • Area services of the Near North Neighborhood.
  • The locations of businesses in and around the neighborhood.
  • The condition of rental and owner-occupied residential property.
  • The condition of sidewalks in the neighborhood.

“I was impressed with the quality of the maps,” Niedzielski said. “What’s happening outside the class is amazing. Each group stepped up and made improvements, which speaks volumes about what good can come from working with the community.”

Amber Boll, a junior geography major from Otter Tail, Minn., said, “Every single map we did highlighted something different in the neighborhood. Each one served a purpose that community leaders could utilize.”

The completed maps were presented during public meetings of the Grand Forks City Council and the Near North Neighborhood Association. In keeping with the Center for Community Engagement’s principle of making its research available to the public, the maps are available online.

“The public presentations will hopefully show that the Near North Neighborhood is an attractive place to live, work and play,” said Katie Brockpahler, Grand Forks Office of Urban Development. “The information gathered by the cartography class can be used toward grant proposals and various funding potentials for this neighborhood and other neighborhoods in the future.”

“We have a long-range relationship with this neighborhood, and we also work to benefit the community and the state with UND partnerships,” Rakow said. “We like to see that students are learning about being a member of the community while doing something of benefit. They’re learning professionally how their own discipline can be used to the benefit of the public.”

Partnering for results

Cory England, a Center for Community Engagement representative working with the Near North Neighborhood Association, said, “I think it’s always fantastic when we can build partnerships between the University and the community. It just goes to show you how much can be accomplished when you partner up.”

As Rakow points out, the Center’s mission is to provide partnerships between North Dakota communities that enable faculty and staff to help find solutions to the challenges they face, whether it’s in the Red River Valley or out west in the Williston Basin “oil patch.”

“Part of our job is to get all parts of the University thinking about how we connect and how to make our knowledge available as a service to the region,” she said. “How do we think of doing that work with and for the public? It’s also important to have a place like the Center that helps figure out where you can get funding, linking up those partnerships and resources to get that work done.”

The value of partnerships between UND and North Dakota communities was obvious to Marcus Wax, a junior from Bemidji, Minn., and a geography and honors double major who worked on the mapping project.

“I found it very satisfying that our work has life beyond the class,” he said. “It’s nice to be doing work for someone else besides yourself that has an impact. It makes you feel that as a student, you’re a little more connected to the real world.”

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