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Westfield State University students teach urban planning to local Boys and Girls Club participants

Westfield State University students are teaching local children about urban planning, thanks to a new collaboration between its Department of Geography, Planning, and Sustainability (GPS) and the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Westfield. 

IMAGE: Westfield State students (pictured during the fall 2019 semester) taught Boys and Girls Club of Greater Westfield participants about urban planning

Called GPS Kids, the ongoing program was developed during the fall 2019 semester out of a Westfield State regional planning course called “Unjust City,” taught by Alina T. Gross, Ph.D., assistant professor of GPS, who has a history of involvement with diversity and social equity issues. In the course, 20 students learned about community engagement and studied equity issues in urban planning, such as the exclusion of historically marginalized groups.  

“So, we started discussing this,” said Dr. Gross, “and we established that kids have been historically marginalized in the planning process.”  

She connected with Kellie Brown, the Boys and Girls Club’s director of operations, and the partnership took off.  

“Working with the students from Westfield State has been a pleasure,” said Brown. “Their dedication to our club members has been a heartwarming experience. You could see the admiration the kids had for these college students, who took time out of their busy days to make a difference in their lives.” 

Following the course’s successful conclusion in December 2019, GPS students expressed interest in continuing their work at the Boys and Girls Club, so it morphed into an internship directed by Professor Gross. Now, Westfield State’s GPS students in the GPS Kids program receive academic credit for creating, planning, and facilitating a curriculum on urban planning and environmental issues with more than 20 children they work with at the Club. The program had three interns during the spring 2020 semester, and more have expressed interest in future internship opportunities.   

“We want our students to be active members of their community,” said Tamara Smith, Ph.D., the University’s faculty coordinator for civic learning and democratic engagement.  

GPS student interns teach the children about different elements of planning, such as environmental issues, sustainability, map-reading, urban design, and transportation. For example, a park design activity enables children to choose different features they would like to have in their parks. They create playgrounds, basketball courts, and fountains. The children learn to work within a budget and analyze park layouts. 

“The children were so excited to imagine how they could make a park the best for all to enjoy,” said Julianne Griffiths ’20, a past intern with GPS Kids, “and they referred to aspects of parks that they liked.” 

Not only is the collaboration a positive learning experience for Westfield State students because they are involved in planning and facilitating engagement with children, but it also benefits the Boys and Girls Club. In spring 2020, GPS students helped the club run focus groups to obtain feedback from the children for the Club’s annual report. 

“Our faculty are trained to go out into the community,” said Dr. Smith, “to form these relationships and to be reciprocal with our community partners.” 

Brian W. Conz, Ph.D., associate professor and chair of the GPS department, said, “As with other well-designed community engagement efforts undertaken by our faculty, the GPS collaboration with the Boys and Girls Club gives our students an opportunity to experience how their discipline functions in the world, while serving a need identified by the organization.” 

“It has been one of the most rewarding things I’ve done at Westfield,” said Dr. Gross, “because I love seeing our students working with the kids, imparting what they’ve learned, and getting the kids excited about planning.” 

The coronavirus pandemic has only temporarily dictated changes to the program. Brown will attend Zoom meetings with students enrolled in the course, since they cannot meet in person. They will also work remotely on the curriculum to be either presented remotely or recorded for future viewing. 

Last year, Dr. Gross applied for and was awarded the University’s Innovative Pedagogical Initiative Grant, which is given to recipients who employ non-traditional methods of instruction in the classroom. The GPS Kids program used the funding to buy art supplies, books, and other items to use with the children at the Club.  

“I would love if they all wanted to be urban planners,” said Dr. Gross, “but if they don’t, our hope is that the program helps them become more engaged citizens who will be excited about getting involved in their communities.” 

Currently, the children range in age from 10 to 12, but Westfield State is developing curricula for different age groups. For parents interested in learning more about the program, call Kellie Brown, director of operations at the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Westfield, at 413-562-2301.

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