Hands-on Encounter with History Helps Teens Envision A Future City

Local teacher Jeff Davidson had a vision for his summer workshop for teenagers. He wanted to share his fascination with city planning by teaching teens to look closely at the urban world around them, in order to understand how and why their city looks the way it does today.

So Davidson designed a fascinating role-playing curriculum in which each student would assume a role such as Chief Architect, Planning Commissioner, Sustainability Commissioner, or Engineering Director. Together, the teens would engage in active learning including guest talks from architects, a visit with the Little Rock city planning department, and a trip to look at historical maps of Little Rock in the CALS Roberts Library Research Room.

Teens work with historic maps of Little Rock at CALS Roberts Library

We caught up with the engaged bunch of teens as CALS archivists showed them huge old city maps and neighborhood records. For many of the students, the encounter with the historical materials was their favorite part of the project thus far. “I really enjoyed seeing the old documents,” Aiden said. “You don’t usually get to do that!”

Mr. Davidson knew that they had come to the right place. “I wanted them to experience local city planning and I knew the Roberts Library had lots of documents and maps. We’re studying how cities evolve and why, and what are the values of a city planner. In the process, we study aspects of architecture, environment, history and more.”

Learning to see the values behind a city’s design

Davidson’s course went much deeper than simply subject knowledge or career education, however. “The project teaches them to see the values at work in the city planning process, such as walking vs. driving, or individual vs. community,” Davidson said.  “We’re not telling them what to think, but instead helping them realize that there are so many different philosophies at work in city planning. Tomorrow, they will get to do their own digital city-building game!”

Student Maxx contemplated the old map in front of him. “It’s interesting to see how the city has changed.” he said. “What they’ve added or destroyed, and how they shifted away from the grid system. I think the I-30 bridge across the river was a good addition!”

Another young man discussed the values behind a controversial planning decision in Little Rock history: the building of I-630 that split apart a thriving African American neighborhood. “I don’t know if the people who planned the construction of I-630 had the best motives,” he said. “I don’t know if I would have stuck with that plan.”

Student Olivia was enthusiastic about the chance to work with the historical materials. “I like to see how the cities looked back then. It’s kinda cool how the city evolved. And I get to look at really cool things that are over a hundred years old!”

SLUFY enrichment program for youth uses library resources to spark teen learning

Mr. Davidson taught this workshop through the Summer Laureate University for Youth (SLUFY), a summer program sponsored by the UA Little Rock Jodie Mahony Center for Gifted Education, which this year celebrated a historic 40th anniversary.  This program encourages talented students to study unique topics with expert teachers as they interact with motivated peers.

The buzz in the library Research Room between students, adults, and CALS archivists was energizing– it was clear that thanks to the dynamic curriculum, these teenagers had seen the relevance of the past to the present and plugged into the city planning process.  As proof, we only had to overhear the student Planning Commissioner say to his friend with charming conviction, “The solution to traffic isn’t to make more roads—it’s to make better public transportation!”

Students and teachers from all schools and homeschools are welcome in the CALS Roberts Library Research Room, where trained archivists can help locate materials or give research tips. For more information or to set up a visit, call Heather Zbinden at (501) 320-5744. Lesson plans for K-12 are also available to assist teachers and students.

For more information about the SLUFY summer program, see https://ualr.edu/slufy/.

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