Sustainable Cities field school goes virtual

Social Sciences

- Anne MacLaurin

UVic Geographer Cam Owens shifted the international field school Sustainable Cities online and students loved it.

As COVID-19 turned the world upside-down, urban geographer Cam Owens had the immense task of shifting his International field school into an online course.

“I was skeptical at first,” said Owens, “our international field school is immersive and experiential so I was a bit daunted at first how to transition it to a virtual experience.”

The fourth-year geography course, Sustainable Cities, has been a surprising success considering how rapidly Owens had to adapt the field school to an online environment.

He adds that student feedback has been overwhelmingly positive despite the barriers of distance posed by the pandemic. Owens even suggests the level of engagement has been higher than in the regular classroom.

“Student engagement with our online discussions is quite high,” says Owens. “They are very comfortable communicating through the chat function on Zoom and we get further engagement in breakout rooms, using virtual whiteboards and other tools.”

Virtual bike tour

A course highlight was a virtual bike tour of Copenhagen, Denmark with hosts Ole Kassow and Pernille Bussone. The students experienced the city’s active transportation infrastructure and learned about its community development initiatives as Kassow and Bussone pedalled through the streets. 

The bike tour was the most unique experience I’ve had to date at UVic. It was a highlight of my third year in geography and it offered a very impressive learning experience.
Julia Paquette, UVic student

The students engaged with Kassow and Bussone during their bike tour, raising questions about sustainability challenges and initiatives in the Danish capital. They even bumped into world-renowned urbanist Mikael Colville-Andersen (producer of the series Life-Sized Cities) who shared his insights with the students.

Scenes from the bike tour are included in this recent UVic video about virtual learning.

Hands-on learning, online

This course has been phenomenal, inspiring, empowering and even though it was online it was an amazing introduction to my studies at UVic.
Rebecca Rausch, UVic student

Owens says the success comes from developing two key aspects of the course: incorporating a range of presentations from planners, activists and community leaders and having the students undertake highly useful projects with community partners.

On one project, students worked with Victoria local Wendy Littlefield, who is retrofitting an old 1912 home to a NetZero energy standard—a challenging task considering older homes are known to be quite inefficient. The students collaborated with Littlefield’s team of local experts to develop an informative website to showcase the process and share best practices.

Owens points out the videos, infographics and other useful web content the students made for Littlefields’ project. They also had to research the role of aesthetics in green building design and what are the best solar power systems.

On another project, students worked with the Island Transformations Organization (ITO), a local non-profit seeking to revive rail transport on Vancouver Island.  The students mapped the radius around four of the potential stations (in Victoria, Esquimalt, Langford and Nanaimo) looking at existing land use, zoning and property values. The information they gathered will help make the business case for the revival of commuter rail (which would lead to other added sustainability benefits).

Cam Owens speaking to students on a field trip in 2018.
Cam Owens directs students on the 2018 Urban-Europe field school. 

Owens says he didn’t pretend that the course would be able to replace the field school, but rather he would try to make it a valuable learning experience. Most of the students who took the course agree.

Owen adds, “I feel the course has been highly successful in meeting goals of community-engaged learning.”

For more information about future field schools visit the Department of Geography.


In this story

Keywords: field schools, sustainability, environment, teaching, geography, student life

People: Cam Owens

Publication: The Ring

Related stories