In the spring, several co-workers and I participated in the Research Triangle Park (RTP) STEM Expo in Raleigh, North Carolina.
The Expo was put on by US2020 RTP (now STEM in the Park) and aimed to connect students with STEM mentors. Middle and high school students came from all across the state to experience the connection between what they were learning in school and the potential for careers in STEM.
As planners in the transportation field, our work often connects with a wide variety of disciplines including engineering, environmental science, biology, and architecture. Our hope for the STEM Expo was to introduce to students the field of planning and its connection to STEM.
While it was difficult to compete with robots and bubbling science experiments, we engaged students in thinking about their communities and how they relate to communities around the world.
APA Ambassador Tim Brock discusses land use patterns with students and how those decisions impact the way people interact with space in their communities. Photo by Rachel Gaylord-Miles.
We created two activities to get students thinking about how planning relates to their lives.
One asked students to write down what they liked best about where they lived and what they liked the least. From liking the amount of open space to the “melting pot of people,” we could start a conversation about how planning relates to land use and transportation decisions.
When students mentioned not liking the amount of traffic they experience or cited that there was “nothing to do” where they lived, we could talk about what planners do to make communities safe, thriving, and equitable places for people to live.
"The event was a great opportunity to get students to think about what they love in their community and how place and spaces help build that sense of community," said Tim Brock, a fellow coworker and APA Ambassador.
Our second activity used aerial photographs to show how cities and communities differ throughout the world.
From farming in Kansas to a suburban neighborhood in Florida, students began making connections about how land use decisions impact the ways in which people interact with the physical space around them. Students asked why farming in the United States looks different from somewhere in Europe. Or why the street network in suburban Florida looks different from the street network in Paris.
We found this was a great way to get students to ask questions and help them to begin answering those questions on their own. They were able to hypothesize about why one landscape looks different from another and how those places came to be.
"The aerial photo activity really opened up students' eyes to how our culture impacts the way we use land," Brock said. "They were able to start reading landscapes and understanding that land use shapes our communities in profound ways."
Overall, the STEM Expo was a great opportunity to expose the students to the field of planning. I was blown away by the inquisitive questions that the students asked and impressed by the critical thinking that they brought to the activity.
I would encourage other APA Ambassadors to think about activities with less directions and more critical thinking. We posed a lot of questions and tried to get to the students talking, rather than just listening.
To learn more about the APA Ambassadors program visit www.planning.org/ambassadors/ and follow #APAAmbassadors.
Top image: Students participated by listing their favorite things about where they live. Photo by Rachel Gaylord-Miles.
About the Author
Rachel Gaylord-Miles, ENV-SP
Rachel Gaylord-Miles is an environmental transportation planner in Raleigh, North Carolina. She enjoys putting her planning practice into action within her community.