Experiential Learning and CityLAB Hamilton


Semester at CityLAB is not your typical university academic term. Although the course offers a full term of credits, the lessons learned far exceed what you would receive in your typical lecture hall. This can be largely attributed to the integration of experiential learning into the pillars and structure of the 15-unit course.

But what is this loosely defined term “experiential learning”, that we hear being praised more and more within academic settings? David Kolb defines experiential learning as grounded in experiences and supported by cyclical processes of concrete experience, reflection, conceptualization, and active experimentation.

Thus, how can a university course apply this model? To begin with concrete experience, we are located in the heart of Hamilton, right beside City Hall, a court, a historic building, and one of Hamilton's busiest malls. We are integrated into the centre of municipal activity and we draw lessons and inspiration from interacting with the spaces around us. When referencing an area or neighbourhood, such as Beasley, we can easily walk through it to gain a richer understanding and visual conceptualization of the space. We have opportunities to reflect upon and interact with experts in given fields of study, community members, and stakeholders. CityLAB gives us a platform to connect and work with many City staff members who provide valuable guidance and mentorship to our projects. These experiences are rare and provide students with a personal connection and a real insight into their work. This leads to conceptualization of innovative yet feasible project designs.

Our final project installations extended our learning far past our cohort and into the community. The installations ranged from mobility lab charrettes, educational booths, and waste management workshops. They were certainly the first step of active experimentation towards our project design. However, they were also a chance for community and staff members to experience and interact with our project, at which point the cycle of experiential learning has the potential to start again.

For example, my working group, Public Health, was first introduced to the concept of poor air quality in Hamilton through guest speakers and community discussions and events. Through reflection and consultation with our City champion Trevor Imhoff, the Senior Project Manager for Climate Change and Air Quality, we found that there was a project in the city that aligned with our interests. We conceptualized our ideas of air quality mitigation by working with Meghan Stewart, Landscape Architect, on the tree grove designs and educational aspects of the new John Rebecca Park. Finally, at our installation we showcased our results, launched our website, and brought in various stakeholders for an air quality panel discussion. From this work I learned that in order for a project to be successful and have long term impacts, it needs to have integrated partnerships with differing viewpoints and concepts.

Yet the beauty about experiential learning and CityLAB is that students from varying academic and social backgrounds are all in the same course. The lessons we learned are not uniform but rather custom and individual. Despite being together for four months, we will each take something different out of the Semester in Residence program and proceed to take these experiences down extremely different future paths. I am confident that the cycle of experiential learning at the first CityLAB Semester in Residence has prompted many more downstream learning cycles both within the students, instructors, city staff, and community stakeholders involved. I am very much looking forward to seeing the impacts that CityLAB has on Hamilton’s future.

Martha Kilian, Fourth Year Arts and Science Student, McMaster University