Each year at Los Angeles Charter School, teachers Dolores Patton and Denise Cole spend a good part of their year on a project in which students design a city of the future. Their 8- to 10-year-old students are team-taught in a mixed-age class. The students design their city for the urban area in which their school is located. The city-planning task is a complex one. Students are asked to make projections about the size and composition of the population of the future, to think about all of the needs that must be served, and to draw inferences from current trends about the types of problems that will be critical and the technologies and resources that will be available.
The city planning project combines elements of social studies, language arts, science, and mathematics. Social studies topics include the structure and functions of city government, which students learn by taking on specific roles (such as mayor and head of the Public Works Commission) and acting in those capacities for the classroom. Science topics are incorporated as students consider the natural disasters (notably earthquakes) that might threaten their city and seek to design safeguards (such as buildings with flexible bases). Opportunities for using mathematics are abundant. For example, a student who proposes a certain structure for a piece of land places an appropriately scaled color-coded piece of paper (different colors represent different uses, such as residential or commercial) on the site. The student has to measure the piece of paper, compute the size of structure that the paper represents (1/2" = 6 feet), and then judge whether the size represented would be appropriate for the proposed building. In the case of a controversial issue (such as treatment of the infirm elderly), students may develop a survey and administer it to their classmates to determine public opinion. Mathematics is involved in summarizing and displaying the survey data.
Students are divided into neighborhood groups (called "color groups") charged with the planning for portions of the land site. The teachers take care in selecting students for these groups so that each group has a mix of ages, genders, ethnicities, and ability levels.
Within the neighborhood group, each student has his or her own parcel of land. Students decide what they would like to put on their individual parcels of land; then they prepare a plan, showing the layout, size, and functions of the buildings they propose. They are required to design something that reflects the needs and capabilities of the future rather than simply replicating something that exists today.
As students share their initial plans with the neighborhood group, the teacher guides the discussion, keeping the students on track and drawing them into the process of making inferences about likely future conditions and the relationship among elements in the city environment. One extended-neighborhood planning meeting covered topics ranging from school security to transportation to making inferences about the likely size and needs of the elderly population and the issue of the right to die (Means & Olson, 1994). This kind of instruction calls on the teacher to respond flexibly to the innumerable topics and logical problems unearthed by student explorations.
In addition to the neighborhoods, the classroom is broken into eight commissions representing city functions (such as Parks and Recreation, and Environmental Quality Control). The commissions issue regulations in their own domain. For example, the Building and Safety Commission issues regulations on the height of buildings.
As in the real city, neighborhood groups and bureaucratic commissions can interact. One year, for example, the Building and Safety Commission's height restrictions made it impossible for the neighborhoods to accommodate their quota of housing and still have room for any other services (such as hospitals and commercial establishments). Several of the neighborhoods petitioned the commission and got the regulations changed. The commissions also perform logically related functions within the classroom. For example, the Historical Commission is responsible for collecting documents representing the activities of the class and displaying them on a "History Wall" as well as within a HyperCard stack.
Students use word-processing software in writing their city plans and descriptions. A drawing program (Canvas) is used when they need to design objects and buildings. HyperCard stacks and animations are used to illustrate the students' individual plans for land parcels and to illustrate the place of their parcel within the neighborhood and the city.
Spreadsheet software is useful when it is time to calculate the effect of a decision under consideration on some variable (such as the effect of a building height limit on the number of residents that can be accommodated) and to graph survey responses. A portion of the city-building activities was videotaped and edited to produce QuickTime clips for a multimedia record of the project.
For more information, refer to The City Building Project.