Academic Stories

Home field advantage

How engagement with Chicago is shaping the College’s curriculum

As students crisscross the University of Chicago’s campus on the way to classes, it’s easy to overlook the connection between academic work and the vibrant city the College calls home. But make no mistake, the city of Chicago is very much a classroom, partner and site of inspiration for students and faculty who are exploring the meaning of the local urban setting and its impact on society and the environment.

Starting in the 1990s, the College began to develop academic opportunities related to its urban setting, but a more formal focus on bringing the local experience into the undergraduate curriculum began in the mid-2000s.

“We instituted the Chicago Studies program to develop curricular and civic projects that link programs of study with the immense resources found in the city of Chicago,” explained Daniel Koehler, associate dean of the College. “Chicago is a global city that offers rich possibilities for bringing urban experience into education, whether through internships, volunteer work, tutoring, research groups or experiential learning. That has been the impetus behind our recent efforts to build robust programs and courses, where students encounter the people, history and institutions of Chicago and combine those experiences with learning in the classroom.”

Chicago Studies taps a wealth of learning experiences across the College

The Chicago Studies program offers courses, advising resources and services that help students in the College meaningfully integrate their academic work with positive impact in the city. In essence, the program helps students discover, study and engage their creative and intellectual energies with the city, with a view to enhancing their civic and scholarly development during the College years.

Chicago Studies works with faculty and departments in all programs in the College to identify areas of study and interest that can generate dynamic learning and research experiences in the city. Together with a faculty advisory board, program staff seek to develop high-impact courses, activities and pathways that can contribute powerfully to the effectiveness of the curriculum in each program of study.

Launched in 2007 in conjunction with the University Community Service Center, the Chicago Studies program features an immersive, Chicago-focused term each spring, which allows students to dedicate an entire quarter of study to the civic issues and history of the city. This involves a deep dive into a particular Chicago community or exploration of a specific urban topic, combining coursework with excursions and introductions to further opportunities for research or advocacy. Since 2017, the program has also offered a transcripted certificate in Chicago Studies that helps students in any discipline to integrate academic study of the city with direct experiences in its diverse communities across their College years. The certificate encourages development of 21st Century skills in the context of respectful, reciprocal collaborations with persons, organizations and communities throughout Chicago. Earning a certificate requires completion of a capstone project that integrates academic and experiential learning and gives something back to the city. In one recent example, a public policy major with interests in education and health promotion contributed to a major public health study of asthma conducted by University of Chicago Medicine in conjunction with Chicago Public Schools. The student’s capstone provided a supplemental analysis of gaps in the school system’s asthma prevention programming and services.  

“As an institution, the University of Chicago is known for its ability to abstract practically any academic subject, but here in Chicago Studies, we try to ground everything in experiential learning that gives voice to students’ experiences learning about the city,” stated Christopher Skrable, director of Chicago Studies & experiential learning in the College. “A number of Chicago Studies classes are taught with a community-based learning pedagogy. Instead of simply talking about about housing projects in the city, students might engage in research that involves taking surveys or doing focus groups with actual residents of public housing project. The data gathered would then be used to inform policy recommendations, with the Chicago Housing Authority as a partner in the process.”

The centerpiece for all Chicago Studies initiatives is the Chicago Studies Annual, a journal of undergraduate research about the city and region that has been published annually since 2008. Founded to promote and share high-quality, Chicago-focused BA theses from every program of study with the vital exchange of knowledge about the city and people of Chicago, the Annual actually shows the culmination of many strands of student experience. The essays selected for publication are developed in courses and seminars, but they are inspired by summer internships, volunteer work, public lectures, locally-based research assistantships and other engagements in the public life of the city.  In this sense, they show the creative intersection of the College curriculum with our uniquely instructive, urban context.

Environmental & urban studies: linking undergraduate education to the city

Two years ago, the environmental studies major expanded its scope to encompass environmental & urban studies, a framework that provided a curricular home for the Chicago Studies program. The focus of the major is on human interaction with the natural and built environments. Since the College has an increasing number of urban focused initiatives and is situated in the heart of Chicago, launching an urban environment track had clear benefits that align with the mission of the College and needs of students and faculty.

The urban track of the major includes course offerings in urban sciences, urban planning, urban design and urban social science. The newest course, Introduction to Urban Sciences, stems from collaboration with the Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation. The major also partners with other non-academic units, including the Institute of Politics, UChicago Arts and the Office of Civic Engagement, offering students numerous opportunities to apply their coursework in the city.

“Our program encourages students to test their ideas and expand beyond the theoretical frameworks developed in the classroom,” concluded Sabina Shaikh, director, Program on Global Environment, environmental & urban studies major and one of the faculty directors of the Chicago Studies program. “This creates greater awareness. Students are encouraged to think about public policy issues like crime, poverty, inequality, how the arts connect to communities, or the impacts of climate change in the context of a major city such as Chicago. Chicago Studies affords them a place to explore their areas of interest and apply everything they are doing in the classroom to the real world.”