In addition to professional projects that are required for certain degree programs and project-based learning that can be integrated into classes, there are three ways that community partners could work with students who are more self-led – students who want to pursue projects purely out of interest or because they pursued a fellowship that is outside of their degree requirements. This can be an individually-led master’s thesis or a group project through a fellowship or student organization.
Masters Theses and Professional Projects in Urban Planning
Overview: Like many fields, Masters of Urban and Regional Planning students have the option of completing a thesis or a professional project as their exit project, instead of completing a capstone course. The thesis tends to be more theoretical and/or empirical, to produce new knowledge, while the professional project can range depending on the clients’ needs.
Timeline: These projects are carried out during the students second year, and can range from a year to a semester, but are usually completed by May of the year the student graduates.
When to initiate the process: Students can begin thinking about what they might do for a thesis or professional project any time, but should have their idea solidified by at least September of their second year.
Types of students involved: These are all Masters of Urban and Regional Planning students.
Faculty involvement: A faculty advisor must work closely with a student on these projects, to ensure that students are following the high standards expected of research or a professional project, but the projects should be largely led by the student.
Engagement required by the community partner: Engagement with community partners will vary considerably based on what the partner and the students need/want. Community partners are not typically involved with a thesis (because it is more theoretically-oriented), but one person from the partner agency is asked to serve as a co-advisor on the project if it is a professional project.
Types of projects and deliverables: The products will either be a thesis (a manuscript) or for the professional project, some sort of professional report.
My personal involvement: I have not yet served as an advisor on a thesis or professional project, but if the topic area was relevant, would be available to do so.
Cost: There are usually no costs involved, unless the client wanted to offer the student office space or other travel support.
Dow Sustainability Fellows Projects
Overview: The Dow Sustainability Fellows Program is run out of the Graham Center for Sustainability. During their fellowship, masters students complete a professional, group project on a topic they choose.
Timeline: These projects take a year to complete. Students usually begin talking with potential partners about projects between January and March, do the bulk of the work over the spring, summer and early fall, and present their deliverable by November or December.
When to initiate the process: Some Dow Fellow groups are still looking for projects to work on by March, but it would be best to contact the Director of the Fellows Program with ideas at least by January, so that he/she can let students know of an interested community partner.
Types of students involved: Dow Fellows are master’s students from across the university, so they could include students studying ecology, natural resources, urban planning, business, public policy, social work, public health, etc. Students self-select into interdisciplinary teams of 4-6 students.
Faculty involvement: Faculty are not typically involved in these projects. They tend to be entirely student led, unless they ask (and can find) a faculty member who is willing to serve as an informal advisor.
Engagement required by the community partner: Engagement with community partners will vary considerably based on what the partner and the students need/want.
Types of projects and deliverables: The product students are expected to produce is a “persuasive white paper (ideally for a client) that develops a comprehensive stance or an analysis of options on a particular sustainability challenge of the team’s choosing, or a comparable deliverable approved in advance by the program director”.
My personal involvement: I served as a faculty mentor to two Dow Fellows groups that worked with the Washtenaw Food Hub in 2013.
Cost: I am not aware of any costs involved with these projects.
Sustainability Without Borders
Overview: Sustainability Without Borders is a student organization that works with communities primarily in low-income countries, but also sometimes here in Michigan, including a current project in Detroit. They usually work with communities for 3 years at a time on hands-on “environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable projects”.
Timeline: These projects are carried out over a three year period, though the students working on the project over that period can vary.
When to initiate the process: My understanding is that these projects can emerge at any time, but require sufficient student interest and availability to do so.
Types of students involved: Students in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment (SNRE) started this group years ago, but now, students studying urban planning, public health and other topics are also getting involved. They are primarily master’s students, but sometimes involve upper level undergrads.
Faculty involvement: Faculty serve on an advisory board, and the group has an official SNRE advisor that supports the group, but it is mainly student-led.
Engagement required by the community partner: Engagement with community partners will vary considerably based on what the partner and the students need/want. In the past, students have tended to go to the project sites in small groups either over winter/spring break or over the U.S. summer (sometime June to August).
Types of projects and deliverables: The products students develop are entirely dependent on the project, but current projects are working on a range of topics, from business development plans to urban farming and biomass gasification projects.
My personal involvement: I have served on the Advisory Board for this group, but otherwise, am not closely involved.
Cost: I am not aware of costs for clients, though the student group regularly applies for funding to cover their airfare and other travel costs.