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Students Use Boxes to ‘Think Outside the Box’

May 05, 2016 03:40PM ● Published by Tori La Rue

By Tori La Rue | tori@mycityjournals

South Valley - Tanner Roth, 11, said he’s ready to be on the Herriman City Planning Commission. 

“I know the different type of land uses we have, and what percent we use for residential and industrial land uses,” Tanner said. “It’s fun to decide where buildings go and what half of the city will look like and everything like that.” 

Tanner was on a mock planning commission when he and the rest of the fifth and sixth graders at Blackridge Elementary School participated in Utah’s first-ever Box City Project, put on by the Utah chapter of the American Planning Association. In the project, based on similar projects done in Henderson, Nevada, students learned about planning, architecture, land uses, maps and the democratic process of city development by creating their own city using Styrofoam cubes. 

Ten to 15 volunteer architects, landscapers and community planning professionals came to the school for four two-hours sessions in February through April and taught the students about community development through hands-on activities. 

 “The kids loved it, and volunteers couldn’t get away from how amazing and how adult-like they are,” Principal Steve Giles said. “Sometimes, I think that kids have the strength of adults without the idiosyncrasies of adulthood. They think outside the box.” 

Edward James, volunteer, said it’s likely the students know more about the democratic process of development than many adults know. If students learn how the system works at a young age, they’ll be more inclined to participate in community planning in the future.

During the fourth and final lesson, student groups proposed developments to a mock planning commission, made up of other students. If their ideas weren’t in line with the land use map they’d created earlier on, the students justified why their project should be an exception to the use policy. 

Tanner said organizing the city was the most complicated part of the Box City Project. 

“People wanted one spot for their building, and it was already taken, and they would not have another idea,” he said. “But the planning commission helped the residents to find spots for their buildings.” 

It was important to include industrial and commercial properties in the city, so people in the city could have a place to work, Tanner said. His class city had a lot of factories to provide jobs for the residents, including a candy factory, a sports factory and a toy factory.

Giles said the problem-solving skills the students developed during the project are “real-life skills” that the students will use long past elementary school. 

“At Blackridge, we teach kids to think and to problem solve and to use the scientific method,” Giles said. “You don’t just plug in answers when you do engineering. You have to come up with creative solutions to unique problems.” 

When James approached the Jordan School District about implementing a hands-on community development project in Utah schools, the district referred him to Giles, saying Blackridge would be a good place to start because it is a STEM school. 

The project went well, James said the Utah American Planning Association will expand the program next year. He hopes the project will be implemented in all Utah elementary schools someday.  

“This program gives good background information to the kids,” James said. “It can make a positive and valuable contribution to their education and lead to participation in community development later on.” 

Giles agreed. 

“As they people explain these concepts to these kids, they’re creating a group of adults will understand protocol and business,” he said. “Then, these kids can be much more informed as adults.” 

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