‘Local is universal’: Students as researchers in their own neighbourhoods

Almar Ennis, Edel Gallagher and Aleksandra Shornikova – Dublin City University

In 2021, DCU rolled out its DCU Futures Programme, the philosophy of which is that students will learn to become independent, autonomous, critical thinkers with an ability to problem solve and develop communication and teamwork skills. In First Year Geography, Gy105 Geographical Interpretation and Communication Skills is designed as a DCU Futures Module for students of the Bachelor of Arts Joint Honours Programme (BAJH) and the BA in Climate and Environmental Sustainability (BCES). The module is taught 100% online, supported by an online platform created by the DCU Studio team. One key aspect of the module’s assessment was the design and implementation of a field-based project titled ‘What’s Good in my Hood’ that was completed by 151 students taking Gy105. ‘What’s Good in my Hood’ is a scaffolded method for students to practice the collection and communication of geographical data, while learning about their own local environments, and aims to:
1. Create a community of practice among students through individual and collaborative activities;
2. Use local areas and neighbourhoods to see the value in local areas for fieldwork for future teachers and environmentalists;
3. Equip students with research, communication and technical skills;
4. Motivate students to learn more about their own communities.

The team designed 5 tasks that students completed individually, based on their own neighbourhoods:
1. Research the history of the area’s place name;
2. Take a photograph and explain benefits and challenges in the area;
3. Find a historical photograph and provide a brief explanation;
4. Find items in the neighbourhood based on various geographical and historical themes and take a related photo;
5. Reflect upon and write about the experience.

All activities were delivered online, with students able to engage in the material in a self-paced manner. Students then contributed their findings to an online glossary, which was visible to all class members. Each student also created a video presentation based on the individual research undertaken during the project.
Student response to ‘What’s Good in my Hood’ has been extremely positive, with every student contributing an entry based on their own neighbourhood. In all, 151 students have provided us and each other with a rich source of data on all aspects of the geography and history of local areas. The place-based analysis was excellent in terms of:
1. The historical significance of place names;
2. An assessment of continuity and change in local areas, in relation to land use and recreational facilities;
3. An analysis of problems evident in local areas such as poor transportation planning and the impact that this has on excessive commuting patterns to larger urban centres;
4. Encouraging students to take notice of the geographical form and historical stories of their local places and to know that the ‘local is universal’ in terms of conducting fieldwork with children and ensuring that local areas are sustainable socially, economically and environmentally.

The team will describe their GY105 experience in terms of student engagement, and the key learnings that they will take into future module design.