Since its 2010 debut, Dr. Michael Naragon’s year-long Urban Research and Design course has been shaped by students’ interests—he planned it that way—but even he was surprised by the power of students’ passion not only to shape, but change, this year’s culminating project.

“When I described my vision for our work, Jono Coles asked if it was possible to think differently about how to end the course,” Naragon recalls. “He had a vision for something he wanted to accomplish, and he outlined what became the VoiceChannel idea. I was so taken with the concept that I thought the best thing to do was to get out of the way.”

Naragon’s original third trimester plans called for proposals targeting a common need. His students’ longing to do something tangible resulted in group projects with direct community impact. Three tapped into existing issues: food deserts and crime and safety—both focused in Homewood—and recycling disposal in Oakland and Market Square. A fourth, the VoiceChannel, is a unique mash-up of performance art, public relations, and social media—the “new forefront of social justice,” according to its Facebook page—that provides students a platform for voicing their opinions to policymakers.

During the first and second trimesters, students examined current and historical local urban redevelopment of public spaces in the city. Next, they studied mixed-use development for the Lower Hill District’s 28-acre site and plans for the Strip District’s produce terminal; they met with stakeholders, and developed their own ideas with no limits on budget or feasibility. By the third trimester, students were eager to apply their knowledge, says Adam Nye, City as Our Campus Director. “They wanted to see results.”

Nye continues, “Students were given total control. Each group did the research, found people to consult, set up their own meetings, and submitted proposals including a budget, timeline, goals, and roles of group members.”

While VoiceChannel originated from personal passion, and operates through custom-built, interactive software, most projects augmented efforts already underway: re-designing Homewood’s streets to reduce crime, partnering with a local grocer to obtain more fresh produce, and identifying optimal recycling bin locations—then designing and 3D-printing bin prototypes featuring QR codes for instant access to recycling information.

Every project, both educators emphasize, perfectly illustrates the beauty and benefits of student-centered, problem-based learning. “This is what I’ve been preaching to them for two years,” declares Naragon. “They are responsible for the culture they create, and they are responsible for their own learning. They up and took my word for it.”