By Cristy Lytal
Eric C. Shen usually relies on a more traditional strategy for preparing students for a career in transportation planning – but once classrooms were replaced by computer screens, the adjunct associate professor at the USC Price School of Public Policy and the USC Viterbi School of Engineering saw an opportunity.
“Before, class was always like a laboratory,” said Shen, who is also the Director of Capital Projects and Chief Engineer for the San Gabriel Valley Council of Governments and teaches the Transportation Studio course in the Master of Urban Planning (MUP) program. “Our students would sit in their groups. We would have guest lectures. We would have presentations from me on specific topics. They would have readings and reports. And then every year, the goal would always be to work together in person on a semester-long project.”
For fall 2020, Shen completely redesigned the course to maximize the potential of a remote learning environment and emphasize a new project medium. Each student was asked to select one commodity and create a video as well as a report, tracing its path from raw material to consumption.
Commodities Range from Boba to Bananas
It wasn’t hard for students to get inspired by the task. The first half of the course focused on global trade and goods movement—a topic that personally resonated with classmates who had spent months wondering when toilet paper would be restocked, or where to find gloves.
“A lot of times transportation planning focuses really heavily on passenger planning and passenger travel, but a huge part of transportation systems is freight movement,” said MUP student Reaghan Murphy. “It was really fascinating to explore that, especially through the lens of the pandemic.”
In-person COVID-19 safety restrictions made finding content a creative exercise in-and-of itself. As an avid crocheter, Murphy traced the journey of wool yarn and conducted virtual on-camera interviews with three custom dyers.
Another MUP student, Serena Lin, followed the path of the chewy tapioca balls from one of her all-time favorite drinks, boba tea. “Most of my assignments are producing a paper and a presentation, so it was nice to do something else,” said Lin. “And it was pretty fun to see everybody else’s results and interesting to see how different people would approach the task of presenting information in a media format.”
MUP student Ryan Hund was able to safely capture footage of the “Dole Caribbean” cargo ship at the Port of San Diego for his project, depicting how bananas reach our shores. MPA student Rico Petrino incorporated stock footage to show the tracking of aquamarine gemstones from mine to market. And MUP student Alex Melaragno drew connections between recent diet trends and the ingredients’ abilities to reach our kitchens from all over the world.
Through the experience of making videos, Shen wanted students to learn how to distill their most essential information in just a few minutes – also known as producing an “elevator pitch” – and to also prepare details in advance if they were given more time to expand on core points. (More Class Videos Here.)
Guest Instructors and Asynchronous Speakers Expand the Experience
During the second half of the course, small groups each picked a different city and prepared a consultant-style report with specific recommendations for post-COVID transportation planning.
To guide this assignment, Shen invited one of his former students, MUP alumna Rachel VerBoort, to serve as a guest instructor. VerBoort drew on her experience working as planner with Seattle’s Department of Transportation to address the topic of how cities can prepare for their post-COVID transportation needs.
“I always liked the idea of teaching and being able to share my expertise and knowledge with the next generation of transportation planners,” said VerBoort, who recently took a job as a Senior Program Manager at Amazon. “When we were putting together the curriculum, no one had solved COVID transportation changes. We just needed to react and keep rolling with the punches, and we wanted to try to find a class that could share that knowledge with students.” A second MUP alumna, Markie Anderle, gave additional guest lectures about social justice in post-COVID transportation planning.
Shen also recorded a dozen interviews with a diverse group of transportation professionals and the students watched the videos outside of scheduled class time. The students then had the opportunity to select three of these guest speakers to invite to a live panel discussion during one of their class meetings.
Shen joked, “I’m not as good as Oprah, but I kept the conversations going.”
Shen looks forward to the return of in-person learning, but the remote experience demonstrated the value of carrying unexpected elements into his classroom next fall while addressing an entirely different topic within complex transportation systems, interwoven with planning, engineering, policy, social justice, technology, and politics.
“Every year,” he said, “our students have ample real-world issues to examine in real-time.”