Purpose & Audience

Most BCL blogs shine a light on the learning experience by spotlighting students’ voices. This post is part of an intermittent series that pulls back the curtain on BCL theory and practice.


When we got off the #8 City Loop on September 23rd, it was surprisingly cold. It was also awkward. Some Burlington City & Lake Semester students laughed uncomfortably as they attempted to haul strollers and shopping bags off of the bus. Others groaned. All kinds of colorful language filled the air. One student’s crutches got caught in the door. We soon realized that everyone–those with gear and those without–had to step out of the bus onto a granite curb, before stepping (or rolling) through a rain garden. The “Mobility Equity Challenge” had done its job. It was an object lesson, quite literally, about who the public transportation system serves well, and who it isn’t designed for. 

The activity was led by partners from the UVM Transportation Research Center, and was one of several experiences that grounded BCL9’s City Systems unit. For several weeks, early in the semester, students explore different sectors of the city (e.g., the transportation system, the energy system, the housing system, the food system, etc.). By focusing on systems, students practice critical thinking, cultivate an inquiry mindset, and unearth real-world tensions.  

Transportation is always particularly challenging to investigate, because privilege and power often make inequity invisible. The goal for the activity was to use embodied experience to build empathy, and it worked. Were the BCL teachers a bit uncomfortable when a football player chose to wear his backpack on his belly “to be pregnant?” Of course. But when he complained that his back hurt after five minutes, we exchanged knowing looks. Whether it was out of stubbornness or grit, this student chose to keep wearing his pregnant backpack-belly, too – and struggled to exit the bus when the door opened and there wasn’t a curb cut. You can’t force people to care, but experiential teaching can help create the conditions for compassion to emerge. And when students feel as if they have arrived there on their own, it’s even better.

At least one “flour sack baby” fell out as students navigated the curbs of the Old North End. It wasn’t pretty, but that was the point.

Riding the bus was a brief respite–but getting off proved more challenging than students expected. 

This activity was more than a rich field trip. As students reflected in their journals, debated in discussions, and analyzed the transportation system in formal writing assignments, it was clear how much they had learned. We could have left it there. After all, once students have integrated new ideas, it’s easy to consider the experiential learning cycle complete. What more could one expect? 

Really, what more could one expect? One hint can be seen in our Mission Statement: 

Our mission is to empower young people as citizens, students, and community members through authentic, collaborative real-world learning experiences in and around the city of Burlington.

The crux is in the verb. How can we use experience to truly empower learners? 

Empowerment can be a tricky thing to operationalize, and an even trickier thing to nurture. Luckily, we’ve had the chance to play, experiment, and reflect with nearly a dozen student groups, and hundreds of community partners. We’ve also collected and analyzed both daily and semester-scale data sets from learners themselves. What we’ve found is actually relatively simple. If the goal is empowerment, two of the most powerful design elements are purpose and audience. 

If our transportation system “Mobility Equity Challenge” had stood alone, it would still have been worth doing. We didn’t stop there, however. Instead, we asked ourselves how this powerful empathy and critical thinking exercise could be leveraged. The answer, in this case, was by creating the conditions for students’ insights to have impact. On October 19th, BCL9 students gathered in Burlington’s City Hall for a two hour consultancy with members of the Department of Public Works and Grayscale Collaborative, focused on the city’s Great Streets Initiative. The blended session allowed architects to Zoom in from Cambridge, Massachusetts, while DPW’s Director, planners, and engineers engaged with students in small groups. The protocol centered students, and gave them a real-world audience for their unique wisdom. The reciprocity was palpable. The adults in the room (and on the screen) harvested perspectives that they couldn’t have gathered from professional colleagues, and students had a chance to engage in dialogue about authentic questions, and witness their ideas shift the dialogue in real-time. 

The experience couldn’t have happened without relationships that BCL has cultivated over time. As Signe Daly, Burlington City & Lake Program and Community Coordinator, recently wrote,

“Over the course of several BCL semesters our collaboration with Peggy O’NeillVivanco has grown, and now has real impact on our community.  We always want our students to have authentic experiences, and although the “mobility challenge” was just a simulation, the experience was powerful and impactful–even more so because it was designed by a community partner. Peggy then helped us take this experience to the next level by gathering an authentic audience for the student consultants. 

It’s not always natural for adult professionals to adjust to having the students’ voices be the focal point. We designed the protocol to center our student consultants, and they provided invaluable feedback. It was great to have DPW and Graystone make time for this to happen during the school day, at a time when students were available and able to engage. Youth-adult partnerships work best when adults are able to meet students where they are. That extra effort always pays off. In this case, we ensured that BCL students will continue to consult on city issues–a collaboration that meets the mission of both our program and the city itself.” 

A 4:1 student-teacher ratio created a new center of gravity in the room, and leveled the natural youth-adult hierarchy. 


Director of Public Works, Chapin Spencer, asked probing questions to students about universal design.

Peggy O’Neill Vivanco, from the UVM Transportation Research Center and Co-Chair of the Public Works Commission, helped students trust their own insights. 

Gratitude to our community partners: 
  • Chapin Spencer, Director of Burlington’s Department of Public Works
  • Laura Wheelock, Senior Public Works Engineer
  • Olivia Darisse, Public Works Engineer
  • Norm Baldwin, City Engineer & Assistant Director for Technical Services
  • Robert Goulding Information Manage
  • Stephen Gray  – Grayscale Collaborative, LLC
  • Caroline Smith – Grayscale Collaborative, LLC
Special thanks to Peggy O’Neill-Vivanco [UVM Transportation Research Center / Public Works Commission] for leading our “Mobility Equity Challenge.” 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s