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A living curriculum: Tulane University explores education beyond the classroom walls

Editor’s Note: As a constant beacon of outreach and community involvement, it is rather fitting that Sharon Litwin’s last interview for WWNO was with Ken Scwartz, Dean of the School of Architecture at Tulane University as well as director of the Phyllis M. Taylor Center for Social Innovation and Design Thinking and organizer for the Tulane City Center. In this segment of “Notes from New Orleans” they discuss the programs at Tulane University and the impact they do and can have on the New Orleans community. 

Every generation has a new set of buzz words, it seems. On this week’s “Notes from New Orleans,” NolaVie’s Sharon Litwin talks with Tulane University’s Ken Schwartz, founding director of the new Phyllis M. Taylor Center for Social Innovation and Design Thinking about what those words really mean.

Q: What is social innovation? 

A: Social innovation is exploring and implementing ideas for social change. It involves a lot more than that, but when you boil it down to its essence, it involves a whole range of opportunities and possibilities that students, faculty, and community partners here in New Orleans explore through the Phyllis Taylor center.

Q: What I think is fascinating about the center is that this is a whole new world we are in. We’ve never had more information at our fingertips before. Who is doing what and why are you doing it over at your center? 

A: Social innovation at Tulane University has a long history. It certainly predates Hurricane Katrina, but it has taken on a new sense of urgency and possibility across all of the schools at our university.

In some ways, it is a non-traditional form of education. It is engaged learning, for one. It is experimental. It involves risks and entrepreneurship. We find that students are very interested in exploring these qualities that are sort of a non-traditional path toward education in concert with their traditional forms of classes and other aspects of their education.

Q: So how is it possible to determine whether or not some of these explorations might be successful? 

A: In many instances, the ideas do not come to fruition. We advise students to fail and fail fast, so that if the ideas they are trying to generate do not work, they explore them early on before an enormous amount of time is invested.

Q: In addition to this project, you are also the Dean of the School of Architecture. How do these elements fit together? 

A: The president and provost asked if I would serve as the director of the Phyllis Taylor Center for Social Innovation and Design Thinking, and I was delighted to do so because it’s synergistic. It overlaps with many of the things we have been doing in the School of Architecture for the last ten years. The most famous project that we have launched is Grow Dat Youth Farm in City Park. That started with a small gift from an anonymous donor and an idea about developing an urban agriculture program that was fundamentally about youth empowerment.

All of the development of Grow Dat — from the design of the campus to its construction — was done by students and faculty as the School of Architecture. Together these two elements converged along with a whole host of volunteers and neighborhood youth, who were part of the program in its infancy, to create a real opportunity track for students who might otherwise not have these opportunities.

Q: I know there’s another program you are involved in as well. The Tulane City Center, so I would love for you to talk about that. 

A: The Tulane City Center is the community outreach arm of the School of Architecture. It has now achieved around 85 projects in New Orleans. Some of them are built projects, like Grow Dat Youth Farm, and some of them are visioning project to help a nonprofit organization define what their goal really looks like. Then they can use that vision statement as a fundraising tool to help launch their nonprofit organization to the next level.

We work exclusively with nonprofit organizations and neighborhoods, and we work across the Orleans parish. That has really made an impact in a number of communities — Central City and work done in other wards. It really has been a powerful signal of what Tulane University can do in the community through its students and faculty.





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