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Learning with the City: students to tackle challenges facing Leiden

Why do we give students fictional assignments when there is a multitude of real-world problems just waiting to be solved? Leiden University, Leiden University of Applied Sciences and the Municipality of Leiden are joining forces with partners from the public sector in the Learning with the City project, which links teaching and research to community initiatives.

A motley collection of students, policymakers, researchers and representatives from the public sector, such as the police and district teams, turned up at PLNT Leiden on 8 April to celebrate the official start of the Learning with the City project. Some were already working on a joint project, whereas others were meeting for the first time. However, all were enthusiastic about the opportunities that this project represents for the city of Leiden, its residents and its educational institutions.

Sharing knowledge with the public sector

Learning with the City is Leiden’s take on the national City Deal Knowledge Generation programme, and it ties in with the aims of Leiden Science City. The project works in two directions: the region of Leiden benefits from the knowledge of students and researchers, and the teaching and research at the two universities is enriched with real-world problems. In concrete terms, this means that students will be visiting the city’s communities to carry out research, apply their knowledge and develop initiatives or support partners from the public sector.

Students in the communities

The idea isn’t completely new. In recent years, there have been various projects in which students from one of the universities addressed questions from the Municipality or the public sector. Students from Leiden University recently worked on a project to tackle child poverty, for instance. As a bike is really important if you want to have a social life, the students came up with the idea of Alt-Bike: a bike subscription for children, with a repair service and free upgrade to a larger model. As the subscription fee would not be the same for everyone, families with a regular income would thus help provide bikes for poorer families. The concept has not yet been realised, but it is an example of how students can devise community initiatives that are based on research.

Learning in the field

Ido de Vries, a lecturer and researcher in Applied Psychology at Leiden University of Applied Sciences, also sends his students into the communities. He and his students are working on projects such as the Good Neighbour project. Here students serve as a helpdesk for residents and support the district teams from the Municipality. ‘We have to train the professionals of the future, in my case for the social sector. This is a sector that is changing and developing rapidly. What better way to teach my students this than in the field?’

Long-term projects

Jan van de Boon, who as Director of Operational Management at Leiden University is involved in social corporate responsibility, can mainly see opportunities. ‘We do want to give more structure to these kinds of partnership and useful projects. We want to move away from ad hoc projects that arise from chance encounters between the universities and the public sector towards long-term plans in which students build upon each other’s work with assignments that align with the curriculum.’ Learning with the City will serve as a container for all of these partnerships.

Challenges facing the city

And the container is by no means full: the meeting at PLNT also served as an opportunity to forge new connections for possible projects. Those present scoured a list of themes from the Municipality’s administrative agreement and a list of research themes and courses at the two universities to see who could help whom with certain topics. All of the parties are very enthusiastic about joint knowledge development, and there is plenty of opportunity to achieve this, particularly with the practical challenges, Councillor Yvonne van Delft (Work, Income, Economy and Culture) was keen to emphasise. ‘Take a theme such as low levels of literacy. We as a municipality want to do something about this, but find it difficult to reach the people who are affected. It will be fantastic to be able to apply the knowledge and insights from the teaching and research as well as from the students themselves.’ For students, an informative assignment that enables them to apply the theory to the practice, and for the Municipality insight into and solutions for challenges facing the city. 

Text: Marieke Epping

About Learning with the City

Learning with the City is part of the City Deal Knowledge Generation programme, a national programme for cities with multiple educational institutions that aims to intensify collaboration and knowledge sharing between these institutions and the public sector. Learning with the City is a partnership between the Municipality of Leiden, Leiden University of Applied Sciences, Leiden University, PLNT Leiden and various public-sector organisations from the region of Leiden. Researchers, lecturers or organisations from the public sector that are interested in working on Learning with the City are welcome to contact the project coordinator Marieke van Haaren at lerenmetdestad@plnt.nl

Learning with the City launch [in Dutch]

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Video by Eveline Kallenberg, Pixxel Bird

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