Teaching Urban Students

This material is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project
Initial Publication Date: May 4, 2009

Developed by Wayne Powell, Department of Geology, Brooklyn College, City University of New York

Geoscience faculty who teach in large cities encounter a unique set of challenges and opportunities. According to the Census Bureau's dichotomous division of urban versus rural populations, which is based solely on distribution of population density, an estimated 81% of Americans lived in urban settings in 2006. Given that the majority of students live in an urban setting, geoscience education in urban colleges can reach a very large population. However, in discussing issues of geoscience education design in an urban context, it is not the number of people but the character of the people and the nature of the physical environment most affect students' reactions to a lesson. Therefore, rather than focussing on number of people, "urban settings" in an educational context are defined as environments that:

  • Host a population that is highly diverse in its ethnic, cultural, and economic characteristics
  • Have a landscape that is dominated by the constructed environment
  • Are regional economic and cultural centers.

View to Golden Gate Bridge from Coit Tower, San Francisco Night View Downtown from the Brooklyn Bridge Washington Monument and the Mall

Who are Urban Students?

Knowing your audience is essential for designing and implementing effective curricula. What are their lives like? What motivates them? What resources do they bring to the classroom? What challenges might they face in a college environment? What is their cultural heritage? What languages do they speak in their homes? What are the beliefs and practices associated with education that are held by their families? Accordingly, the first question that must be addressed is "Who Are Urban Students?"

Learn more about urban students (cultural, linguistic, educational and economic considerations)

At the Met Urban Students

Why Teach Urban Students Differently?

There are two main reasons to teach urban students differently: they are a different population and they live in a different environment. Students build understanding by connecting new information to their personal knowledge-base and experiences. Urban students bring a rich set of experiences to the classroom that may be significantly different than those of students in small-town settings, including cultural perspectives and intimate knowledge of foreign environments. Effective teaching of urban students requires instructors to tap into these rich experiences, cultural customs, and practical skills sets - the classroom's "funds of knowledge" - to design activities that urban students will consider to be "real."

Learn more about teaching urban students differently (utilizing a different knowledge-base)

How Can You Engage and Support Urban Students?

Research in urban classrooms across the country provides insight into what strategies can be used to best engage and support all urban students. Key strategies include providing contextually rich and varied activities/assignments, focusing curricula on the local environment, involving community and family in educational activities, and taking advantage of urban resources such as museums. In addition, urban educators can draw upon examples from the home countries or cultures of their students to build on their strong sense of cultural heritage.

Learn more about how to engage and support urban students (misconceptions addressed)

Example Activities for Teaching Urban Students

See examples of how assignments can be designed to engage the strengths of urban students and their support networks, overcome some of the challenges facing urban students, and allow instructors to learn more about the interests and motivations of students in their diverse classrooms.
Proceed to example activities

Reference list

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