Leading the Way
BSS Links to the City it calls Home
When Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs won the competition this past fall to turn 12 acres of Toronto waterfront into a smart, sustainable neighbourhood, it helped reinforce the sense that the city could become a model for innovative living in the future. As it happens, months earlier a group of BSS girls from a Grade 8 class were surveying an as-yet-undeveloped part of the Port Lands, learning from and working with experts in their fields to come up with their own solutions – and preparing them to contribute to that future.
As a newcomer to Toronto, Head of School Judith Carlisle was struck by how excellent an educational resource the city is. And the girls have been reaching out to the community and learning from it – working close to home with seniors and families in less fortunate areas to deepen their understanding of and ties with the broader city. “Real relationships between the school and the city are key to telling the story of the school and to enable our students to feel embedded in the life of our fantastic city,” says Ms. Carlisle.
The Middle School’s Sustainable Cities project is perhaps the most vivid example of how BSS is establishing connections with the community to enhance the girls’ education and to provide them with the opportunity to give back. “At the heart of it is civic engagement and ethical citizenship,” explains Middle School Principal Ian Rutherford. “Girls take on the responsibility for making the world around them or the communities they live in better for everyone.”
Before surveying the land, the girls meet with representatives from the City of Toronto Planning Department, who discuss the area. They are then divided into four groups. Collaboration is essential to success, as they have to communicate with each other and about the areas around them to properly move forward. The exercise, Mr. Rutherford says, gives the girls the opportunity “to apply the skills they’ve begun in class and to work with professionals in the community to build up the city.”
The heart of the week involves working with architects from No. 9 Contemporary Art and the Environment – each group of girls has the help of two for the entire time. Presentations from professionals such as staff at Waterfront Toronto and city planners also help prepare the students. “For our students at this age to interact with really significant figures – city planners, architects, surveyors, the people it takes to do anything of significance to solve city life problems – is a wonderful opportunity,” says Ms. Carlisle.
By the end of the five-day project, the girls have designed and built an 18-square-metre model of a self-contained community, complete with sustainable residential, public and commercial buildings as well as parklands, and bicycle and footpaths. Then they present their design to a group of experts, which in the past has included city councillors and architects. “The whole process of getting feedback demonstrates the interconnectivity of different disciplines – urban geography, math, architecture, politics,” says Mr. Rutherford. “To make anything work, you have the intersection of all of those pieces, and you have to speak to people and pitch and argue and realize you have to make changes.”
Indeed, Sustainable Cities is also an exercise in life lessons. “The process is a key part of preparing students for whatever part of the working world they end up in and finding creative solutions to practical problems,” says Ms. Carlisle. “That’s good for their resilience and their sense of well-being and sense of purpose. You have to work through several iterations, be prepared to compromise and collaborate, yet still have an eye on the deadline.”
For the girls, the project is a highlight of Middle School. And those who will be participating in it in 2018 will experience an added dimension: virtual reality, a tool that will expand and extend learning. For this project, it will provide the girls with a way of revisiting the Port Lands site as they are building their model – to check in, along the way, to make sure their design is making sense. “You can put on the virtual reality goggles and step into Google maps and be in the Port Lands, look around and come back,” says Mr. Rutherford. “Conceptualizing a three-dimensional landscape is complicated, so the technology is facilitating that.”
In the larger sense, Sustainable Cities is just one example of the work the school has been doing over the past year to make full use of the city – a vignette, as Ms. Carlisle says, of the way learning works at BSS and how complex it is. And it is an example of how the school prepares the girls to take their place in positions that have not traditionally been dominated by women.
“We’re working with the young women who are going to be the engineers, the
architects, the planners for the living environment of the future,” says Ms. Carlisle. “That’s why it’s such an optimistic thing to be doing. They’re on track to do what we know they should be doing, which is to make a difference in the world.”
Nora Underwood is a freelance writer and a past BSS parent.