Project-Based Learning brings student ideas to Elkhart leaders

When Elkhart Memorial social studies teacher Adam Meyers reviewed the Indiana state standards for instruction, one in particular stood out to him – World Geography, WG.4.3 – Human Systems: Hypothesize about the impact of push factors and pull factors on human migration in selected regions and about changes in these factors over time. Through his Project-Based Learning training with Horizon Education Alliance, Meyers saw an opportunity to involve his students in the bigger picture of the local footprint.

He reached out to Levon Johnson, ECS supervisor of corporate and community partnerships, and Jason Harrison of Horizon Education Alliance, to brainstorm ideas. It was through this conversation that Johnson connected Meyers to Vibrant Communities of Elkhart County, whose initiative is to strengthen Elkhart County’s communities through enhancing the quality of life for residents – an initiative that aligns with the state standard. Upon speaking with representatives from these committees and agencies, and working with his students, Meyers’ class was able to establish their Problem Statement:

Problem Statement: How can we as community members, develop a plan to encourage talented people from the ages of 18-35 to live and work in Elkhart?

Throughout this semester, students have researched backgrounds and histories of city populations – why city populations have risen and fallen, why cities maintain little to no growth, how a government can set a path for a city’s growth or decline – while considering Elkhart in comparison, since it was the focus of their Problem Statement.

“We did a lot of research,” says Elkhart Memorial freshman Alexis McNeely. “It’s exciting to build recommendations for what youth want, for future generations of young people.”

Students utilized the expertise of the Economic Development Corporation of Elkhart County to help with local research. Students also administered surveys, analyzed data, and explored quality of life factors that can improve the vibrancy and desirability of a city.

This week, students presented their ideas to Johnson, as well as Mike Huber, development director for Elkhart County Convention & Visitors Bureau, and Crystal Welch, director of development services for the City of Elkhart, who are both committee members on Vibrant Communities.

The ideas presented by students included bringing more youth-focused events to Elkhart, as well as improving entertainment options like movie theaters, increasing the number of sit-down restaurants, diversifying the types of businesses, focusing on reducing crime in Elkhart, and improving housing options.

“I think Elkhart has too many vacant buildings,” says Elkhart Memorial freshman Patrick Justice. “I’d like to see something happen with those buildings – have the land used for more diverse businesses or housing.”

As for McNeeley, she’d like to see more events, “most of our events are in the summer. I would like to see events all year – things like crafts, music, and food-related events.”

Huber and Welch both encouraged students to lead in the changes and improvements, saying that unlike larger cities, youth have an opportunity to speak directly with Elkhart’s city planners and organizers. “If you have an idea for an event that will appeal to youth, we would love to hear it,” Welch told the students. “I hope through this, students can see that they can have an impact, that we are listening to their ideas.”

Huber agrees, saying “We want Elkhart to appeal to all – for Elkhart to be a strong community. We want our city to appeal to all of our residents, not just visitors.”

“Vibrant Communities is doing a great job in identifying the needs of Baby Boomers and Millennials in our community. The work of our students will help add to their research, with a continued forum of the next generation in mind,” says Meyers. “This project has shown our students that the voice of the youth is important as our community continues to evolve and grow.”

In addition to researching and offering ideas for a real-world problem, Meyers hopes his students gain even more from the project. “I’m hopeful these students recognize they are valued by this community and that by taking PRIDE (Persistence, Responsibility, Initiative, Dependability, and Efficiency) into account, they can accomplish anything to they focus their mind and energy towards.”