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Service-Learning Profile: Thomas K Davis

tkelvis2 (1)1Course: Urban Design (ARCH 493)

Instructor: Thomas K Davis

Authored by Dr. Lisa Fall, Associate Professor of Advertising and Public Relations and Noah Mayhew, Senior in Public Relations

There is no clearer example of service learning in the College of Architecture than the study and practice of urban design in Architecture 483. Students work with real clients in the state of Tennessee to solve design problems, pitch ideas for new development and produce solutions for residents.

“The University of Tennessee was founded as a land-grant university, which means [that] from the beginning it had an obligation central to its mission to engage and outreach to help quality of life for citizens in the state of Tennessee,” said Thomas Davis, the course instructor. “One of those areas that is very important is civic design.”

Davis said that the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, College of Architecture and Design has had students work with clients in this way unofficially for more than 20 years. Officially, the college has been solving urban design problems, particularly in Nashville, for 14 years. “Nashville today is an ‘it’ city.”

One of the keys for effective service learning is an interactive and reactive experience, Davis explained. Students in this course regularly interact with industry professionals, attend trips to Nashville for meetings, research and pitch ideas. In addition, their projects are always based on community needs.

“We’re in partnership with the Nashville Civic Design Center, a “think tank” that emphasizes public participation,” said Davis. “We [also] have very close ties with the Metropolitan Planning Organization and the Metro Planning Department. They’re very central to our events out there and [they] give us input. What we do is align with their agenda as they evolve through their process of public participation.”

Such interactivity is also a favorite among the students themselves; this engagement helps to improve their design skills, as well as to gain authentic and practical experience. “The students really enjoy working with a real city, having architects and developers, the best there are, and having civic leaders come to reviews, look at their work and appraise their ideas,” said Davis. “And some of those ideas actually take hold.”

Perhaps most notable of this course’s impact on the State of Tennessee has been the aquarium in Chattanooga. “Chattanooga, 25 or 30 years ago, was considered a down-and-out disaster. And today it’s a major tourist destination because it has such quality in its downtown,” Davis said. “In fact, the aquarium was an idea generated by one of our students at our College’s Urban Design Center in the heart of the city, then under the leadership of now retired faculty member Stroud Watson.  The city, at that time, through the process of public participation and lots of meetings, gathered enthusiasm about the idea and got it funded and built. And it’s gone through an expansion since then.”

“We founded our College’s partnership with the Nashville Civic Design Center in 2000. So this is a 14-year initiative and it is sustainable,” said Davis, illustrating both the ongoing nature of this course, but also the real possibility for students to grow and make a mark. “There’s just a wonderful synergy between the energy and idealism of students and their creative imagination when it’s focused, critiqued and involved over the course of a semester – coupled with the real needs of a city to understand how important good civic design is and what ideas might potentially be evolved by design professionals and be realized.”

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