Zack Jansen, a second year mechanical engineering student, just completed a four month co-op placement with Alberta Avenue and Eastwood Community Leagues after applying to Engineering Connects, a new program led by the University of Alberta’s engineering faculty.

Jansen says, “It has been strange and exciting. I have never created solely online connections before, but I still feel that these connections are just as strong as they would have been in person. Working with Engineering Connects has been eye-opening to see the problems our communities face every day.”

The goal of Engineering Connects is to take “students, faculty, alumni and volunteers out of the classroom, laboratory, or office, and put them directly into communities.”

Jessica Vandenberghe, assistant dean of outreach at the Faculty of Engineering, explains that the program is building two long-term relationships with Fort Chipewyan and Alberta Avenue. The communities are very different, although both are what Vandenberghe describes as “high need communities”, and both have high Indigenous populations.

Engineering Connects is partnering with local leagues, businesses, and Arts on the Ave to work “on projects related to social need, community connection, or access to basic needs such as affordable housing, healthy food, or clean drinking water.” Ten students work at co-op placements in the community over the winter term.

Students benefit from the experience. “[The students will learn] what it’s like to be a part of a diverse community and participate in a community project.” They also learn how to take their engineering skills and consult with a client as well as build communication and leadership skills.

“I was surprised by how much the community relied on grants. I had thought that the government provided direct funding for most community projects, I didn’t realize how much time and effort went into obtaining funding for projects the community is passionate about,” says Jansen.

Engineering Connects chose Alberta Avenue because one of the researchers read Carissa Halton’s book, Little Yellow House. The book is about Halton’s experience living in the Alberta Avenue area. Vandenberghe says the program was then connected to the league due to local resident Maggie Glasgow’s work at UAlberta North. 

Glasgow connected Alberta Avenue Community League to Engineering Connects. She is also on the league committee working with Engineering Connects on its first project, a community seating area. 

“The partnership increased capacity on projects that we wanted to do but didn’t have the resources to,” says Glasgow.

Karen Mykietka, manager at Alberta Avenue Community League, had Jansen and another student, Ashim Gurung, work on planning and creating virtual park and garden tours, get quotes for building a gazebo, inventory empty lots in the neighbourhood, research outdoor and indoor gardening options, and assist with funding applications. In addition, she worked with them and Alberta Avenue Business Association (AABA) to develop a collaborative project. Together, they made improvements on AABA’s website directory.

“Having all this extra help really got a number of projects moved along,” says Mykietka.

Glasgow also connected Christy Morin, executive director of Arts on the Ave (AOTA), to Engineering Connects. Around the winter of 2019, Engineering Connects was interested in problem properties and derelict properties. Now, Vandenberghe sits on the AOTA’s development committee and Torrey Dance, director of special projects with the Faculty of Engineering, is on AOTA’s board of directors. 

“We are working on the green alleys project. It’s beautifying back alleys, changing alley culture, and creating positive place making, and also working on safety and food security all in one project. We have several members of leadership of Engineering Connects as part of that. They are also bringing great partners into the project and specialists in the field of agriculture and landscaping,” says Morin.

They’ve also had two co-op students working with AOTA through the winter. Eastwood Community League has also benefited from working with co-op students. “It’s a boost for the entire Alberta Ave district,” says Morin.

Other possible, future projects include a greenhouse and an outdoor public washroom. 

“At some point in the future, we’d like a physical presence,” says Vandenberghe, who explains Engineering Connects would like to work on housing, food security, and safety. “We’ve been building relationships with neighbours and not-for-profits.”

Look for more articles on the partnership in future issues.

Feature Image: Engineering students, staff, and community members held numerous virtual meetings on the benches project. | Supplied.