Semester in the City: Better Engineering, and Everything Else, Through Listening

Posted December 10, 2020

On a gray, windy, chilly day 60 years ago, a bundle of dynamite exploded at a schoolhouse in Atlanta’s historic English Avenue community. Fortunately, the resulting blast injured no one. But it did succeed in tearing at the neighborhood’s bonds in ways that are still being felt today, decades distant from that bleak Dec. 12.

Teaching Georgia Tech students about such experiences is one purpose of “Semester in the City” (HTS 2086), a recurring class offered by the School of History and Sociology for more than 10 years.  The course is affiliated with Georgia Tech's Serve-Learn-Sustain campus-wide curricular initiative.

The class aims to help students understand the experiences of residents in the Westside Atlanta communities that border campus. It also teaches students how to prioritize the needs, interests, and most of all, the input of Westside residents first when considering technology or policy solutions intended to improve their lives, said Assistant Professor Todd Michney, who teaches the class.

This year, Michney dispatched students to interview residents virtually and learn more about the English Avenue community firsthand. Despite not being able to walk the streets and have personal contact with residents, students were encouraged to think about how the work they hope to perform after graduation could affect the people and the communities where they work and live.

“I need to understand diverse backgrounds and perspectives to bring fresh ideas to whatever I’m working on,” said Maya Harrell, a first-year biomedical engineering student from Flossmoor, Ill. “I hope to promote equity in the biomedical industry, and the only way to do this is to continue to learn more about the various communities across the world.”

Harrell was among the students assigned not to bring their perspectives to the story, but to listen carefully to the experiences of longtime English Avenue residents, understand how they experienced the 1960 bombing, and learn how it has continued to affect the neighborhood.

The students turned their work into a podcast that speaks to the bombing and current concerns about gentrification, focusing on the 110-year-old building, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places earlier this year. It is the subject of a possible redevelopment plan.

In addition to the virtual fieldwork, the class included numerous guest speakers, readings, and lectures on how significant issues such as Olympic redevelopment, the demolition of the Techwood Homes public housing project, and other policy initiatives affect life in Westside communities. A particular highlight was an in-class interview with Georgia State Rep. “Able” Mable Thomas, a lifelong resident and outspoken advocate for the English Avenue community. Her Greater Vine City Opportunities, Inc. nonprofit was the course’s official partner this year, made possible through a Serve-Learn-Sustain faculty grant. The idea to redevelop the English Avenue School originally was hers.

“This class is definitely unique,” said Annie Tran, a fourth-year business student from Kennesaw. “The format is really enriching, and even though we weren’t able to physically go there, I still found it was more enriching than the stereotypical class where you do readings, listen to lectures and take a test.”

Charles Howard, a fourth-year industrial engineering student from Villa Rica, said the class helped him “look outside the Tech bubble.”

“I can see how when I’m working, it would make me take a step back and say, ‘How will this be good, not just for the company, but also the people around us?’” Howard said.

Michney has taught the class four times now, starting in 2015. He felt students are becoming more receptive to the need to listen first. That may be, Michney said, because the national conversation about racial equity provoked by police shootings and other issues has once again brought the issue of race to the forefront.

Michney said the course experience is a model for the kind of real-world work engineers and others need to be doing.

“A large part of this class is learning how to listen because sometimes, the impetus is to feel like, ‘We’re the experts, we’re going to bring you this great thing, and it’s going to make your lives better.’

“If you’re an engineer, you’re applying science, and you need to understand what you’re applying it to if you’re going to have a successful result,” Michney said. “Otherwise, we’re just going to have failures that create bitterness and resentment.”

For more information about the class or listen to the students’ podcast, visit

The School of History and Sociology is a unit of the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts.

Related Media

Maya Harrell, Annie Tran, and Charles Howard were among the students who participated in the Fall 2020 offering of "Semester in the City."

The historic English Avenue School. The bombing at the school in 1960 is the subject of a podcast created by students in the "Semester in the City" class. (Credit: Keizers/Wikimedia)

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Michael Pearson