Ernest Sternberg: Bringing Practicums to Underclassmen

Portrait of Filomena Critelli.

Prof. Ernest Sternberg is in the exciting position of offering undergraduates an impactful learning experience. As a professor of urban and regional planning here at UB, he has plenty of experience teaching practicums, which are, to put it simply, opportunities to learn by doing. In Ernie’s practicums, students learn by helping a local organization—a client chosen by Ernie—with a task that addresses an issue the client faces.

As Ernie describes, there are several steps along the way to presenting a final solution to the client. First, a representative from the organization comes in to talk to the class about who they are, what they do and what issues they may be facing. Then the students write an initial memo of how the class might address the problem, and they decide on an outline of topics to break the project down into smaller pieces. Student groups are assigned to each smaller topic, and after they research their topic more deeply, they come together as a class to present their findings. From then on, the class works on the report, going through multiple drafts and editing cycles, eventually bringing it into its final form and presenting their work to the client.

Using this model, Ernie has had some very successful practicums. In 2000, he and his class at the time worked with the Buffalo Green Gold Corporation to follow a hunch that the Lake Erie shore might be a good place for wind generators. The class studied various aspects of the problem, including how far apart the windmills would have to be and appropriate locations, and identified the area around the closed steel plant in Lackawanna as a potential home for the wind generators. Erie County and other leaders ended up coming to their presentation and decided to go ahead and implement the class’s suggestions. Today, you can find windmills around the area the class originally recommended. Ernie sees this as a great example of how undergraduate students can tackle open-ended problems and generate creative solutions.

“The overall message is not that we’re becoming experts on this particular problem—the purpose is really to figure out how to perform a study,” Ernie says. Students learn to investigate a problem and possible solutions, interview knowledgeable people about the topic and write analytically and critically. And it ends up being a lot of fun. “I like it because I don’t have to repeat myself. And I always learn from it.” Ernie often chooses clients or a topic that he’s not an expert in. “Really what I bring to it is my experience running projects, and then we learn together. Each time is a different experience.”

Ernie’s practicum is being launched as a UB Seminar for the first time in spring 2019, and he looks forward to seeing what these younger students can accomplish through this innovative practicum course. Faculty outside the field of urban planning or environmental design can also incorporate aspects of practicums, such as project-based learning, into their courses. The Experiential Learning Network is a resource that supports this kind of curricular innovation and also provides support through our Course Infusion Fund.

Written by Amanda Hellwig ‘19