High school students combine art and science in Woodlawn neighborhood project

For six weeks this summer, six South Side high schoolers spent their days exploring the Woodlawn neighborhood, viewing it with dual perspectives for a project created this year by the University’s Arts|Science Initiative. The students measured air quality and population numbers. They built 3-D maps of the neighborhood, interviewed its residents and reflected on all of their research through poetry.

On July 31, a collection of photographs, hand-drawn maps, written confessions and a recording of Woodlawn residents discussing their neighborhood artfully decorated the walls of the Café Logan. Visitors wandered around the room taking their time with every piece—each created by one of six students through the Woodlawn Urban Observatory program at the University of Chicago.

The Woodlawn Urban Observatory, created this year as part of the University’s Arts|Science Initiative, was designed to teach high school students to engage with and better understand what makes a neighborhood, specifically Woodlawn. Students were selected through the Chicago Public Schools’ Department of Career and Technical Education. Working with architects, visual artists, ethnographers and computer programmers, they used myriad observation techniques, including interviews, photography and community asset mapping.

“Often times visual art, science and social science are taught as independent subjects, so I wanted to develop a program that integrated them,” said Julie Marie Lemon, director of the Arts|Science Initiative. “I was curious what could be learned by overlaying different methods and tools of looking closely at a specific neighborhood.”

The students presented their findings to an audience of parents, UChicago students, staff and community partners at the Logan Center for the Arts cafe exhibit. They mingled with guests, explaining their findings and talking about their experiences.

Jessica Redmond James, a rising senior at Kenwood Academy, said it was interesting to explore different aspects of the Woodlawn neighborhood and interview local residents. “We didn’t expect to see so many vacant lots and so many personalities. I enjoyed seeing the different personalities of the neighborhood,” she said.

Atlantis George, also a rising senior at Kenwood Academy, said she liked taking photos, which allowed her “to see the difference between each day.”

The students participated in the Urban Observatory as paid interns. Other students in this summer’s program were Banu Newell, Kenwood Academy; Dion Thomas, South Shore International College Preparatory High School; Jesus Gonzales, South Shore International College Preparatory High School; and Kenaya Howard, King College Prep.

“Skills of observing are such valuable tools in any discipline,” Lemon noted. “I also wanted to share the resources we have at the Logan Center and throughout the University.”

Through the program, the students received a chance to reflect on the physical, natural and social dimensions of Woodlawn. They also gained skills that will allow them to recognize opportunities for change in their neighborhoods.

“By involving our youth in the understanding of their community and the communities around them, we are helping to develop the next generation of solutions while preparing the next group of leaders to take on important community issues,” said William Towns, assistant vice president of Neighborhood Initiatives for the Office of Civic Engagement.

The Arts|Science Initiative and Chicago-based architecture firm Landon Bone Baker Architects co-developed the Woodlawn Urban Observatory program. UChicago partners include the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, the Office of Civic Engagement, the Center for Robust Decision Making on Climate and Energy Policy, and the Division of Social Sciences. Additional partners included the Shapiro Center for Research and Collaboration at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Chicago Public Schools' Department of Career and Technical Education.