Applied learning

Community Learning Center extends impact across state

Dancer, artist and violinist Cassie Pospishil took on a new challenge last fall as a first-year architecture student at State. It involved a friendly competition that left her with sore hands, an exhausted intellect and a new appreciation for a small South Dakota town

Department of architecture students view their model of Webster. Students created the model as part of an attempt to revitalize the town in northeastern South Dakota. The program is in its fourth year.

Department of architecture students view their model of Webster. Students created the model as part of an attempt to revitalize the town in northeastern South Dakota. The program is in its fourth year.

where she had never been before.

During that classroom competition, fingers danced, measuring tapes raced and X-Acto knives sliced as classmates worked on behalf of the town of Webster. Using materials ranging from blue foam to chipboard, students immersed themselves in what has become a foundational component of the department of architecture’s Community Learning Center (CLC): the assignment of reimagining struggling rural towns.

Pospishil is one of 25 students in the program that teams freshmen with a specific town. The assignment gives students hands-on experience in their future industry and infuses towns with new ideas and energy from students.

Creating a proportionally accurate model of Webster, these students spiced up their late nights by taking on what Pospishil dubbed “craft competitions.” Here, freshmen architectural students raced to see who could complete their portion of the Webster model as accurately and as quickly as possible.

Pospishil, a native of Yankton, and the rest of the architecture department’s graduating class of 2017 are trying to help revitalize Webster, a northeast South Dakota town of 1,886 that has been losing population for years. Between 2000 and 2012, the town’s population fell 3.38 percent.

Through hands-on work, meeting new people and working to recapture the hum of Webster’s once-bustling Main Street, these students do more than talk about the problem. They try to help fix it.

It is a tough assignment—public officials nationwide have been trying for years to reverse population loss in small towns. But that challenge isn’t stopping the SDSU students from trying.

In an attempt to combat the problem, the CLC program assigns each incoming freshmen class to one town and creates a lasting connection between students and community. The past four years have seen similar programs in Mobridge, Huron and Milbank.

Webster officials and the CLC program still are reviewing potential building projects, but assistant professor Charles MacBride said there are several options.

“There must be a balance between perceived necessity and academic development within the CLC’s mission,” MacBride said. He hopes that Webster can become more than its residents thought it could be.

When the students return to Webster this fall, they will work on a project. Webster officials want to see a recreational trail created to draw people to their town.

MacBride sees the students using their creativity to design something not only useful, but also eye-catching that will create a public space. He suggests incorporating Main Street into their project as a way to remind people that this is a community with history.

Meeting the Webster community for the first time was emotional, Pospishil said. “I remember leaving with a great feeling that I was going to be able to work with these people to help them develop their community.”

Now, after visiting Webster, measuring and remeasuring a fraction of the town and constructing the models, Pospishil said she is glad that she’s part of the project. She left with work ahead, but with a growing passion as well.

“Sure, the hours were long, the blue foam smell stuck in my clothes and my fingers were sore from using my X-Acto knife, but I had fun.”

Vanessa Condon

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