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McMaster CityLAB Semester in Residence students

McMaster CityLAB Semester in Residence students help build a better Hamilton

McMaster students collaborate with the City of Hamilton to find solutions to real-world problems

May 06, 2021

Every Fall, McMaster students take part in the CityLAB Semester in Residence (SIR) program. It’s not your average 15-unit course. It is offered by the Office of Community Engagement in partnership with CityLAB Hamilton, an innovation hub that brings together students, academics, and civic leaders to work on building a better Hamilton for everyone.

Students enrolled in the course take mainly project-based experiential classes where they work in interdisciplinary teams while being mentored by City of Hamilton staff and course instructors. The aim is to find creative solutions to actual problems faced by the City.

Fall 2020 was no different. Despite the challenges presented by the pandemic, instructors encouraged students to rise to the occasion by engaging the Hamilton community in an online environment. The students were divided into groups, each with a different focus and connected to a different department in the City of Hamilton. The result was a diverse array of projects, which included helping the City of Hamilton Public Works develop its climate change resiliency strategy and creating a CityLAB SIR podcast called CityCAST as part of their climate change series.


Students also helped solve long-term issues for Hamilton residents. Health and Society student, Tanisha Palmer, worked on a project on complete street design within Ward 1. She also helped facilitate an online meeting with residents where they shared feedback on current traffic infrastructure and made suggestions for a complete streets’ intersection makeover.

“My time in the program opened my eyes to the importance of community-engagement practices, especially now when communities can be built and reinforced online,” she says.

Health Sciences students, Saud Haseeb and Harshul Bhanjana, worked with Neighbourhood Development staff at the City to rebuild relationships with community members during the pandemic. During the first semester, they developed recommendations for the City to better support community groups after reconnecting organizations. During the second semester, as the government focused on ensuring an effective vaccine rollout, they helped implement one recommendation.

“We’ve been able to help get new neighbourhood associations launched during the pandemic, and we’re developing resources to support those groups that are looking to organize community initiatives. The City will host these resources on its website which we’re incredibly proud of,” says Bhanjana.

After the four-month program ended, the Office of Community Engagement hired some students to return to collaborate further. Two such students were Ananya Yadav, a fourth-year Social Sciences student and Julia Menezes, a third-year Arts & Science student, who were selected to be a part of the CityLAB Ambassador program. Through this program, they created a virtual engagement toolkit, which is a guide that explains best practices and recommended techniques for planning successful online events. It was directly informed by the lessons Yadav and Menezes learned during the 2020 CityLAB Semester in Residence.

“In the wake of the pandemic, we believed this was a critical issue. Right now, everyone is focusing on learning how to use programs like ZOOM and MS Teams and that is a part of it, but the toolkit goes beyond that. The guide applies these recommendations using a community-engagement lens and specifically outlines how to create community-engaged events,” says Menezes.

Besides the pride and satisfaction which came from helping the Hamilton community, the students also found unexpected benefits. Yadav admits that despite her initial uncertainty about the impact the pandemic would have on the experience, the program provided her a sense of community.

“It was only around 24 of us in the program, so it was wonderful to see everyone every day and to work on this project together. We always kept our cameras on, which seems like such a small thing, but during the pandemic, it really gave us a sense of community,” she says. “I’ve made lifelong friends through that semester, and it was an amazing opportunity to learn about the Hamilton community while exploring how the City works.”