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A class on two wheels: Students study and serve while riding bicycles around the city

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Students in the Urban Biking Benefits class met on bicycles and traveled far and wide to learn about cycling initiatives in Richmond.
Photo courtesy of Nick Davis Photography.

About a dozen Virginia Commonwealth University students have been taking people’s bicycles this week from the corner of Monument and Davis avenues.

Their excuse? Their teacher told them to do it.

But not for nefarious reasons. The students are part of the Urban Biking Benefits class, a course that has been held largely atop bicycles. The class is one of several one-credit courses offered this semester to take advantage of the UCI Road World Championships being held in Richmond.

Urban Biking Benefits is a designated service-learning course that requires each student to perform 20 hours of service. Ten of those hours have been devoted to manning a bike valet station along the UCI route on Monument Avenue. 

Organized by Bike Walk RVA — a Sports Backers program — the idea behind the bike valet station is simple. It encourages locals to ride their bikes to community events instead of to drive their cars. Volunteer valets then park the bikes, ensuring security for the riders. With the road closures and detours caused by the UCI, it’s much easier for spectators to bike to the event rather than to drive.

Some people don’t know anything about bikes, some people know a ton. It’s really great peer-to-peer learning ... in the heat of the action.

“From our perspective, it’s been great for these [student] volunteers to really be exposed to a lot of bike-related things,” said Brantley Tyndall, community engagement coordinator for Bike Walk RVA. “They’re meeting a lot of people who come to watch. Some people don’t know anything about bikes, some people know a ton. It’s really great peer-to-peer learning ... in the heat of the action.”

The remaining 10 service hours comprise collecting data for the university’s State of Cycling Report, which appraises VCU’s bike infrastructure and surveys students, staff and faculty about biking on campus.

“I saw this as a really great opportunity to continue that conversation,” said Tessa McKenzie, co-instructor for the course and a research coordinator in the Division of Community Engagement. “The data have not been updated since 2010 and the students are involved in collecting data on bike racks throughout both campuses. They each get 18 different racks and will provide updated data, and discuss and share findings. We do this all on bike. At VCU we make it real – real fun.”

 Students are serving as bike valets during the UCI Road World Championships, part of an effort to encourage spectators to bike to the course.
<br>Photo by Steven Casanova, University Marketing.
Students are serving as bike valets during the UCI Road World Championships, part of an effort to encourage spectators to bike to the course.
Photo by Steven Casanova, University Marketing.

McKenzie collaborated with co-instructor Herb Hill, director of the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program at VCU, to help students with the research component.

Hill, who works primarily with students conducting research in a structured academic environment, jumped at the chance to take research out of its traditional environment and into the community, which has a completely different impact, he said.

“We can do research that’s meaningful and that’s active and that has outcomes,” he said. “And you can communicate those results back to the community for change. To be able to see all of that happen in a relatively short time span is really motivating and inspiring.

Bikes are pictured at the bike valet.
<br>Photo by Steven Casanova, University Marketing.
Bikes are pictured at the bike valet.
Photo by Steven Casanova, University Marketing.

“It’s unpredictable. Even in a lab environment, it’s unpredictable, but when you’re dealing with a community-engaged project, the unpredictability quotient kind of goes through the roof. But that’s what makes it so exciting. That’s what makes this a compelling project and a compelling course.”

It also helps that all of the students enrolled in the class want to be there.

West Redington, a junior mechanical engineering major and president of the Triathlon Club at VCU, calls the class “fantastic.”

“Everybody in it is there because they’re interested in bikes and the bike race,” he said.

The seven-week class meets each Wednesday, covering a different topic focused on a community bike initiative. Opting for a face-to-face class over an online one, McKenzie also eschewed a classroom setting. Instead, the class meets on its bikes and explores different parts of the city in what they call “ride and learns.” Each week, a different community expert joins them on bike to discuss the evening’s topic and to tour the city.

“For example, last week we met with former professional racer Matt Crane out of Richmond Cycling Corps,” McKenzie said. “Our topic was racing debunked, which examined the race route. We got to ride the cobbles and Governor Street hills, and discuss or demystify racing and how to be a spectator. It got sweaty.”

Other guests included Tyndall, a VCU alumnus who launched several bike initiatives while at the university.

The visiting community members appealed to Julia Carney, a senior political science major.

The bike is really this tool for community engagement and to go beyond the traditional classroom structure.

“You couldn’t ask for a better class,” she said. “These are people I wouldn’t normally interact with but our instructors are well-connected, so they bring these people in that are pillars of the biking community. I wouldn’t ever talk to [them], but [now] I have this experience to bike with [them]. It’s really fantastic. I love it so much.”

McKenzie sees the bike as a unifying component of the class, similar to how the UCI is unifying VCU, Richmond and the world.

“We found something special here,” she said. “The bike is really this tool for community engagement and to go beyond the traditional classroom structure. So I saw this as a way to get students on bikes, to ride in the community, to be connected with the community, to learn with the community, and that was the vision. The students have learned about these exciting community initiatives that are happening in Richmond right in front of us, right on campus.

“I think it’s important that faculty at VCU consider alternative methods of teaching in the classroom. The bike for us has been extremely successful and has really unified the students with the community as well as with this bike race. … This has been unforgettable.”

Students in the Urban Biking Benefits class met on bicycles and traveled far and wide to learn about cycling initiatives in Richmond.
<br>Photo courtesy of Nick Davis Photography.
Students in the Urban Biking Benefits class met on bicycles and traveled far and wide to learn about cycling initiatives in Richmond.
Photo courtesy of Nick Davis Photography.

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