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Students work together to inform campus planning

Sarah Martin was looking for a way to help others during COVID-19. Katherine Hunter wanted to give students a voice in the campus reopening for the autumn semester.

Associate Professor Rebekah Matheny had the perfect solution.

Matheny, in the Department of Design, recruited Martin and Hunter — both senior design students at Ohio State — along with five additional design students for a summer design research project to give university departments insight into student concerns heading into the 2020-21 academic year.

“Going back to campus is such a big part of the student experience,” said Martin, a visual communication design major. “It’s very impactful to know we’re helping students inform the university about what they’re thinking.”

Matheny and Stephanie Orr, director of Learning Experience in the Office of Distance Education and eLearning (ODEE), received a grant under the Global Arts and Humanities Discovery Theme to act as principal investigators (PIs) for a project titled Designing a Post-Pandemic Return to Campus.

The project had design students survey and work with a wide representation of Ohio State’s student body to understand daily experiences and thoughts about returning to campus in the midst of COVID-19 and explore possible solutions to concerns.  

“Rebekah is fantastic when it comes to getting students involved and having a say in the university,” said Hunter, an interior design major. “It was beneficial and eye-opening to directly ask students how they feel about returning to campus and what obstacles they see throughout their days.”

Deploying design thinking

While the project will help inform the university about student perspectives, it is also a valuable lesson in the evolution of design.

“Design thinking and participatory design workshops are intended to engage the user as a decision maker,” Matheny said. “By engaging users, we as designers see their perspectives and are empathetic to the diversity of needs that are critical in the spaces and places we create.

In this case, students are the users helping the designers create an environment that brings more peace of mind during COVID-19.

The idea came from a project in the fall of 2019 when Orr’s Learning Experience team collaborated with students in Matheny’s interior design studio course to develop speculative design concepts for classrooms and designs for informal spaces on campus.

“They came up with beautiful designs and great takeaways,” Orr said. “An important part of that was ‘a day in the life’ of a student. We wanted to take that and do something similar for this COVID-19 situation. It’s really valuable.”

After Orr and Matheny secured the grant, they recruited seven students — two visual designers and four interior designers — for the project. Other students involved in the project included seniors Ethan Newburger, Gabby McCloy, Hannah Welling, Olivia Forsyth and Reille Lucas. 

Student-driven work

Martin, Hunter and the team created a 55-question survey that was posted to social media channels. More than 600 students from diverse backgrounds and academic majors and years provided input.

A few of the survey findings:

  • More than 50% can do virtual learning from home but had a strong desire to be back on campus;
  • 80% said they experience weekly, if not daily, anxiety or stress related to COVID-19;
  • 73% are at least slightly economically strained due to COVID-19;
  • 59% are somewhat or extremely comfortable attending in-person classes.

Following the survey, the student designers each worked with 10 students through daily virtual workshops. The first part of the workshop was a pre-COVID-19 “day in the life” exercise to determine examples of student journeys through campus — such as moving from home to class to jobs to study spots. This activity helped understand touchpoints and engagement areas throughout a typical day.

Students then used a virtual toolkit to explore what interventions could make the daily experience feel safer in a COVID-19 reality. For instance, what items may enhance the PPE kits the university developed? Or where could pop-up study spots with Wi-Fi be added to outside areas?

A few findings from the participatory design workshop:

  • Students expressed feeling isolated due to online classes and social distancing and are concerned that the lack of access to recreational facilities, such as the RPAC, will negatively affect their physical and mental health;
  • Students are willing to stay home for lecture classes but would like major-specific and active-learning classes (such as labs, studios, clinicals) to be in person;
  • Students rely on third spaces (libraries, lobbies, the union, computer labs, etc.) for access to reliable internet and proper furniture accommodations.

Once the project is completed, the results will be presented to university departments such as ODEE, the Classroom Readiness Committee (CRC), Integrated Physical Planning Liaison Group (IPPLG) and the College of Arts and Sciences Return to Campus Committee.

“Ohio State might not be able to do everything these students ask for, but I would love to see this work acknowledged,” Hunter said. “Even if it’s little things that are implemented, it would feel we were heard.”

Published: September 4, 2020

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