Listening to Students

A well-crafted student engagement process can play an important role in developing more effective learning environments.

Far too often, students are the forgotten element of the school design process. We talk about designing with the student in mind, but designers don’t always explore how students want to use the spaces.

Students should be viewed as key stakeholders. Not only are they primary users, but they are also the ones we are trying to engage. Our goal as designers is to find better ways for them to interact in learning environments. Who better to ask than the students themselves?

The process of engaging students isn’t about helping them “find their voice,” as we often hear. They already have a voice. We just need to listen. Working with students doesn’t have to be overwhelming and it doesn’t need to slow down the design process. If we pause and take a few moments, engagement sessions with students can create real value and develop culturally and generationally adaptable campuses.

In our experience at LPA, there is no set format for student engagement. We’ve done sessions with as few as three to five students at a time and, in one case, a session where we met with 700 students over the course of four hours. We prefer a mixed representation from different grade levels and diversity in age, roles and general preferences.

In most cases, avoid meeting only with a student council or a similar organized group. They’ve already demonstrated that they are interactive and vocal, and their needs might contrast with students who are less involved. A group of 20 to 30 students, with an appropriate balance of representation, can often provide more relevant feedback.

The workshops should be interactive and based on some type of hands-on activity. Written surveys rarely provide a complete picture. A major goal here is for the design process to model the learning environments we want to create, so we develop a process that is engaging, interactive, project-based and collaborative.

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Students indicate preferences to help identify patterns and inform the design of learning environments.

Typically, we like to give the students an exercise and then they create the work and present it back. As they present their ideas, we are looking for emerging patterns and themes, more than their literal ideas. In many cases, if you pay close attention to what students are really saying, those themes emerge naturally.

In the six-month design process for Menchaca Elementary School in Austin, when we asked students to design their own playground, most came back with a design that included a pool, a waterslide and a fountain for teachers to sit around and “chill.” In the end, we didn’t put in a pool or waterpark, but we heard what they were really saying about their needs—they wanted variety and a sense of freedom in the outdoor spaces. It changed our approach. Instead of designated play structures, we moved to create multiple spaces and areas for different types of activities, including, of course, a comfortable shaded area for educators.

We can point to several examples where students changed the course of a design. For an elementary school in Alamo Heights ISD in San Antonio, the master plan entertained the idea of switching the playground and the parking lot to create stronger adjacencies on campus. This was viewed as a priority by administrators. But then we engaged students in a three-day design camp exercise. We worked with a group and then on the fourth day they presented their ideas to a board member, the superintendent and the district facility director.

It turned out that the location of the playground was not a priority for the students. And that shifted the conversation and allowed the district to put funding back into project scope that improved the experience on a daily basis.

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Student input is a real value when developing culturally and generationally adaptable campuses.

At Casis Elementary School in Austin ISD, we gave fifth-graders a design challenge—to invent something that would be found in the future makerspace studio. Their inventions were incredible—a robot that can tell you where supplies are and clean up craft debris; a vending machine for glues and paints; a table that converts to a stage. While not directly related, the ideas influenced the design, leading to accessible and visible resources, reconfigurable spaces, and plenty of power to charge and run the future equipment and the space demands. The process reminded the entire design team and our client that today’s students are inventive, empathetic and committed to challenge the rules to make for a better experience.

Student responses often help resolve debates about very specific issues that can slow the process. For example, teachers and administrators may be going back and forth on something like round tables versus square tables. We see it all the time. When you ask high school students the very same question, the response is immediate—round tables help them work together, and they like the social aspect of making eye contact and talking to multiple peers. It’s very compelling when you see the issue through the lens of the student, and it can quickly move the discussion forward.

Sharing these student stories with other stakeholders can be a powerful tool. They can see that the students are creative and intuitive and that they need spaces that support their intrinsic needs. Technology is important, but it’s also essential to have spaces that connect students and reinforce the diversity of their interests.

Kate Mraw is a LPA Associate Principal based in San Antonio. She is focused on a research-based approach to K-12 school design and is an Accredited Learning Environment Planner.