Doing good by design: students delve into the unknown to design creative, research-based solutions to community challenges.
Subject: Interior design (Environmental aspects)
Interior design (Study and teaching)
College teachers (Practice)
Interior designers (Practice)
Environmental sustainability (Study and teaching)
Author: Boscia, Ted
Pub Date: 03/22/2012
Publication: Name: Human Ecology Publisher: Cornell University, Human Ecology Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Health; Science and technology; Social sciences Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2012 Cornell University, Human Ecology ISSN: 1530-7069
Issue: Date: Spring, 2012 Source Volume: 40 Source Issue: 1
Topic: Event Code: 200 Management dynamics
Geographic: Geographic Scope: New York Geographic Code: 1U2NY New York
Accession Number: 294821776
Full Text: Professors Paul Eshelman and Gary Evans like to push their students beyond "their realm of familiarity." This belief has led to some unexpected encounters: meetings with disadvantaged teens at Boys & Girls Club of America locations, observations of toddlers in daycares, collaborations with physically disabled students and facilities managers, and sit-downs with elderly residents at senior centers and retirement homes.

"It's always an exciting scene--how much experience does a 20-year-old Cornell student have with preschool education or the lives of 75-year-olds?" said Evans, the Elizabeth Lee Vincent Professor in the departments of Design and Environmental Analysis (DEA) and of Human Development.

Each fall for the past 16 years, the professors have been inducing their students into the unknown as part of a partnership between two courses: Evans's The Environment and Social Behavior and Eshelman's Junior Design Studio. The students team up to tackle technology and design challenges faced by community facilities that serve populations with out-of-the-ordinary needs. One year, that charge led them to research, design, and build exercise and physical therapy spaces for residents of Kendal at Ithaca, a retirement community. Another time they studied and fabricated activity modules--spaces for homework, games, art, and other pursuits--in consultation with facilities executives from the Boys & Girls Club of America.

"By focusing on users whose needs are different than their own, the design students can't just fall back on their personal experiences," said Eshelman, professor of design and environmental analysis. "They're forced to work closely with the client to develop solutions. It's directly translatable to the work world, where you're on a team and have to rely on the input and expertise of others."


In the DEA department, Evans and Eshelman are not alone in providing students with hands-on opportunities with real-world clients. In the popular course Programming Methods and Design, professor Lorraine Maxwell's students have advised area schools, local nonprofits, a Syracuse center for people with Alzheimer's disease, Habitat for Humanity as it constructed an energy-efficient home in Cortland, N.Y., and a new grocery store planned for Ithaca's north side. Lecturer Rhonda Gilmore seeks out community agencies, such as the Ithaca Cancer Resource Center and the Alcohol and Drug Council of Tompkins County, that don't have the budget to hire professional designers and facility planners.

"Our students are hungry for this kind of work; they want to use design to make a difference for compromised communities or people who might otherwise go without such assistance," Gilmore said. "Design thinking is a powerful catalyst and has applications for many social issues."

In that way, the College of Human Ecology's DEA students are emblematic of a growing national movement at top universities to use design to do good. Through the Cornell Design for America (DfA) studio, for instance, DEA students and their peers in the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning and the College of Arts and Sciences are engendering healthy living, sustainability, and other common good on campus and in the Ithaca area. (Last fall, four DEA students and alumni involved in DfA graced the cover and pages of business magazine Fan Company in an ode to the power of design.) Cornell's DR studio, advised by DEA lecturer Leah Scolere, meets regularly outside class to explore solutions to local issues. "Our students are really attracted to the notion of human-centered design, which is a point of emphasis in our curriculum and also a priority of Design for America," Scolere said.

Good design not only bridges Cornell and the surrounding community, it also links students within DEA, which offers degree options in interior design, human factors and ergonomics, and facility planning and management. In the case of Evans and Eshelman, offering the two distinct courses--Evans's is for undergraduates on DEA's facilities planning and management or ergonomics tracks, while Eshelman's is geared toward interior design majors allows students to venture even deeper into unfamiliar realms.

Evans's students assume the role of behavioral consultants, studying the social, cognitive, and developmental needs of a facility's users. Their findings inform the sketches, spatial layouts, and full-scale models devised by their design counterparts. With most top design firms espousing the power of evidence-based solutions, students leave the courses appreciating both components--analytical research and creative vision--demanded by good design.

"My students supply the evidence and information on the population needs, and Paul's students interpret that in the context of design," Evans said. "The magic occurs when you put the two together."


Looking from all perspectives

Gary Evans believes that "what might be good for the kid might be bad for the janitor." It's his way of remembering that good design accounts for the needs of all potential users of a space--not just children and teachers at a daycare, for example, but parents, administrators, the general public, and the workers who clean the floors each night. "We're trying to increase students' sensitivity to everyone who enters a space," Evans added. "So they think about it from the perspective of the janitor, of the teachers, of the kids and their family members--anybody who has a stake in the operations of a facility."

With that in mind, Evans's and Eshleman's students last fall transformed the classrooms at the Tompkins Cortland Community College (TC3) Head Start, which serves toddlers ages 3 to 5 from low-income families. They formed teams focused on three priorities: transition, the entryway where parents drop off children and store their belongings; nourishment, the central room where children eat and gather; and enrichment, multipurpose areas for play and group activities.

To start, the students observed children in the space, interviewed teachers, and heard from staff and administrators about their greatest challenges and also met with Cornell Cooperative Extension, community, and faculty members with expertise in early child care education and development. The behavior science students read research findings on child development and prepared recommendations for the design teams. In ideation sessions--brainstorms where the teams jotted down dozens of ideas--the students translated these data into design interventions. After more consultations with TC3 Head Start leaders and Cornell and community experts, the students custom-built colorful wooden furniture where the toddlers can eat, play, learn, and socialize.

Their creations, Eshelman said, are "innovative solutions" that "break out of the box of conventional practice." The new transition area, for example, includes nook-like cubbies where children can stow their coats and backpacks, but also a space to sit and draw on a small easel.

Junior interior design student Arielle Levy called the collaboration with her behavioral science peers "a wonderful change and addition to our usual design process." She valued their insights into toddlers' developmental needs and enjoyed the challenge of incorporating their evidence-based recommendations into the design teams' aesthetic vision. "Their research gave our resulting concepts more meaning because of their social, cognitive, and developmental relevance," she added.

In three other local school settings, DEA students taught by Lorraine Maxwell have applied a similar approach to create optimal learning environments based on the needs of faculty, students, and staff. At Ithaca's Fall Creek Elementary School, Maxwell's students helped redesign the library as administrators sought to upgrade it from a traditional book-based set-up to one focused more on digital resources. The year before, at New Roots Charter School, a new Ithaca public high school located in the 180-year-old Clinton House, they helped school leaders convert the one-time hotel into a proper educational environment. Maxwell's course also recently aided Caroline Elementary School as it upgraded its library on a shoestring budget.

In every case, Maxwell emphasizes a three-pronged "must, should, could" strategy to help clients with limited or, sometimes, no extra funds to spend on design enhancements. "Musts" are the low-or no-cost improvements required to make spaces function better, "shoulds" are more substantial changes, and "coulds" are pricier wall-to-wall overhauls. The students' advice comes with detailed programming documents to recommend new spatial layouts and options on furniture, carpet, and other needs.


"Having to work within the constraints of a real budget gives the students a great challenge," Maxwell said. "If the sky is the limit, they don't get practical experience of having to meet the demands of a client."

Sometimes, no-cost solutions blossom into something more. In the Caroline school, simply by rearranging existing furniture, students were able to relieve congestion near the library's circulation desk and provide clear lines of sight for staff to keep an eye on children. After the success of the initial redesign, school leaders later approved funds to revamp its computer lab based on Maxwell's students' more ambitious plans.

To DEA professors and students, first-rate design is critical to improving education, the environment, health care, and individual and societal health and well-being. Nowhere is that more evident than a recent project by Rhonda Gilmore's students, who rethought the everyday experience of giving blood for regional Red Cross leaders.

It turns out that only 4 percent of eligible Americans donate blood, which leaves the Red Cross struggling to maintain its supply. Most people shy away for two reasons: needle anxiety and concerns about how long it takes to donate. Gilmore's students addressed both through design interventions.

For mobile blood donation sites--portable pop-ups that are set up and broken down in one day--they created landmarks, signage, and layout recommendations to make the site more soothing and to usher people through the process more quickly. It is being piloted in Buffalo and studied as a potential model for other Red Cross mobile sites.

"I'm always impressed by what students are able to accomplish over a single semester on a limited budget," said Gilmore, whose office is adorned with photos of each group of her students who have done such community projects since 1999. "The assignments challenge their skills and creativity and require them to dig deep to understand the issues. But their enthusiasm and commitment to design as a means to serve humanity makes every project memorable."

(I-r) Justine Dupal '11, DEA professor Lorraine Maxwell, and librarian Kluane Synder view floor plans developed by Maxwell's students during a tour of the revamped library at Caroline Elementary School.

For more information:

Paul Eshelman

Gary Evans

Rhonda Gilmore

Lorraine Maxwell

Leah Scolere
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