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Speaking Up: Engaging Marginalized Students in the Design Process

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Think back to your experience as a child in school. Where did you fit in? Did you fit in? Did you feel welcome at your school? Was it a safe place for you? For many students – especially those who experience marginalization – the answer to those questions is too often no, and the results can be very damaging. As architects, we are responsible for making schools more inclusive by engaging diverse student voices throughout the design process.

Understanding Marginalization

According to a guide published by Utah State University’s Multiply Marginalized & Underrepresented Scholars, marginalization is “the social process of being confined or relegated to a lower or outer edge of mainstream society, thus preventing individuals and groups from full participation in cultural, social, economic, and political life enjoyed by dominant society. Some groups that have been marginalized include People of Color, women, the LGBTQIA+ community, people with disabilities, indigenous peoples, as well as many more.”

Students reach their full potential when they feel accepted and a part of their school community. But marginalized students have suffered – and continue to face – exclusion and discriminatory treatment that lead to legitimate questions about whether they are welcome participants in the American educational system. These challenges prevent students from full participation at their schools, so they rarely have equal opportunities to provide feedback on their learning spaces.

Administrators often select top-performing or highly engaged students to give their opinions to designers – a sliver of students that don’t always represent the school’s diversity. If we only design learning environments around the experience of this select group of students, we risk creating spaces that further exclude or alienate others.

The Importance of Engaging All Student Voices

Architects and designers of education buildings are instrumental in creating inclusive learning environments for all students. There are many benefits to this: students feel ownership of their spaces and pride in their school, which reduces the likelihood of vandalism and damage to school property; students gain exposure to architecture, engineering, and the construction trades as potential career paths; and, most importantly, more students feel comfortable in their classrooms and develop healthy relationships with their teachers and peers.

The only way we can ensure genuinely inclusive spaces is to hear from students who identify as belonging to a marginalized group. This is a two-part process. First, we must help school administrators and teachers understand why including a diverse sample of their students in the design process is crucial to the success of their school. Second, we must have multiple strategies for engaging students to increase the opportunities for hearing from diverse voices.

Communicating with School Administrators

To hear from students of all identities and backgrounds, we must first discuss with school administrators and teachers why student input will lead to a more successful school design. We need to help them understand what information the design team would like from the student engagement process and how it will be used to create spaces that help provide everyone with a better sense of belonging. These strategies are most successful when the school staff is on board because they can be advocates for the process and encourage students to participate.

Strategies to Engage Diverse Student Groups

Once we have the support of administrators and teachers, we can meet with students to understand what works and doesn’t work with their current facilities and what they would want to see in their new learning environments. One strategy may not be enough to engage all voices; employing two or more increases the likelihood of hearing from an inclusive sample of students. My colleagues and I have successfully used the following four strategies on recent projects. 

1. Electronic Surveys. Sending surveys to the entire student population is the most inclusive approach. It allows all students to voice their opinions safely and anonymously. We’ve found that survey responses can help identify issues the school didn’t know about, and if done early in the process, they can help inform additional engagement strategies.

For a recent high school project, we emailed a survey to the student body, asking questions about how they envisioned the future of learning and what areas of high school life concerned them the most. We learned from the results that students wanted gender-neutral toilets and locker rooms at their new school. We are now working with the district to incorporate these spaces into the building’s design.

When writing surveys, think about what data you want to collect and how it will inform the design. Poorly written survey questions will result in ambiguous and unusable data. We recommend these guidelines from Pew Research for writing strong survey questions. 

2. Focus Groups. Coordinate a series of student focus groups or visioning sessions to ask about their experiences with their learning environments. Before inviting students to these groups, ask an administrator for data on the population served by the district to ensure that each demographic is represented. Remember that English may not be some students’ preferred language for communication, and others may require accommodations to participate successfully in the focus groups. In those cases, make sure that a translator, interpreter, or student support staff member can be present at the sessions.

3. Drop-In Meetings. Announce a time when students are encouraged to drop in and talk candidly with the design team. Some students may be apprehensive about completing surveys or speaking in front of teachers and administrators. Instead, they may prefer a more approachable and open dialogue directly with the designers. We’ve done this by setting up tables in high-traffic areas before and after school or during lunch periods for students to share their thoughts and ideas in an informal setting. This strategy has the additional benefits of engaging students one-on-one and introducing them to the design profession.

4. Student Shadowing. For a recent project, our design team participated in a “day in the life of a student” exercise with several students at different grade levels. Following students through their daily routines at school provides opportunities to see how they use, interact with, and activate their learning spaces. This should not be limited to just their time in the classroom – our team began the day with the bus ride to school and continued through students’ classes, lunch periods and even recesses. Pay attention to every moment of their day. One of our most profound takeaways from the exercise was watching a student with special needs transition between classes in crowded, narrow hallways with only minutes until the bell rang. The experience influenced our approach to designing wider corridors made more comfortable by plentiful natural light, windows into the adjacent classrooms, and space to move away from the student traffic flow. 

The timing of these strategies is important. Be mindful of the school district’s calendar to avoid scheduling engagement sessions during school breaks or before stressful events like mid-term and final exams or standardized testing. It’s also best to approach students at least several weeks after starting school so they can settle in and form opinions about their experiences.

Where Do We Go from Here?

For a school to be truly successful, architects and designers must consider the needs of every student. Through active and intentional student engagement, we can give all students a voice, including those who experience marginalization.

This is only the first step. We must advocate for students throughout the design process, collaborate with school administrators, and incorporate our observations into the building’s design to make tangible, positive changes.

Mike Schwindenhammer, AIA, LEED AP, NCARB
Senior Design Architect

Mike is a Senior Design Architect at EUA. He is based in our Milwaukee office and is part of the Learning Studio. Mike strives to create designs that are exciting for both the user and the community. Beyond design, Mike appreciates great music and the Midwest.