Professional undergraduate degree programs in built environment disciplines prepare students to become practicing architects, interior and landscape architects, industrial designers, planners and construction managers. However, students are rarely exposed to projects in their coursework or in work experience that challenge them beyond the theoretical, and adequately assist them in developing empathy for the needs of disadvantaged or marginalised groups in our society. Design students generally work on briefs provided by their studio leaders, and within discipline-specific groups of their educations programs. As a result, many students are not adequately prepared for the collaborative communication and interpretative skills required to engage with community projects in the “real world.”
In recent community-based, interdisciplinary design electives, students representing four Built Environment undergraduate programs collaborated to develop concepts for two different projects. The first designed a community facility for people with schizophrenia; the second a residential/education masterplan for Ugandan HIV/AIDS orphans. Both electives were conducted in an action research framework with all key project stakeholders contributing to reflective evaluations of the process throughout the semester. On the first project, the students resided close to the site and met several times with the client groups. For the remote Uganda project, the students relied on third party information and communicated with the project client via a unique interactive web-based software program.
This paper reflects on the differences and similarities in the learning processes and outcomes that resulted from these two learning environments. The qualitative feedback from these ‘situated learning’ experiences reveals a significant potential for interdisciplinary design studios to provide integrative and personally transformative learning experiences for students and community members. The evaluations
confirm that students recognise the need to collaborate productively with one another, to value insights gained from working with colleagues from other disciplines, and to innovatively engage with community networks.
The role of the teacher in these learning situations becomes one of “communications navigator” and co-learner, rather than the transmitter of knowledge and expertise. In the project that used a web-based communications system, this was also found to be the case. The design outcomes of the studios demonstrate the possibilities for institutions of higher education to productively interact with local communities and creatively address serious social issues while transforming individual lives, within multiple contexts.