Episode 35

Building Community in Learning Environments

The creation of caring, inclusive, participatory communities fosters deep learning and a sense of well-being in learning environments. Hear the Artik research team share resources and insights on how built environments can support the creation of a sense of community through evidence-based interventions and strategies. Added bonus is the explanation of their Community Through Design website.

Featured on the Show
“One of the main points of creating a community is making sure that everybody has a sense of belonging to that particular group that's underlying the relationships, the sense of common purpose, and opportunities for collaboration and autonomy. And that ability to exert your own autonomy and to be separate and to be an individual and be, as that individual, a successful part of the whole, is crucial. So how does that translate?"


CCB: [00:00:00] Welcome to the ONEder podcast. This is CCB, your host and I am delighted to introduce one of our 2021 ONEder Grant Award winning teams. There's an amazing amount of work that has gone into the project from Artik Art and Architecture, and I'm sure you're going to want to just go find their project package and check out their website because it really is spectacular. Having said that, I'm going to turn it over to Morana from Artik Art and Architecture to introduce herself and start talking about the project.

Morana: [00:00:41] Thank you. So, thank you so much for having us here. A little bit about our theme. So, Artik is an architectural firm that specializes in educational environments. So, we do anything from pre-K to 14. We also do a lot of community projects like community health clinics, a lot of non-profit projects. But as you might have intuited from the name, we also do a lot of public arts, so a lot of community involvement in the things that we do. And our team, we had a couple of really amazing people. So Lele here is with me today. But in addition to that, we have Gayatri, who is an architect with decades of educational architecture experience. And also, we had a cultural mix. So Gayatri coming from India, being educated there. Myself, I'm coming from Europe being educated there, bringing that cultural background. We had two local team members, Vanessa Williams and Alison Hook. They are both San Jose natives sort of multiple generations, with a lot of educators in their families. So, some educational background there. I'm going to let Lele introduce herself. But as far as I go, I I'm an interior designer with long experience, actually not so much in educational design. I've done everything from corporate health care, hospitality and so on. And I came to educational architecture because I've been an educator myself for over a decade now with San Jose State, and that experience has made me want to actually improve and design educational environments. And Lele, could you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Lele: [00:02:20] Oh, sure. Thank you, Morana. Thank you CCB. My name is Lele. I'm an interior designer from Artik. I came from a very diverse background. I had worked as a software engineer and a school counselor in the past, and I entered interior design field by coincidence and fell in love with this profession. I feel that my previous work experience in educational field resonates a lot with Artik’s design specialty. The educational facilities, schools and my coding and academic experience definitely helped a lot with the research work, and the completion of the paper, and the website.

CCB: [00:03:07] Well, I didn’t know that your background, Lele, so congratulations all of Artik Art and Architecture for the amazing work that you put together on this particular project. So, I want to start by asking you kind of you've given a background of who you are and what your interests are. But if the project is building community in learning environments using evidence-based design process, why was that so important? Why is the nature of community so important in the learning and educational environment?

Morana: [00:03:48] So really, our starting point was, I have to turn a little bit about what where did we start from? Well, we were in the middle of COVID as everybody else, and it wasn't the lack of connection that we were missing. We were all plugged in, 24/7, I was teaching, and we had the office going. We were trying to keep everybody connected. But a lot of people, and I felt this from my students especially, but also from my coworkers, we were feeling all alone in the world and plugged in 24/7 and it was a really, really horrible feeling. And I started thinking sort of thinking what it is, what it is that we were missing, because we couldn't say that we were missing the connection. But it's really, belonging, community. And it was very, very hard to get work done without that deep connection. And we did a lot of things as an office first internally to create that sense. And I also I have to admit, there was so much struggle with the students and with the students, there was a big difference. One thing that really inspired me personally to start this, and then I pulled Lele into the fold as a student who just graduated, is I had a group of students who I've spent time with before in person, and we had a connection, and I had a class with them, and I had a class with students

we just met online because we've been in times of COVID. It was a night and day. One group was completely lost, the other group just they stuck together, and the learning outcomes were so different. The, you know, the level of wellness, the level of mental health. It was really that one semester, it was a tough semester, but it was a night and day between those two environments and realizing that sense of connection that we established when we were there in person together was the crucial part, towards not just wellbeing but also towards the learning outcomes, which is the purpose of educational spaces. And that's why we started and, and then Lele came with her, with her research background and did a little bit of research on it. And Lele can you share what you found out when you did the academic research of the importance of community?

Lele: [00:06:05] Yeah, yeah. Like first of all, as a former educator and a current interior designer, I strongly believe in the connection among the built environment, community formation, students’ growth and wellbeing. And when I was searching on the Internet for literature support, I came across a journal article. It was written by Eric Scapes in 2003. He explained the four approaches that to strengthen students’ sense of community, which are cultivate respectful relationships, emphasize common purpose and provide opportunity for collaboration, cooperation and provide chances for autonomy and influence. And Morana and the whole team thought, hey this would be such a great guideline for us to go through the research and data collecting, as well as interpreting and categorizing our findings. And actually, it did and it worked very well. Well, I want to say a big thank you to Eric Scapes.

CCB: [00:07:15] Well, that's fantastic. And if people are looking for more information, on the ONEder Grant Web page, there will be the Artik Art and Architecture page, and the research will be there. All of the references will be there. And in the transcript of the podcast itself, we will call out and make links to any of the people that you're referencing. So, there's going to be a lot of opportunity for people to follow up and connect and understand even more than what you're just sharing with us today. I was curious in the definition of community and community qualities that you pulled out to start to define. And you just now were talking about the four areas from that particular article. But when you're when you were talking about community, how did you further define what was what types of what elements beyond what he had written in his article? How did that turn into built environment attributes if you will?

Morana: [00:08:25] So I'll tell you that one. That ended up taking us in the direction where we didn’t originally intend to go, partially because obviously we're designers and we want to tell people, well, this is, you know, hire us, we'll be designers, and this is how you should design your environment. This is what you should buy and purchase and build. And a lot of things we actually added the fifth category to things, and that is a hazard category because what we discovered is a lot of times it's not about what you add, but also what kind of barriers you're able to remove. So one of the main points of creating a community is making sure that everybody has a sense of belonging to that particular group that's underlying the relationships, the sense of common purpose, and the opportunities for collaboration and autonomy and all that. And that is the other funny thing, people are always like, oh, you want to have community? Well put a lot of people together, get them a space to get together and collaborate. But the ability to exert your own autonomy and to be separate and to be an individual and be, as that individual, a successful part of the whole, that is crucial. So how does that translate? Partially what we find is that first we need to remove, “do no harm”, we need to remove the barriers. And then one of the big things we wanted to do, we do a lot of work with charter schools. We do a lot of work also with the school districts with very little of funding and a lot of times we design these great creations and it's like, well, we don't have money for that, so we just chop it all up. So, we wanted to actually find different levels of intervention and a lot of things. If you if you look at our research, if you look at our website, okay, there are a lot of things you can do right here, right now. You don't even need an architect. If you don't want us, we can be there to consult. We would be happy to consult. But you just you just make an operational change. How it translates to the built environment then is the next two levels. So, if you have a little bit of cash, what can you what can you do with the basic furniture? What can you do with a little bit of paint? One of the big things we found is the not having sterile institutional environments, but just adding a little bit of color.

Morana: [00:10:43] Just throwing a little bit of color in the wall. Actually, I have a big picture behind me, that used to be a gray building and it didn't have a budget to remodel the inside. So, what we did is, we painted the outside and it had the desired effect as it would have been almost if we could change the inside, so little things. And then finally we said, okay, but if you have the funds, here's what, here's what you can do. And it included creating a community space, but also included creating individual spaces for the small groups or individuals to engage, looking at different ways to provide resources, providing transparency. Transparency was a big thing, whether or not it's creating all of these open, glazed walls so you can see what's going on. And that was that was actually a big question. There's the whole not having a sense of supervision but having a sense of openness. Or if you don't have the budget, just leave the door open. So, I think our big goal here was we wanted to share this, and we wanted to have, we wanted to make sure that we are providing interventions no matter what your budget and what the situation is. Because because everybody needs this.

CCB: [00:11:55] Well.

Morana: [00:11:56] Not necessarily selling architecture.

CCB: [00:11:58] Yeah. One of the, one of the very appealing elements in your proposal for the ONEder grant was that, was calling out the fact that not all educational institutions have the wherewithal to even access this information. So, they might not even know what opportunities they have because they haven't been plugged into an architectural conversation and/or just a community development conversation. So, it's great to think how much work you did to make this so accessible, because it certainly is. And I think people are going to be very impressed. I do want to ask that question about implementing evidence-based design in your, the process in your moving through this project. So, using the principles of evidence-based design, what impact did that have on the research and the process itself?

Lele: [00:12:58] Okay, I'll take this one. So basically, we followed the first four steps of the evidence-based design process. We defined our goals and objectives, and then we find the relevant evidence and critically interpret the evidence. And in the end, we had the discussion and create the evidence-based design concept. I want to focus more on the middle two steps. So, we started with a literature review because we wanted to have a strong support of our point of view. There are theories from early years like Maslow's hierarchy, Dunn’s learning style model, and there are different educational pedagogies like Montessori, Waldorf for the recent research. They all, a lot of research, explained why building community in schools is important, and they also explain how the built environment is adapting. So based on all of this fundamental information, we did our data collecting in a variety of ways. We interviewed designers, educators, school admins, operational people, and also students to get in depth and very specific ideas and comments. And then we send out questionnaires to them to get more statistic data. Other than that, we also did case studies for West Valley College and Summit Denali High School. So, I went to West Valley College for school, and I really know our design building, the Cilker building. It is designed very well.

Lele: [00:14:48] So, we have different sizes of collaboration space, we have several open lounges and we have small rooms for students to work together, quiet rooms. And we also have the larger conference rooms for students. Like the booking system was also amazing. It's not through any teachers or any admin people. There is just a signing up chart at the door out of conference room. You just write down your name, the time you want to use the room, and then other people are able to see as well. So that's the case study part. Both schools, they both have the good designs that incorporate good elements that foster community formation. Last but not the least, we organize the three workshops with West Valley College students and faculties, San Jose State students and our own Artik staff. So, after these part we did our interpretation part. We have 3 to 4 internal work sessions with our research group. That's the time for us to analyze, interpret our data. And finally, remember earlier we were talking about Scapes’ four strategies, so we break those down. For each big strategy, we came up with 7 to 6 specific strategies, and then later on we provide interventions in three levels for each of those. That is roughly how we did; we conduct the research. That's the process.

CCB: [00:16:26] I just have to say, every time I spend more time thinking about this, did you do anything else while you were working on this particular project? Because it's I mean, I'm laughing as I say this, but it's so impressive the thoughtfulness but also the application of resources and intention to bring it to the completion. Now, I want to say, knowing it was COVID time, knowing that there was there were distribution challenges or connections with people, how did that impact your process? Did you did you have any hiccups because of accessibility or…

Morana: [00:17:15] Actually, so, I think that's one we I think decided early on that, okay, there is COVID. We cannot get groups of people together inside. And actually, One Workplace helped us because our decision was, let's take it outside. Oh, yeah, look at that. they have fantastic outdoor space that's perfect for collaboration workshops. So, One Workplace was nice enough to host us with our group meeting. And people were, we had our own team and then we also had a couple of groups of students. I brought my students from south of the state and then we had a group of West Valley students and people were so happy to be in person, especially West Valley was not having any in-person classes at that point in time. Our office was closed, so when we said like, it's going to be safe, we're going to be outside, do you want to come? There was this level of enthusiasm. Oh, yeah, well, missing the connection. And there's going to be food that we actually found, if you go through our findings, one of the big findings is bring coffee and snacks and the community will come. I think the direct quote was and this is from West Valley is Coffee Makes Me Feel Welcome.

CCB: [00:18:32] You know, in an interesting way, there was a previous ONEder Grant project that was working on spaces for survivors of violence within the public space with the police department and or and interviews. And that was one of the things that came up. We just think that's a human thing, that it feels there's a warmth, there's a kind of a humanity to and there's a what's the right word? There's it's nurturing. There is an element of that that makes it feel, the space itself, I mean, and the environment feels more inviting. So, I just think that's we're always fascinated by what the general elements of research tend to be, and they tend to be human because all humans have some of that kind of similar need. So, you, this is how you got to everything that you did now now spend a little bit of time and explain what you turned all this information into.

Morana: [00:19:41] So well, the short answer would be website. So, we built and that was that was part of our original proposal because sharing and making it available to everybody and also making it something that can grow and develop rather than just one paper, one presentation. So, we built a website Community Through Design. But what we what we really did on a practical level. Well two things. And actually, one of them is not what we expected. Because during the process of stakeholder engagement, really when we did our interviews and we developed the survey and then we created actually a scripted workshop, we wanted to make sure we don't bring any preconceived notions to the table. We don't just ask people like, okay, so tell us how, how should we do that? But we, we had a lot of exercises and a lot of discussions that then brought us to the point of community and to the point of interventions from different directions. And what we what we found is one of the ways to build community is to engage people and make them feel welcome, make their opinions feel welcome, let them express themselves. And we realize this assessment process that we created is actually part of something we wanted to share, because anybody can, should be able to take that and just make going through the conversation, it’s already going to help them build a community, even if they if even if they're just… in our case with our office, we ended up getting a newer, fancier coffee maker for the office at the end of it, because we did, we started the research, we wanted to do it with a safe group, with their office. And as we went through all of that and we're starting to come back to the office, like, okay, we're coming back to the office and guess what? We got an espresso machine. So small level of intervention, right? But our website is actually sharing the scripts for the workshop, the surveys, the questionnaires that we put out. So really, you can hire us to help you with that or you can you can do it yourself. Actually, one of our interviewees who helped us with the research Anna Harrison, already told me like, oh, I'm already using your workshop, is that okay? Like, yes, please. We've published it. So, for school projects elsewhere. And the other part that we created, really the part that we promised is our tool, building community tool, and the website version is interactive, and we try to make it very accessible. So, when you get there first, you have you have our four categories and there are six quick lines, explanations of the things that you can do. And then if you want to delve into one of those, then we have a more expanded page which tells you, okay, well if you just need an operational change, if you're just an administrator or teacher or even a student, this is what you can do if you have a little bit of a budget,

Morana: [00:22:30] this is a minor intervention or are you master planning, building a new campus? This is what you should be planning to do. But also allowing instead of having this big bulk of everything to do, you can kind of pick and choose and look at, okay, I have these four things. I think you need something here. Oh, this sounds interesting. Let me click on it. What should I do for that? So, we tried to make it scaled also to any scale and easy and quick to use, because none of us really have time to read. We did test some sometime, really mostly we don’t have time to read, long papers and literature, but most of the time, most of the people, most of the projects, we don't have that kind of time because we were working on other projects and doing other things at the same time. So that is what our final tool was. And as I said, we also in that have a list of things to avoid. We call them Hazards. There's a big flashing thing and it says Hazards - do not to do this. So, if you identify you have one of these, your first step should be to remove them. And that really is there anything else. I think that's the gist of what we to delivered.

Lele: [00:23:32] Oh, I just want to share with the audience that during our research we figured out that, like Morana mentioned this earlier, it's not that the major intervention always matters a lot but was the reutilization level of intervention that could do a lot of things to. I just want to give an example. I want to take the way finding ease of navigation as an example. We strongly believe that students feel less welcome in the space when they have difficulties to navigate. And nothing could be worse than on a student’s first day of school, they get lost on their way to their classroom. So there are different ways, different levels of solutions that could make things right. We summarize those from our data collection process, so as we can think for the major level, what we could do is prior to developing any floor plan in a new space, a designer or architect should contact the agency and circulation studies to determine the relationships between the spaces. And this is also normally restricted on the location of the building or the area of the building or even the budget, but then move to the minor intervention level. There will be a lot of things for you to be able to do. For example, simple things, color of the flooring, color of the walls, or some lighting fixtures.

Lele: [00:25:08] I'll take the Summit Denali High School, for example. This is an Artik project, and I was part of it. So, we used a lot of accent walls and also those hyper graphics to help the students to locate different classrooms. It's easy to see and it's easy for them to memorize. Okay, this is classroom ten and the green wall is classroom three. So that's one of the strategies for this minor intervention level. And saying the reutilization intervention, it could be simple, simple temporary signage or even a piece of paper. You print a very temporary signage on the first day of the school post it on the wall, or you can involve the student volunteers to show the new students or the guest, okay, here, where can you find a room or where are the bathrooms, things like that. And this could be a very minimum cost but could be very effective. So, all of the specific strategies we provide those three levels of interventions. And this is an ongoing project for us as we design, as we do more design and more research, I think we'll add more information to enrich this website tool for everyone.

CCB: [00:26:31] So I just have to say it's the depth and breadth of the approach that you took is very impressive. The output is, I'm going to be curious to hear because we will, of course, hear feedback. But it's amazing to look at in the amount of time that you had, the amount of organization and formation of this the information in an accessible manner is it's beyond impressive. But I was talking with your coaches and explaining my awe at looking at your proposal. I mean, you have the research, and they were also extremely complimentary. So as a ONEder Grant award winner, it's incredibly heartwarming to know that the information that you have, that you have provided to the entire community, if you're talking about community building, you've done a darn good job. So, I'm going to say congratulations again. Very impressive and thank you so much. Is there anything else that either one of you want to share that we didn't talk about as kind of a final note to the audience, something that they should be aware of?

Morana: [00:27:58] Well, I had a couple of final words. I always train my students that you shouldn't end on “that’s it.” Have a final statement. They’ll laugh at that if they listen to this. But then when I want to quote actually one of the or paraphrase one of our interviewees. Again, I mentioned Anna Harrison before. She's one of the many people. So, we have a full list of people we interviewed, but we're actually partnering to take this potentially to a conference later on this year, and she started the group. And the quote is that “the sense of belonging is an interesting, the wish for a sense of belonging is an interesting human characteristic. It's not something that needs to be taught. We all naturally have it or naturally crave it. And if we remove the barriers, if we look at the space, we look at the environment, and if you remove the barriers, the community will naturally happen. It's not something we need to teach anybody how to do. And the best starting point is really to get the people that we may be calling the stakeholders, the other people get everybody who is affected, get them together and allow them to talk and to express themselves and convey their own experience. And just by listening, just sitting down and listening and taking notes that is the most basic thing we should all do to take anything away from all the research.” And then if you want any specifics, check out our website or reach out to us. We would be very happy to help.

CCB: [00:29:34] Thank you very much, Morana. Lele, anything else?

Lele: [00:29:38] Oh, yeah. So, we have all the questionnaires, our workshop material on the website, and we do encourage the teachers, designers, everyone to download those and feel free to use those to facilitate your, their discussion at schools or assess their own school situation conditions. And at the contact page, feel free to leave us a message and just keep connected.

CCB: [00:30:08] And connection that we talked about earlier, connection is only one element of community. And community and that sense of belonging in that sense of camaraderie that there is almost as spoke, it's not spoken in what you've been in what you have developed. It's just very obvious. So, it is embedded in the work that you've done. I think that it's wonderful that people who have been involved in education are also involved in creating built spaces for the learning process because it, you know so much more and you have experienced what the value is and that you have shared this all with all of our audience, our listening audience, and anyone who's accessing our ONEder Grant information. We are enormously grateful. So, thank you again, Morana and Lele from Artik Art and Architecture. Good job.

Lele: [00:31:06] Thank you.

Morana: [00:31:06] Thank you.