Agents of Change: Exploring Diversity and Creating Meaningful Learning Experiences Through A Culturally Immersive Studio Project

Presented by: Angela R. Boersma 

In an increasingly globally minded and diverse market, students of design must become experts at addressing issues of diversity, whether cultural, socio-economic, age, gender, language, physical or intellectual capabilities, etc. The Council for Interior Design Accreditation (CIDA) also requires that accredited programs provide evidence of student learning in this regard (CIDA, 2014). In order to address the complexities of these issues in a way that was immediately relevant to their context and everyday interactions, a comprehensive studio project including multiple reservation communities was introduced at the senior level.  Students were asked to engage in extensive research, reflection, narrative exploration, and an immersive week of study on the reservation that culminated in a design project focused on a public memorial and museum building needing to address an incredibly diverse global audience. 

L. Dee Fink’s Taxonomy of Significant Learning (Fink, 2003) was employed to structure the course learning activities and later study the effects of different components of the students’ experiences on their learning. Surveys and student reflections were analyzed using qualitative content analysis to discover what portions of the course had the most significant impact on personal values and learning.

The course was designed and carried out as a comprehensive studio in five distinct parts/phases: Predeparture Research, Immersive Experiential Research, Schematic Design Process, Design Development Process (including systems integration and detailing), Final construction documents and specifications

At each phase of the process, students were asked to reflect on the learning experiences and note their personal thoughts and feelings regarding their observations and analyses. These written student reflections were further analyzed to investigate the ways that students process and internalize issues of diversity (culture, gender, age, physical capabilities, etc.) and prioritize those elements in the design process.  

Qualitative analysis of student surveys revealed that the most meaningful learning experiences for students were most often in one of three categories: First-hand Experience, Speaker+Tour, or Self-directed reflection. Of these, those experiences that connected to a speaker’s personal story or held some spiritual significance accounted for the “most meaningful part of the experience” for nearly 2/3 of students’ surveyed. Based on Fink’s Taxonomy of Significant Learning, the majority of students connected with and learned from experiences that directly related to the Human Dimension or Caring categories of learning. Furthermore, more than half of students involved in the immersive experiences on the reservation commented on wishing they could “do more to help” while there, and one cohort presented a proposal to university administration to allow them an additional week on the reservation to give back and serve in some way.  

Analysis of the past three years of student projects showed that the dimension of diversity that most students have the least difficulty in addressing issues was that of wheelchair accessibility and physical barriers. The greatest challenge for most was cross-cultural communication and the use of symbolism or language. Students identified the need for greater exposure to culturally diverse populations throughout the program curriculum and “more real-life projects” to help address insecurities with cross-cultural communication and fear of offense.

The final outcomes revealed which aspects of diversity students most connected with, internalize, and prioritize in their final design projects, as well as the means by which they learned to do so. Results from this study will inform the way issues of diversity are presented in order to craft opportunities for meaningful exploration of the dimensions of diversity for young design professionals practicing in a global context.


  • Council for Interior Design Accreditation. (2013). Professional standards 2014.  Retrieved September 15, 2014, from
  • Fink, L. Dee (2003). Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Howe, Craig (2014, September). Lakota History and Culture. Center for American Indian Research and Native Studies Educational Workshop, Martin, SD. Retrieved from
  • Hofstede, G., Hofstede, G.J., Minkov, M.  (2010). Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind.  (3rd ed.). Los Angeles,USA: McGraw-Hill.
  • Gardenswartz, L., Rowe, A, (2003). Diverse Teams at Work: Capitalizing on the Power of Diversity. Alexandria, VA: Society For Human Rights Management.

Appendix File 1
Appendix File 2

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