Teaching and Learning the City: Service learning in Design Education

Bernasconi, Claudia, Fricke Nicole, and Pisano Rachel

This study investigated outcomes of a service-learning graduate design course. Graduate students studied key pedagogical theories and service learning approaches, and designed a six-week curriculum for students at a Detroit middle school, developing project-based hands-on learning activities targeting specific architectural and urban design principles. The Graduate students implemented the curriculum weekly at the middle school.

The course provided for repeated shifts in role for graduate students, from student to teacher, from leader to collaborator, and spurred the questioning on one’s own learning path during one's own studies. The focus of the activities at the middle school targeted the engagement in problem solving and divergent thinking as a means to spur increased observational skills, critical thinking skills, confidence, and sense of empowerment.

The objectives of this research study included: the understanding of current findings in service-learning for the design field, the revision of survey and reflection tools, and the identification of perceived outcomes for the two groups of students. Pre- and Post- surveys were administered to the middle school and graduate students. Reflection forms prior to the start, in the middle, and at the end of the project, were central components for class discussion and the evaluation of the course.

Several trends emerged including: Increased self-knowledge and personal growth, increased understanding of and openness to diversity, increased understanding of teaching as a collaborative practice versus a hierarchical one, increased understanding of one’s role in the college setting, the professional practice, and the community.