An inclusive design process for cutting edge research

Prior to designing new residential colleges for Washington University in St. Louis, Studio Ma assembled a team to design engagement tools and collect comprehensive feedback from undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, and staff. . The results provided a valuable picture of Danforth campus experiences and shaped a plan to address underlying inequalities through future design.

Studio Ma

The scientific research community is among the most diverse that institutional and corporate organizations serve. Shouldn’t the planning, architecture and design of laboratories reflect this diversity in a rigorous and highly intentional way?

In fact, the commitment to inclusion and diversity by research-based organizations can lead to breakthroughs in science. According to a recent analysis published in The Journal of Infectious Diseases, various research groups publish more frequently, are cited more often, benefit from complementary skills and, especially in biomedical and public health fields, are better equipped to identify and address disparities in their communities at all levels. Other studies show that rates of research breakthroughs and achievement accelerate dramatically when research teams are made up of the best minds, regardless of background, ethnicity, or ability, and when collaboration between principal investigators (PIs) and team members is not inhibited by power dynamics.

The barriers to greater inclusion and diversity are systemic and, as such, are not always obvious to laboratory design teams. Laboratories and their support may not have obvious barriers to inclusion, but in their design and planning, these barriers actually arise for the bright minds of under-represented groups. This leads to the loss of their contributions, to the detriment of science. The question, then, is how the goals of diversity, equity and inclusion should shape laboratory design.

The answer begins with engaging with those who can be affected. This was the consensus of academic and institutional professionals who came together virtually for a panel held earlier this year, titled “Equity Matters: Campus Planning and Design for Inclusion”. While the specific challenges varied from campus to campus and from population to population, all agreed that a commitment to study and foster inclusion and diversity is in itself a big step forward. towards real equity on institutional campuses. At Washington University in St. Louis (WashU), Studio Ma recently undertook a large-scale analysis to identify opportunities for continuous improvement in the experiences of under-represented students, including at campus facilities. The analysis, which included surveys, focus groups, and emotional heat mapping – a technique for identifying places where some users encounter negative experiences or even barriers to access – revealed real and valuable ways to meet these largely resolved challenges through intentional and creative design intervention. University World News published the approach.

As a result, the role of laboratory managers and their design teams now includes a dimension focused on equity and on creating opportunities for inclusive environments that address the unique challenges faced by under-represented laboratory occupants. To make the fields of medical and scientific research more equitable and welcoming, research organizations can follow the lead of universities and engage more broadly in analyzes, engagement techniques and, most importantly, design best practices. that serve to promote diversity, equity and inclusion. (DEI).

Listening techniques

WashU has found that its DCI efforts are yielding significant and promising results. Over the past five years, the proportion of freshmen of color has increased from 12% to 21%, with a similar change in the population eligible for the Pell Scholarship. The results are a testament, in part, to WashU’s efforts to more effectively provide underrepresented students the same campus life experience as traditional students – in other words, the pursuit of equity as a goal. naturally led to greater diversity.

Designed using a student-led design approach, the Memorial Union building at Arizona State University accommodates 30,000 students per day. The renovated student center now caters to once-neglected needs: study spaces for non-residential students, as well as spiritual spaces for faiths under-represented on campus, such as an ablution room.

Bill Timmerman, Studio Ma

Behind DCI’s latest wave of efforts is the focus on campus architecture and planning. The in-depth studies draw on rigorous techniques to establish how underrepresented students respond to specific buildings and spaces on campus. They also examine the operational and physical factors that underlie perceptions of inequality.

Using town halls, focus groups and live polls to gather ideas for improvement directly from these student populations, the team, led by WashU Vice-Chancellor of Student Affairs, Dr. Lori White, has had access to valuable student feedback. Another method called emotional heat mapping involved having students apply emotional labels on a scale to various areas and buildings on campus. The scales can range from dangerous to safe, or from “annoyance” to “joy”. The team collected real-time data via a mobile application that linked the tracking of student geolocations to emotional responses.

The overall image that emerged from the emotional landscapes of the campus revealed target areas that could benefit from a design intervention. Unsurprisingly perhaps, many students from under-represented groups recommended paying attention to health services, which they said suffer from access issues. The study indicated several of these key disparities on the physical campus, and the students also suggested that improvements in orientation and guidance programs were needed.

Basically, this approach is about listening to those affected. Institutions and organizations can leave emotional mapping applications aside and focus on surveys and focus groups. When the organization does not have the skills to lead this type of engagement, consultant groups are available, including many design and planning firms specializing in lab programming and experienced in client engagement. community.

Daily experiences matter

The key to achieving the stated goals of equity and diversity is to reveal the physical and operational elements that trigger feelings of disparity, isolation or marginalization. It is essential to consider the holistic view of the experience of the members of the research team, and not just their time spent performing laboratory work. This means considering everything, including the round trip to the research center, interactions with the safety and architecture of equipment, support spaces and anything that the researcher interacts with during the working day. Collecting data on the actual experiences of team members will lead to ideas for concrete change and help create an environment in which the experiences of individuals from under-represented communities begin to resemble and resemble those of others more. .

Team members who are strong followers of their faith often encounter challenges associated with long hours spent at the research center, away from home or place of worship, where a strict schedule of prayer or other rituals is required. more easily supported. Solutions for this will vary depending on the campus, facility, and composition of the research team, but a fair model for a working approach can be found at Arizona State University’s Tempe campus in the Student Recently reinvented union. The facility now includes “spiritual zones,” small spaces that provide support to students of the faith. These include a meditation room for various types of prayer and an ablution room where Muslim students can perform ritual washing acts before prayer.

Organization leaders should also keep in mind that the experiences of members of the African American and BIPOC teams (black, indigenous and people of color) may echo their experiences in highly segregated cities and communities. The physical security measures employed to protect sensitive and proprietary research may present unintended barriers to researchers of color, or may induce feelings of exclusion or anxiety in some who view security checkpoints as a means of prevent people from certain backgrounds and groups from accessing campus or an institution.

Even within the laboratory space, questions of equal access will certainly arise with regard to researchers with disabilities. Bearing in mind that not all disabilities are immediately apparent; the same process of engagement and listening is essential to making the right decisions before approaching accessibility by design. The Culture Lab at Harvard University is currently undertaking a pilot project called Universal Design for Inclusive Research Labs, aimed at “increasing the number of undergraduate students with disabilities in research laboratories and increasing the implementation of design principles. universal in existing and new research environments ”. The program can provide valuable information for various types of organizations striving for inclusion and equity.

The ideal research team

Keep in mind that the overarching goal is to facilitate and accelerate scientific progress. Part of the process of engaging and listening to team members is aimed at improving their experience directly, but most importantly, the organization should think about creating an environment that attracts a more diverse recruiting pool. The WashU business described above has resulted in an increase in diversity among the student body from 12 to 21 percent. If this level of improvement can be achieved within the organization, then the level of publishable research should increase and with it, the breakthrough discovery rate.

Whatever changes organizations make, the contribution of researchers to underrepresented demographics should provide the roadmap that planning facilities and projects follow, with guidance from careful management analysis in consultation with architectural professionals and other relevant consultants. Keeping an ear attentive to the ever-changing needs of under-represented communities, the evidence shows, is the best way forward for building a sufficiently diverse team, which, in turn, should lead to significant performance improvements.


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Billie M. Secrist

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