Engaging Students Through Design

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April 23, 2021



By Josh Vel

Students need community, interaction, and engagement as essential cornerstones of successful university education. As university departments and colleges strive to give each student the tools for success, they have turned to creating social hubs that could be described as departmental in nature. Wildly popular for focused and group study, an opportunity exists to leverage simple approaches to design that will create levels of engagement across the spectrum of social interaction.

To better understand how a space might be more engaging, it is vital to understand the mindset of today’s students. The students of today have been steeped in the digital age. They expect the ease of access that a Google search has given them, the service and delivery model of companies such as Amazon, and the desire to experience them in the ambience of their favorite coffee shop, say Starbucks, for example. That’s not to say that everything they need, however, lies between their fingertips and a keyboard. They have a strong desire to form connections with others through shared purpose and collaboration. This is where your buildings and spaces can take center stage in bringing them together, encouraging them to interact, and drive them to learn from each other.

At the top of the list is a “Connection to Place.” Students today have many choices on where to get their education, and that choice often boils down to joining a brand, so to speak. Because of this, your buildings should endeavor to feel like a meaningful reflection of your institution’s values. This might be accomplished through the use of form and a specific language, making it feel as though it has always been there. In some cases, it may be more about the materials and the relationship to outdoor space, making it feel like it was always meant to be there.


Spaces that students are drawn to have a few consistent qualities that will bring the highest use and the greatest value. They should have ample access to daylight. When you think about it, all life on planet earth is powered by the sun. Students are no different; they vote with their feet, and daylight wins every time.

Engaging spaces should encourage students to linger. We all have structure to our days, but of particular importance is providing a platform for serendipitous interactions. Places that encourage students to stay longer encourages them to become more connected. More connected to their peers, their mentors, their institutions. My good friend Zane Reif, the director of the Memorial Union at Purdue University, describes these spaces as “Sticky Spaces” that allow students to be in the moment or observe.

Engaging spaces must also be intentional in the way they foster interaction. Providing pockets along a path between destinations that can be overtaken at any moment is an incredibly valuable investment in your environments. It can be about visual interest, furniture choices, or scale and placement, but the main ingredient is being intentional about the interactions you want to encourage.

Last on today’s list is the idea of “Shared Use.” As we have thought about how to dedicate resources in the built environment over the last few decades, it has become obvious that spaces that can do five or six things, not just one or two are critical to your ability to adapt quickly to students evolving and changing needs. The need for adaptability was once thought of as something that occurred every few years; it now occurs over much shorter periods, sometimes from semester to semester or day to day.

Want to learn more? Connect with Josh on LinkedIn, here.