Diversity and Democracy

Global Design Studio: A Holistic Approach to International Service Learning

Global Design Studio (GDS) is a student-run international collaboration that directs and implements hands-on humanitarian service projects. In 2003, faculty and students in architectural technology programs at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) and the College of the North Atlantic (CNA) in Newfoundland, Canada, planted the seeds for GDS. GDS initially focused on architectural design and construction, but this was only a starting point. My cofounders and I aimed to build a community that understood civic engagement as requiring an alliance of individuals with diverse experiences and skill sets. We saw that diversity increases capacity to address client needs and engenders learning across disciplines.

Students participate in Global Design Studio's New Orleans project.
Students participate in Global Design Studio's New Orleans project.

As educators concerned with improving and expanding learning opportunities, GDS faculty sought ways to tie student learning to our professional work outside the classroom. This was not a hard sell, as students seek experiential learning to round out their educations and résumés, establish industry contacts, and connect with other students, institutions, and cultures. Through GDS, we have formed friendships and business relationships with colleagues and professionals committed to helping students showcase their skills and leave their imprint on others' lives. Over the past six years, GDS's footprints have spread throughout the world, with over nine partnering institutions in Indonesia, Thailand, Europe, and the Caribbean, as well as in the United States and Canada.

Elements of a Name

GDS's work is informed by the three components of its name:

Global implies the search for an understanding of diversity, both in the world and in oneself. Each GDS community represents a diverse mix of individuals, and each community faces unique challenges. Similarly, each GDS participant is a complex individual with untapped skills and strengths that GDS attempts to uncover, nurture, and develop through team-intensive exploration. GDS believes that global work begins in one's own backyard, and we reach out to our immediate neighbors as well as our neighbors around the world.

Design implies the sensitive structuring of an environment. In architectural design, the designer's reward is to see physical objects improve and sustain community life. In the GDS context, we envision design as including those who do not see themselves as designers. GDS encourages all participants to recognize the designer within and realize their impact on the world, whether as artists, writers, scientists, or engineers.

Studio speaks to the organization's collective framework. GDS creates a repository of core competencies and expertise that we draw on to tackle complex projects. Collaborations between business majors, art students, and anthropology majors at different institutions help us identify more complete solutions to complex problems. Likewise, we may call on an Indonesian partner with expertise in disaster reconstruction to assist with a project in the United States, contact GDS industry experts for advice on solar panel construction, or seek guidance from community leaders regarding methods to encourage community participation. This system highlights team accomplishments over those of individuals, underscoring that one person alone cannot raise the walls of the communities we rebuild. What better way to examine the power of diversity and teamwork than through application?

Logistics and Pedagogy

Project Example: New Orleans

For several years, GDS has helped the Broadmoor community in New Orleans recover from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. GDS began its work in New Orleans by helping local residents redesign their homes to stand above the floodwaters. GDS students at Gadjah Mada University of Technology (UGM) in Indonesia worked in concert with GDS students from Canada and the United States who had visited the site. The students exchanged photos, held videoconferences, and engaged in face-to-face conversations with the client to develop solutions to client needs.

Over time, we have partnered with local architects and designers and taken over fifty students on alternative spring break and other trips where they have helped physically rebuild the community. Our partners in Indonesia have developed urban design schemes for communities in New Orleans, while our American students have worked on prototype designs for individual houses. Partners at the College of the North Atlantic in Canada have sent teams of students to the Broadmoor neighborhood to design streets, drainage systems, and sidewalks. Students in other GDS schools have helped select furniture, develop color schemes, and create animated videos and oral histories that document the community's stories.

-David Jan Cowan

We encourage faculty to interface with GDS projects at whatever level best suits their classroom needs, personal budgets, time restrictions, and curricula. Faculty often identify potential projects through their extensive industry contacts (although students also recommend clients). Student leaders assigned to each project help arrange logistics, control the design process, and oversee construction. Throughout this process, we listen carefully to our community partners to ensure that the projects support their needs.

We often find that the more flexible the process and the participants, the greater the likelihood of success. Thus GDS supports collaboration in whatever fashion best fits each project. If students need to work synchronously, we provide the tools (videoconferencing, Skype). If the project requires travel to a remote community, we send those who can afford the journey and electronically link those who can't. We take a three-pronged approach and always have a local, national, and international project in process. In spring 2009, for example, one group of students worked on a local residential project, while another traveled to Hawaii to work with the homeless. A third group traveled to Thailand during the summer to help redevelop floating markets. Thus participants enter at the level that fits their finances and interests.

GDS's predeparture assignments and postexperience sessions lead students on a path of discovery where they critically assess their values, biases, and viewpoints. Students working within communities get to "imagine themselves as valued professionals whose work really matters, and to align their vocation with their values" (Porter 2003, 51). GDS thus initiates students into the professional work that they will pursue upon graduation, with projects ranging from signage design to urban design to process design and programming, and products including houses, plans, sidewalks, playgrounds, documents, and marketing strategies.

The GDS model operates across institutions, and each has a slightly different approach to project logistics. It is typically difficult to transfer credit hours, finances, and personnel between departments and institutions, and different GDS partners have different approaches to these challenges. At IUPUI we have overcome barriers by offering directed study courses to students who need credit hours. We have also registered GDS as a student organization, a tactic that attracts more students and opens the door to more funding and marketing opportunities.

Future Directions

We are now beginning to consider developing GDS into a nonprofit organization. We feel that this shift will encourage strategic industry partnerships and provide tax incentives to potential donors. We have also found it necessary to limit new projects and focus on developing sustainable, lasting partnerships, although we continue to embrace the involvement of more students and faculty, particularly from differing disciplines. By constantly reevaluating our goals and objectives, we propel ourselves into the future.

Over the past six years, GDS has grown far beyond our initial expectations. We have seen that, as Boyer notes, civic engagement in higher education is fertile ground for developing student leadership (1994). By approaching problems holistically, engaging multiple disciplines, and stressing teamwork over individualism, we can travel the long, hard path to developing an internationally collaborative environment where students can prepare for principled action in the world.


Boyer, E. 1994. Creating the new American college. Chronicle of Higher Education 9, A48.

Porter, M. 2003. Forging L.I.N.C.S. among educators: The role of international service-learning in fostering a community of practice. Teacher Education Quarterly 30 (4): 51-67.

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