Creating Impact through Community-Based Co-Design Projects within Curriculum

Post by 2020-21 BCcampus Research Fellow Caylee Raber, director of the Health Design Lab at Emily Carr University of Art + Design, and Lisa Boulton, associate, BCIT and Emily Carr University of Art + Design.

Is it possible for community-based projects embedded in curricula to mutually benefit society and student learning? What can happen when we bring design students together with children with learning differences? How does collaborating with individuals with lived experience of a disability impact student learning? How can people living in long-term care contribute to the education of design students? These are some of the questions we seek to answer with this research project. 

In the field of design, there is an increasing need to educate students in the areas of participatory design and community design to support emerging designers in managing the complexity of real life outside the walls of academia. Participatory design practices are by nature inclusive and community driven, focusing on the active participation of users in the iterative creation of solutions. Going beyond traditional research methods of interviews and observation, participatory design methodologies engage people creatively to describe their experiences and uncover a deeper, more latent level of knowledge by involving people directly in shaping solutions and outcomes that may impact them.

At Emily Carr University of Art + Design, participatory design as a practice is introduced to students in the three undergraduate streams of design: communication, interaction, and industrial design. Yet in order for students to truly understand these concepts and methods, they require opportunities to apply these skills in real-life contexts — contexts that challenge their assumptions about the role of designers, that are complex and ambiguous, and that are filled with real people, opinions, and experiences to be navigated and amplified. 

Over the past decade (or more) at Emily Carr, the design program has developed and integrated several studio courses that allow students to directly engage with people they are designing for, encouraging students to shift their practice toward designing “with.” As the director of the Health Design Lab at Emily Carr, a research centre that focuses on the use of participatory design methods to address challenges in health, Caylee often establishes and supports collaborations with community groups and embeds co-design projects in undergraduate design courses. Currently this includes collaborations with elementary school children with learning differences, people living in long-term care homes, and people living with disabilities. 

Based on anecdotal feedback and observations so far, we believe these projects have a significant positive impact on student learning. However, they are often resource intensive and require administrative support to initiate and coordinate. Therefore, we would like to conduct research to further investigate the impact to student learning to better understand the value of community-based learning projects for students at Emily Carr and in B.C. post-secondary education.


This research project seeks to evaluate the impact and value of community-based co-design projects on student learning. Co-design projects use a methodology taught in our design programs that places students as designers in collaborative roles with community members to design solutions that address a challenge facing the community member. The project seeks to answer the following questions: How do these community-based projects embedded in classroom support enhance student learning? How do these classes impact student perspectives on the role of designers and their future career trajectories? How can we further improve these types of projects for increased impact and benefit to student learning? 

Additionally, as a result of COVID-19, we are being challenged to consider how these types of projects can be converted to virtual formats and online learning. A second aspect of this study evaluates if a similar impact and benefit to student learning can be achieved in a virtual teaching environment.

This study focuses on the following existing community-based co-design courses at Emily Carr:

  1. Co-design between elementary school children with learning differences and second-year industrial design students (10+ year partnership with Kenneth Gordon Maplewood School)
  2. Co-design between people living in long-term care homes and design students (three+ year partnership with Vancouver Coastal Health)
  3. Co-design between people living with disabilities and third-year communication design students (two-year partnership with Disability Alliance of BC) 

We will collect data from a range of participants through surveys and interviews, including an online survey with past and current students in the courses listed above, interviews with past and current faculty who have taught these courses, and interviews with the leaders from each of the partner organizations. We will analyze and synthesize the data to determine key themes that outline the impact of these projects on student learning and seek ideas for improvement. We intend to produce a final report that will summarize the findings and suggest strategies for continued development of such projects, which can be shared openly at Emily Carr and with other institutions.


In our experience as a researchers, teachers, and students in community-based co-design courses at Emily Carr, I have observed that these types of collaborations have immense potential to impact our students and also the community. This research fellowship, sponsored by BCcampus, provides an opportunity to create much-needed evidence to support the growth and development of innovative curricula. Through this work, we hope to be able to share the strengths of these programs with other institutions and to challenge the way we educate future students, expanding what we view as possible and valuable, and considering how we can take students outside the classroom to facilitate learning in context and in collaboration with community. 

This research is supported by the BCcampus Research Fellows Program, which provides B.C. post-secondary educators and students with funding to conduct small-scale research on teaching and learning, as well as explore evidence-based teaching practices that focus on student success and learning.

Learn more:

© 2021 Caylee Raber and Lisa Boulton released under a CC BY license

The feature image for this post (viewable in the BCcampus News section at the bottom of our homepage) is by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels