Virtual field trip helps design students see bigger picture

Julie Irish likes to give students the chance to try something new and help people who have a different background than themselves. In past years, that meant a field trip for the Inclusive Environments course in the College of Design.

The senior/graduate-level course was supposed to include a trip to St. Louis last fall to study and design housing for people with HIV or AIDS. Instead, it became a virtual undertaking through Zoom.

"They are seniors, and I felt it was important for them to have this because they were having difficulties and maybe having to quarantine,"  said the interior design assistant professor. "I wanted it to be as normal as possible -- which is why I was teaching in person -- and not miss out on the experience."

Making it happen

Irish began planning the virtual tour before the start of the fall semester by reaching out to ISU alumni Brian Hurd and Cecelia Dvorak in the St. Louis area. Hurd is a technical assistance program manager for Rise Community Development, and Dvorak is a city planning executive for the city of St. Louis.  Both graduated from the community and regional planning department.

"I talked to [Hurd], who I had worked with before, and I knew he worked with a housing group that did work for people with HIV and AIDS," Irish said.

The course centers around ideas of inclusivity and accessibility, so Irish uses a service-learning project as the focus. In fall 2019, students developed living plans for young adults with autism.

She worked with Hurd and Dvorak to plan what could be done and who students could interact with during a Zoom call.

It wasn't the first time Irish had to improvise because of the pandemic. Last spring, students in her Advanced Color class were unable to hold an end-of the-semester exhibition, but Irish collaborated with information technology services to develop a website to display their work.

Virtual field trip

Irish broke the field trip into 45-minute segments to keep the 18 students involved, beginning at 8 a.m. and finishing at 1:45 p.m. 

"Sitting in front of a computer all day can be very tiring, so I wanted to find a way to keep them involved and engaged," she said.

The city of St. Louis planning department provided an overview of the site where the houses would be built and a community development group that put the project together shared details. Students took a drone tour of the surrounding area to see the project in the larger context of the city.

"They talked about how it had taken years to find the right location and develop it within the city," Irish said. "Even though our students couldn't physically go there, they could really envision the space.

"The CEO of the nonprofit Doorways Housing that is building the homes told the students more about the type of people who need housing and why they need it."

Irish also tapped into resources from her alma mater, the University of Minnesota, who lead HIV and AIDS educational programs.

"There were a pair of experts who had a Q&A session with the students," Irish said. "I wanted to give students a more human dimension so they knew who they were designing for."


The students' final project was to create plans, materials and furnishings for the houses. They also conducted extensive research about the city, community and housing project.

"They put together physical drawings and renderings," Irish said.

Those were shared with Doorways Housing in an effort to help generate or inspire design ideas as groundbreaking began last November.

"The research and programming documents were very comprehensive, and they had obviously thought about and understood who they were designing for," Irish said. "I think if you presented their final projects to another designer, they wouldn't know our students didn't have in-person experience."


Irish said not going to St. Louis kept students from visiting museums or building camaraderie by sharing meals. But also it had advantages she likely will incorporate in her courses even when trips are possible again.

"If we had gone, we wouldn't have invited the experts from Minnesota to an online meeting," she said. "From that perspective, we were able to get more people together than if we had been in person."