Design U Week 1: Empathize

Introduction

The University of Minnesota Twin Cities is a magnificent place to live, learn, and grow. From the hustling and bustling of University Avenue to the near silence of many of the libraries, most anyone can find the perfect niche for them on such a large campus. Although the U may be near perfect in a lot of ways (there may be bias here), there is still a lot to improve upon. When given the assignment to find seemingly subtle issues with and related to life on campus, I found that there were many problems that I had overlooked.

It was not that I did not look closely enough when adjusting to such a drastic change of lifestyle, but more that I accepted these flaws as part of the experience. With the reemergence of easily (and non-so-easily) fixable problems, it was clear to me that improvements can be made upon the campus. While doing my research for this project (through observing, conversing, and introspection), I was able to identify many of these problems. And some of these turned out to be larger issues than I’d originally imagined.

Observation

1. Difficulty of Moving Food Around in the Dining Halls

Moving about the dining rooms while juggling plates, cups, and silverware is difficult. There is rarely too terrible of traffic to navigate, but it is simply the abundance of trips that have to be taken to ensure that one is satisfied with their meal. Trays would make it much easier to get from one place to the other with many pieces of dining materials.

2. Difficulty in Meeting with Advisors

As we all know, advisors are very busy, and cannot often meet within a certain time period. I suggest rather than lengthy chains of emails and frustrating scheduling calls, the offices move to a digital platform to schedule appointments.

3. Fullness of Bike Racks

Bike racks are often overflowing and difficult to fit a bike into. I believe that has to do with the general structure of the bike racks–whether the be too close together, or the shape is inefficient for storing many bikes at once, they are impossible to get in and out of during peak hours. Damage is inflicted upon my own bike along with most other bikers’ bikes as well.

4. Inefficiency of Recycling Systems

Recycling bins are often mislabeled or confusing to read, and the system was not integrated with the dorm rooms well (at least not in Pioneer Hall). Many rooms are missing the three compartment system, and many are missing pieces that hold them together. On top of this, the design of the structures is inadequate. The bins for each category of disposed goods are all too small, and have to be replaced at least every other day to remain at a reasonable volume. On top of this, their shape does not allow for the use of bags, making any scraps that may stick very difficult to remove.

5. Lack of Water Bottle Spouts

Whether it be the age of buildings or the size of the campus, when observing students around campus I noticed that many of the water bottle spouts attached to many drinking fountains were in abstract or difficult to find places.

Conversation

1. Inefficiency of Welcome Week

First-year student Emma Saks believes that Welcome Week is inefficient in their methods of building “hype” about college, along with it being a large waste of student tuition money. Most of the time the events going on were either non-influential or did truly pay off. In other words, no valuable knowledge is learned in most of Welcome Week. She proposes allowing the full week before classes, but minimizing the non-beneficial informational sessions to one or two days.

2. Vegetarian and Gluten-Free Options in the Dining Hall

Many of my new friends are vegetarian or gluten-free, including both Emma Saks and Grant Newsome, the students I interviewed for this project. They both expressed strongly disliking the dining halls’ options for special conditions food accomodation. “It’s a health concern and a lifestyle choice, not a luxury,” says Saks. They both agreed that the options for both breakfast, lunch, and often dinner included gluten-free bread, peanut butter, and on kind of sugar-cereal.

3. Poor Upkeep on the Washington St. Bridge

The bridge is used by thousands of students every single day, and it is still not upkept like it should be. As nice as it is, there are many potholes in the bike lanes and sidewalks alike, making it a dangerous and bumpy ride. Grant, a biker, says it is largely inconvenient to swerve back and forth in a busy lane to avoid busting his bike tires.

4. Academic Advisors

Once again, the issues with academic advisors was mentioned. Newsome shared my opinion that they often lack apathy, and care more for the school’s revenue than our personal needs as a student. “He was helpful, like helping me look at the classes, but he didn’t seem to care about filling requirements rather than taking fun electives,” said Newsome. He had few solutions aside from entirely revamping the university's interests: “They should tell you what you need to take to get out of here. No one is here to waste their money–that’s not our interest as students.”

5. Cut the CLA First Year Experience

Newsome also reported, following his opinions about advisors, that many required courses, such as the CLA First Year Experience course, are a waste of time. He says that they are a waste of a credit, and he and many of his classmates saw little or no benefit from them. Required courses need to have a true purpose to be considered required, and courses as such do not.

Experience

1. Unequal Distribution of Food Across the Dining Halls

As the title states, the distribution of food across on-campus dining halls is, dare I say it, unfair. As someone who has worked in the food service industry for four years myself I understand the small inequities in the difference between locations for a given chain of restaurants. Along with this, my experience has shown me another truth: differences occur when there is a lack of organization, communication, or effective management. Effective management is not lacking however, the staff do the best that they can, and there is rarely a lack of food, so there is no issue with the quantities in food. It is the organization and communication that confuse me.

To name an inequity specifically, one could visit the 17th Hall dining service. The food is well prepared, high quality, and delicious. Now examine the Pioneer Hall dining service: lower quality, and often dry, too wet, and often downright inedible (and that is very low by college student standards). The only true issue I have with this is that the food served is often different dependent upon where you are. By serving the same food prepared in a standardized way at all locations, the university could ensure food equity for all.

2. Unsafe Pedestrian/Biker Behavior

This one is a large issue for me, as I bike to all of my classes everyday. Often times you see pedestrians walking in the bike lane, and see bikers biking on sidewalks. Although some cross-transportation inevitable, this issue is largely fixable. With how much money is spent on orientation and Welcome Week you would imagine that they would even mention how to move on campus. Intuitive and rudimentary as it may seem, these basic principles are often forgotten or ignored.

3. Lack of Care of Advisors

Perhaps it was just me, but I have found a sense of apathy towards my personal goals when speaking to academic advisors. Unfortunately I have developed a lack of trust with my advisor, and am currently looking to other options for insight. There were many instances where I was given inaccurate or misleading information that hindered my ability to excel at the U because of a conflict of interests: my education against the profit of the university. For many, college is being paid for in full by their parents, and if not individuals are able to take out loans. I have neither of these opportunities, which makes my time and class schedule very valuable to me, and these values were often not respected. There is no clear solution for this aside from the training of advisors.

4. Student Group Websites Incomplete/Not Updated

This is a simple mistake that leads to big problems. When I first got to the U, I immediately started looking for student groups and clubs to join. The problem is that the student groups web page is incomplete, outdated, and missing information. Many clubs were included, but many clubs had not been renewed their licenses in a year or two, or were simply nonexistent. There were also many clubs at the Explore U welcome week event that were not on the web page. This small problem has large events on students who like to get involved, such as myself.

5. Bike Lanes on Roads

Although this campus is very bike-friendly, there are many roads that I use everyday that do not have a designated bike lane. On top of this, bike lanes are often occupied by obstacles such as parking or construction crews. The bike lane on Oak St. is very nice, as it is located between the sidewalk and the car parking lane. This is convenient for walkers, bikers, and motorists alike.

Insights

The process of using observations, conversations, and experiences to identify issues, small and large, that have solutions was very beneficial to me. Not only was it slightly upsetting, but it also gave me inspiration to try to fix many of these problems. The U is still an amazing school and I am honored to attend, but many of these problems have simple solutions.

Two issues that I found most intriguing (and slightly upsetting) were the fullness of bike racks and the round-about ways of scheduling appointments with advisors. Both of these issues affect me personally, but I have seen that many others find that this is true as well.

Revision

Fullness of Bike Racks

The inefficiency of the bike racks around campus is a problem I have seen many students struggle with as well as having been frustrated myself as well. This problem has been difficult to think over, but I have found many options for adjustment in shape. The upright bike racks near Coffman Memorial Union are an effective way to store many bikes in a small space, but are often difficult to use and can lead to the unequal weight distribution on inside of the tire frame. I believe a variation of this concept could be unique and functional, without the difficulty of use and possible damage to the bikes. A combination of stacking without the vertical orientation of the bikes is a possible solution. Otherwise, moving bike racks farther apart to ensure the lack of user damage to other bikes is a valid solution to this problem. A reinventing of the idea is unnecessary, a simple adjustment like this could increase user-friendliest by a significant margin.

Scheduling and User Interface with Academic Advisors

This problem was a large issue found in both my personal experience and in my observation of others. I heard this particular problem in the Pioneer Dining Hall and have also identified this issue in other instances as well. I believe an app or website could be set up with the availabilities of staff on campus, as well as other issues like a FAQs page to ensure the efficiency of all interactions. Upon further thought, this could be done for more than just academic advisors. It is fully possible that an app like this could be used to schedule meetings with and contact professors, TA’s, and even members of the community like CAs and student group leadership committees. By moving all of these resources into one place, students could save the time and frustration of organizing and identifying all of the information they need for anything from academics to university hosted activities. I believe that computer software or website would be the best way to do this, as it is the most user-friendly and accessible means of a communication hub.

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