How do you teach environment-behavior research for the historic environment?

In 2012, my colleague, Eleftherios Pavlides, who teaches environmental design research in the architecture program at Roger Williams University helped spearhead the creation of the Environmental Design Research Education Knowledge Network at the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA). While environment-behavior research has foundations going back to the 1960s, this knowledge network was the first time that educators came together to specifically address pedagogy. The stated goals for this network are:

  • Generate a community for faculty teaching Environmental Design Research as well for graduate students and professionals interested in university teaching in environmental design research to help develop or create required and elective courses in this area.
  • Create a forum for sharing syllabi, teaching methods and techniques, and reviewing emerging material for adoption in environmental design research courses.
  • Support the development of a fieldwork component for environmental design research courses so that in the process of fulfilling class requirements students can contribute data gathering advancing research objectives beyond the confines of the classroom.
  • Foster an interdisciplinary environment where the broad variety of approaches to the field of environmental design research will be welcomed in order to inform university level teaching both at the level of awareness or expertise.
  • Encourage the adoption of environmental design research classes in curricula in the fields of architecture, landscape, interior, urban design, regional planning, and historic preservation.

Since 2012, the Environmental Design Research Education network has hosted a day-long intensive at the yearly EDRA conference. At the EDRA46 conference this May in Los Angeles, the topic was “Pedagogical Approaches to Teaching Students how to do Environmental Design Research.” The topics at this intensive included socio-spatial analysis, understanding the student mindset and student engagement, phenomenology/lived experience/place meaning, narratives as design tools, cultural ecology, engaging architects, using social data to inform housing policies, public places, learning outcomes, and green campuses.

My particular presentation at this intensive focused on how I help my historic preservation graduate students to develop a research proposal for either a thesis or a grant proposal. While environmental design and behavior research is most often associated with new or recent construction, its principles are equally as applicable to built heritage conservation, which is concerned with the identification of special places of value (i.e., “historic” places) and the appropriate ways that these places should be treated to conserve their historical authenticity.

In the graduate course I teach on historic environment research methods, I expose my students to environmental design research principles and require them to prepare a research proposal as a capstone assignment for the course; about half of the students use this research proposal to guide their subsequent thesis work the following semester. In my course, I cover the nature of empirical research and describe qualitative and quantitative paradigms. I dedicate about half of the semester to students’ exploration of research topics through a literature review. From this review, my students create a research question based on gaps in the literature and choose a social science research methodology and method that can be used to answer this question. Because of the course topic, it is difficult to avoid the theoretical nature of the material, but I try to use in-class and field exercises to give my students an opportunity to understand various research methods (e.g., interviews, photo elicitation, surveys).

In the book, Preservation Education: Sharing Best Practices and Finding Common Ground (University Press of New England, 2014), that I co-authored with Barry Stiefel, I covered some of the material that is specific to defining an empirical research thesis that addresses the conservation of the historic environment.

What I find interesting about my teaching is that I’ve yet to find a similar course at another institution that specifically focuses on the applied use of social science research methods in built heritage conservation practice. There are certainly applied social sciences courses as well as similar courses from museum studies and archaeology programs, but none (as far as I know!) that combine the social sciences specifically with the historic environment. If you know of any examples, please let me know.

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