Global Experience
Case Studies: Gensler & Minerva

Can the City be Our Classroom?

In the fall of 2016, Gensler, an award-winning, globally-recognized architecture and design firm, sought to investigate the future of education, and specifically, the role of the educational campus in current society. With Gensler’s mission to create a better world through the power of design, the impact of education plays a critical role in their initiatives.

To understand the future of learning ecologies, or intentionally designed environments for growth and development, Gensler’s San Francisco office hosted a series of moderated discussions with representatives from various higher education institutions, including traditional universities and those with new educational models, including Minerva. One roundtable discussion considered the question, “Can the city be our classroom?” to see how the city could be integrated into the student experience.

At Minerva, students had already been living the answer to this question. Instead of being confined to a brick-and-mortar campus for four years, Minerva students rotate across seven different world cities, learning to intertwine themselves in a multitude of different cultures and engage with each city’s public resources and opportunities as active participants.

Director of Global Student Experience Mike Wang saw a connection between Minerva’s focus on applied learning and Gensler’s mission. He invited Gensler to collaborate with Minerva students, initiating Minerva’s first civic partner relationship. Motivated to work with smart, creative, and driven students, Gensler signed on for a collaboration. Rather than simply interviewing the students to learn about their experiences, Gensler saw the value in working with the students directly to learn how they approached new challenges. Together, the Student Experience team and Gensler co-designed the first-ever civic project.


Design-thinking activity with Gensler in Fall 2016. Photo: Barbara Fava da Costa

Creating and Improving the Civic Project Experience

For the first collaboration with students in the Class of 2019, Gensler organized the civic project to resemble a graduate-level course. After participating in a design-thinking activity, students were presented with a broad proposal to observe people in San Francisco, identify a problem, and then design an intervention to solve for the need they identified. However, the project fell short of expectations. It was too broad a challenge for students with little professional experience and its relevance to their academic coursework was unclear.

Realizing something needed to change, the following year, after revisiting their original plan, Gensler and Minerva restructured the project for the Class of 2020. This second iteration tied more closely to students’ academic experience and Gensler’s own research initiatives, with the intention that better project definition would support student success.

First, they clarified the purpose of the civic project and emphasized the value for both students and civic partner. Then, they reworked the project objectives so that students could directly apply the Foundational Concepts and Habits of Minds (HCs) they were learning in class to a real world challenge, providing them with an immediate, relevant outlet to practice their newly-acquired skills.

Recognizing that the original problem statement was too broad, Gensler tapped into their in-house research program for topics that were interesting, relevant, and more concrete. Rather than being required to define the problem, students would add value to challenges that Gensler was currently tackling. The questions now sought to answer some of the open-ended challenges Gensler faced in San Francisco, such as “What is the role of the university library in the digital age and what will it look like?” and “What are the implications of autonomous vehicles on land-use planning and investments in infrastructure?”


Student testing Gensler’s virtual reality technology in Fall 2017.

Mentoring Students in Design-Thinking

During their Foundation Year, Minerva students learn about design-thinking in the Multimodal Communications course, such as exploring the basics of prototyping. In one of the final project assignments, students are tasked with designing a survey for a research project after discussing the way failures and challenges seen in early prototypes could improve subsequent drafts. A clear lesson emerged in class — instead of simply using the first draft, students saw the benefit in testing and iterating on their survey to develop one that would more accurately collect data.

Working on a civic project in parallel with class assignments enabled students to bring their design-thinking skills into the real world, with guided mentorship. Alongside professionals, students were able to see firsthand how a company in their community approaches similar design challenges and the motivations behind organizational decisions.

“It’s easy to look at solutions and research and find that, ‘This service does this, or this product does that,’ but getting to know the why and seeing behind the services to know why the products are working is one of the big turning points in starting to think like a designer,” explains Jerod Turner, a Design Strategist at Gensler. When working with his civic project student team, he advised them to take a step back to more holistically understand the entire problem.

Turner took the example of designing a library, where there is more to consider than simply creating a building to house books. While a team may have a million ideas of their own, a design-thinking approach suggests that the first step is to understand who the user is and to figure out their needs. This mapping and organization of ideas breaks down large-scale challenges into more manageable sub-problems and strengthens the impact of the final solution.

Gensler WIL

Gensler staff at a “What I’ve Learned” talk with the Class of 2021.

Minerva Gives Gensler an Active Look into the Future of Education

While the Gensler team enjoys leading students through design-thinking challenges, they also seek to learn from students —— according to Gensler, the true value has been the unique inspirational perspective that Minerva students bring to the table.

Turner is happy to report, “Across the board, whenever I talk to the Gensler team to see how the projects are going or after events, like Civitas (Minerva’s launch event for civic projects each semester), our team always comes away from it feeling recharged and inspired. It’s a lot of new thought and different perspectives.” 

The diversity of Minerva students, both culturally and interest-wise, is also a main draw for Gensler. “For us, it’s great to see these cross-fertilized teams. You might see one person who’s interested in data science and another person who’s interested in economics or sustainability; the way that the Minerva students come together –– it’s hard to find that diversity within our field,” Turner continues. “So to have that encapsulated in one project, you can instantly get five totally different new, radical perspectives and get a new brain-trust that you didn’t have before. Because it’s always quality work. It never feels like ‘student’ work.”

Collaborating with the Student Experience team at Minerva also provides a valuable resource for the company, as it gives Gensler an active role in an institution that is changing the future of education. “To be closely tied to what Minerva is doing gives us a great glimpse into where education is moving,” adds Dougherty.

Growing the Civic Project

The partnership with Gensler has contributed greatly to the civic project experience at Minerva today. Using feedback from the collaborations with Gensler and other civic partners, Minerva’s Student Experience team has improved project organization and structure. From detailed project-scoping calls to understand desired deliverables and potential constraints to matching student interests with project descriptions and potential outcomes, the Student Experience team has created an efficient onboarding process and can set project expectations early on. This has enabled Minerva to bring on additional civic partners across the global rotation cities and better support current partners, such as Gensler, who currently advises four civic projects with ten volunteer staff in their San Francisco office.