Tips for Using a Student Panel In C&U Dining Hall Projects
When creating a new college or university servery, the whole focus is building a dining area that caters to the students. Recently, we spoke with Jennifer Rohn, an associate principal at FOODLINES in Lincoln, Nebraska and an FCSI member. Her past experiences include using student panels to gain insight on what should be included in a new dining hall. In recounting her past experiences, she was able to help us identify the best practices for getting the most out of a student panel and using that towards a more successful design.
Though students are typically the primary users, they are often involved the least out of all the stakeholders during the planning and development process. This can be chalked up to the fact that many foodservice directors and consultants are already in tune with today’s student wants and needs. However, seeking student involvement is a strategy that can create positive buzz for the project and can also generate some unexpected information.
Sometimes retrieving useful information from students can be easier said than done. To get the most out of the participants, here are tips for assembling and running your next student panel to gain valuable insight for dining hall renovations.
Find suitable volunteers
Don’t spend too much time looking for volunteers. Many major universities already have groups of students in place for such projects, such as the University of Georgia’s Auxiliary Services’ Student Partners. If such a group doesn’t already exist, ask for the school’s student council or social committee. Typically, these students will be receptive to your request and will also be excited to participate. These groups are a great source for meaningful feedback and sometimes with the coaxing of a free meal you can easily draw in the numbers needed to put together a diverse and opinionated panel.
Know your panel size
While more individuals may mean more ideas, you also want a group size that is small enough to manage and provides everyone a chance to speak over the course of an hour or two. Somewhere between eight and 12 volunteers will provide enough variety of opinion while being small enough to easily direct and keep on topic.
Use more informed opinions
When choosing students, try to stick to upperclassmen because they have a more realistic sense of what works and what the student body wants and needs. Not that freshmen don’t have the same ideas, but you’ll find you get more “wish list” ideas from newer students rather than the practical needs of a senior or graduate student.
Don’t let the buyer run the show
When choosing a moderator for your student panel, try to stick with a stakeholder that is as far removed from the buyer as possible. Typically, the project architect should run the show as they are familiar with all parts of the servery — from design and layout to form and function. A representative from the school can too easily become emotionally attached to the project and can have certain design ideas they might steer the students towards even unintentionally.
Focus on a variety of topics
You may be surprised to find that students have way more on their minds than the types of foods they’re interested in. They are aware of which architectural designs are most appealing to them, what makes for more efficient serving flow and what amenities should be available to others — not just themselves. Because of their awareness of these topics, focus on discussing layout options, types of seating (communal versus private), what special diets should be catered to and how technology features should be implemented, be it charging stations or ordering kiosks.
Stick close to home
Host your student panel in the dining hall that is being renovated, or if a new one is being built host them in the serving area they most commonly use. This allows them to better envision what would work best for them. Also, the visuals can help spring ideas. Being in the environment may also help them better explain their ideas if they can use their surroundings for context.
Don’t overdo it
A student panel should be a one-time thing per major project. Don’t get caught up in thinking you’ll need to host multiple panels and information sessions. Generally, all the information you’ll need will be retrieved in a 90-minute session. If your initial reaction was that the session went well, then you can be confident that the opinions of the students you heard from reflect the majority of students at that school.
A lot can be learned from the student population. Since they are the group that is ultimately paying to use the facility it’s important to listen to their opinions. This empowers the students and makes them feel as though they were a part of the process (because the were), and it also helps collect essential data that will be part of a successful project. For more design inspiration on college and university serveries, be sure to visit our case study page.