Changing the Rules

Academic scientists are rethinking the way they work, teach and do research -- they are rethinking the way students learn. They are focusing on how best to educate students who will be entering careers related to science and technology, as well as how to educate citizen leaders for a world increasingly dominated by these fields.

Many of these academic scientists are part of an informal national alliance of individuals and institutions committed to strengthening undergraduate science, mathematics and engineering curricula. This alliance, Project Kaleidoscope, is an initiative founded in 1989 with support from the National Science Foundation. The alliance’s main goal is to create undergraduate environments for learning that are research-rich, and that accommodate collaborative and interdisciplinary work.

For decades science spaces were designed to keep departments and disciplines together, either in a single building or on a single floor. The need to encourage cross-disciplinary connections and conversations was not a part of program or space planning.

Ideas emerging from the work of those involved with Project Kaleido-scope (including a national cadre of design professionals and nearly 400 colleges and universities engaged in planning new facilities for science) suggest that a different approach works best for 21st-century learning and teaching. The new thinking: Locate departments, programs and schools in a manner that makes intellectual sense given the fields of study and that encourages authentic interdisciplinary activity. The goal is spaces in which interaction becomes the routine, rather than the exception, where the traffic patterns and placement of offices, labs and common spaces make conversations a part of daily life. This concept also serves to encourage the kind of serendipitous encounters (faculty-faculty, student-faculty, student-student) that are at the heart of the scientific culture.

To achieve such spaces, academic scientists and architects are exploring new approaches to building layout, traffic patterns and the way classrooms, labs and common spaces are designed. One facility that illustrates this premise is the Lied Science, Mathematics and Computer Facility at Doane College in Crete, Neb. The $10.2-million, 60,526-sq.-ft. facility was completed last fall in junction with experts at Project Kaleido-scope. Here’s what was accomplished.

Key Design Principles

Whether constructing a new facility, or planning a renovation or addition, these key concepts support interdisciplinary and collaborative learning.

1. Minimize zoned departments. Minimizing department zones means dispersing groups of classroom, lab and research spaces for specific departments in various locations throughout the building.

2. Include conferencing space within faculty offices. By incorporating teaming spaces (outfitted with a table and chairs) as part of faculty offices, faculty and student interaction is maximized -- one-on-one or small group -- outside of class time.

3. Maximize technical flexibility and adaptability. Conduit, raceways, cabling and outlets should be incorporated into a building design in a manner that maximizes how each space can be used. While this means maximizing how each space can be technologically equipped, academic scientists face a challenging question when considering technological investments: When will wireless technologies become mainstream?

In the Lied building, not only are various curricula spread throughout, but faculty offices also include worktables to enhance student and faculty communication. In addition, more than 640 dataports maximize the technological capabilities of users.

Circulation Design

Academic scientists and architects designing interdisciplinary facilities also aim for users to “see and be seen.” It encourages interaction and enhances the process of educating through visual understanding. Circu-lation design strategies include the following.

1. Incorporate interior windows. For architects, this means designing corridors detailed with interior windows. Windowpanes extend from desk or lab table surface heights to the top of a doorframe -- providing optimal views into and out of the space. Interior windows allow users passing by to see a demonstration, lab procedure or experiment in progress.

2. Include display cases throughout the facility. Floor-to-ceiling display cases enhance interdisciplinary interaction and education. These cases offer a strong visual representation of what is happening in various curricula throughout the building.

3. Incorporate mini-public spaces and lounges along circulation routes. Inviting, comfortable lounges are a key component to the success of an interdisciplinary environment. Lounges designed as part of corridors and major building circulation arteries encourage student and faculty interaction. Natural light and comfortable chairs are key to attracting and sustaining informal conversations.

While academic scientists at Doane warn that the increase in visibility created by interior windows may be a distraction in lower education levels, they believe the design feature enhances visual understanding in higher-education settings. In addition to incorporating display cases, academic scientists have programmed the cases in Lied as a rotating museum, enhancing interdisciplinary understanding.

Lab Design

While flexibility and adaptability have long been the keys to successful academic design, specialized demonstrations and procedures that are shaping today’s science and technology curricula require unique spatial layouts and technical requirements. Strategies to increase flexibility and adaptability while accommodating unique spatial layouts include the following.

1. Incorporate perimeter utilities. By designing utilities, water and other services at the perimeter of the space, the layout of labs and classrooms can be customized.

2. Locate vertically oriented hardware at perimeter as well. Building on the idea to locate utilities at the perimeter, this design strategy helps clear the space of any hardware or equipment potentially obstructing views in the space.

3. Design power and information-cabling outlets as a grid layout. This allows academic scientists to arrange lab tables and workstations in a variety of patterns -- small group, row/individual or work group -- according to the day’s instruction.

By maximizing flexibility, the lab spaces can also serve as a classroom for other disciplines, increasing not only functionality, but also the building as a whole as it serves multiple disciplines. At Lied, lab and classroom spaces are virtually interchangeable.

Discovering New Challenges

Academic scientists working with Project Kaleidoscope continue to discover new challenges in science education. The alliance is making strategic decisions to develop additional creative and innovative efforts to strengthen science, mathematics and related curricula at the undergraduate level.

Matthew C. Metcalf, AIA, is principal and director of architecture for Davis Design in Lincoln, Neb.