Orienting the Academic Lab Towards Tomorrow

Blogger: Burcin Moehring, Education, Science +Tech Principal | Seattle, WA, USA
August 29, 2016

Coming back from the SCUP’s international conference always leaves me amazed at how many great people are thinking and innovating around the future of education in our country and around the world. This year’s conference in Vancouver was no exception. While pedagogies such as team-based learning and flipped classrooms have been around for several years, this year the conference took the student-centered philosophy that drives both those models, along with many others, even further. Several presenters challenged us to think about whether we were including students in the design process so that their input could lead to solutions that address some of the unknown challenges that they face.

Certainly, student-driven learning has become a prolific idea that has gone beyond impacting just curriculum and teaching philosophies; it now informs the way we structure classrooms and design the spaces where learning is intended to occur.

I can think of two great examples of how the focus on students has radically changed the way we design laboratory spaces:

Orienting Students towards Collaboration

Several years ago, we started to see laboratories move away from instructor-focused layouts towards arrangements that support emerging pedagogical models that are more focused on student collaboration. This mirrors changes we have seen in the scientific workplaces, which have embraced industry partnership and multi-disciplinary teaming as the new world order for making new discoveries.In academic laboratories, we are moving away from orienting the arrangement of tables and chairs towards the “instructor

bench,” opting instead for arrangements that facilitate more interaction between students and enhance active learning. At the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, Manter Hall, renovated laboratory spaces are reorganized to facilitate collaboration.  Ten 1,000-square-foot labs (accommodating 24 students each) are technology-rich and fully adaptable to changing needs. Teachers have the ability to custom-design their laboratories by positioning the tables and furniture in their preferred configuration.

We are also incorporating more informal areas outside of the laboratory environment in hopes that collaboration will happen more intuitively and spontaneously. For example, in the new University of Maryland Physical Sciences Complex, the space allocated for the “Physics Tea” is out in the open, inviting an ever greater number of students, researchers, and instructors to participate in the decades old traditional of gathering in the afternoon for both social and scientific conversations.

Orienting Exploration towards the Campus

Over the last several years, the idea of “science on display” or celebrating the work that goes on in the campus by making it more visible and transparent has started to take hold. This was, in part, because we started thinking more strategically about how the built environment could help recruit the “next generation” of STEM students. But it was also because we started to think more broadly about the experience of existing STEM students. We realized that in order for them to feel like their studies were valued by the institutions they attended, said institutions needed to demonstrate that sentiment in the ways that they programmed and positioned laboratory space. We needed to help them take the lab out of the basement and give it a more prominent place on campus.

As a result we are seeing more laboratories above grade, with windows, bringing more visibility and light to the interesting work that students and researchers are doing.  For example, in the University of Oregon Integrative Science Building, transparent glass allows passerby to peer into laboratory spaces, while white glass acts as a marker board, promotes spontaneous brainstorming.

In some cases we’ve realize that the building itself needs to be more approachable, so we are using site design and additional amenities to help facilitate that.  At the University of Maryland’s College Park, as students and faculty make their way through campus, they discover a welcoming courtyard from which they can see inside the Physical Science Complex, where faculty and students gather in a café, interactions with science projects, and the daily Physics Tea mentioned earlier takes place. This is essentially an advertisement or welcoming committee for the Physics Department.

There is no doubt that laboratory environment on academic campuses will continue to change over time. But it’s always good to look back and see how far we’ve come and how much more dynamic laboratory space has become over the last several years.