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central washington planetarium

Enhancing the Student Experience

June 1, 2021
Discovery Hall at Central Washington University offers engagement and integration.

Among colleges and universities, declines in student enrollment are a major concern. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, demographic projections showed fewer students enrolling in institutions of higher learning. Without the expected levels of enrollment, colleges and universities cannot meet their budgetary needs. This leads to intense levels of competition among schools.

Today’s students comparison shop not only university costs, but also university experiences. For many institutions, the question becomes: How do you effectively market the college experience to prospective students?  What factors determine whether students want to attend the university?  What factors should be marketed as valuable recruiting tools for the school?

The university environment can be a game changer. Building design and educational features, like the telescope tower at Discovery Hall at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Wash., can enhance the school’s marketing opportunities, integrating education and exceptional experiences.

Exploring Discovery Hall

Central Washington’s Discovery Hall was planned as phase two of the overall science complex at the university. The project began with the understanding that the design of science labs has changed dramatically over the years and that trends in science and how science is taught have evolved.

The existing phase one building was crafted more than a decade ago with a traditional approach to science. It is a campus gothic building, constructed with a double-loaded corridor and rooms on either side. From a construction standpoint, it is neither flexible nor adaptable without a heavy level of renovation.

Today, teaching science requires transparency, which means that science labs have to be designed differently. Discovery rides on the wave of the STEM trend, making science appealing and accessible. Visibility is crucial; the building’s purpose needs to be both apparent and inviting. This concept is expressed in the telescope tower outside, as well as the geologic timeline, the graphic imagery of the large interactive video wall, and the vibrant scientific displays inside. Discovery Hall became a freestanding building, in the heart of the campus, adjacent to a Japanese garden.

Funding, as in all university projects, was a driver in the design concept, as well as how the architects organized the spaces throughout the building. The university wanted to bring together the geology and physics departments rather than the usual approach of siloed, independent physics facilities and clustered geology spaces. Central Washington’s goal was to design a building to bring the faculties closer together which, in turn, affected the overall design.  The project team focused on a community approach that would make science attractive to students.

Architects conducted a mini-master plan within the university’s overall plan, making Discovery Hall the anchor of a campus science district that could later be expanded to bring more of the science disciplines together. The university knew the building was in the heart of the campus, but did not realize the full effect the dynamic structure would have on the campus as a whole.

Once completed, Discovery Hall became an effective marketing tool. Science districts or science neighborhoods are trending at universities across the nation and around the world, helping schools attract not only prospective students, but also well-qualified faculty members.

The ultimate student experience

The goal at Discovery Hall was to develop an engaging science atmosphere. The project includes a five-story, free-standing observatory tower alongside the main structure in the center of the campus. The tower sits atop a 21-foot concrete pier, isolated from the surrounding structure, and features a rooftop telescope deck where students can set up their telescopes and hold public viewings. Discovery Hall and the Observatory Tower were designed to keep focus on high-traffic areas like classrooms while offering specialized areas at higher levels.

The project team created a “Main Street” as the primary circulation path, with features such as a dynamic staircase and skylights. The very visible area includes faculty offices, which are typically hidden from view. Another strategy involved capturing natural light to make the spaces appear larger. Skylights enable building occupants to see daylight on any floor, and windows admit more natural light into the spaces. Even the Ice Lab, which is essentially an oversized freezer, has small windows overlooking ice cores to generate additional interest.

The offices of the main circulation area were developed to integrate disciplines as well as provide visual access. The community approach meant no floors were specifically assigned to the geology or physics departments, thus keeping the departments interspersed. Main Street was created to be the zone that encourages interaction as circulation directs all users to pass through the area to reach a classroom or lab. These areas are called "Touchdown Zones" and enable visitors and students to interact in a variety of ways. Main Street engages visitors with “learning on display” and “research on display” capabilities.

For pedestrians on campus, the project team created a series of learning moments and experiences throughout the outdoor spaces. The outdoor spaces invite those passing the building to sit and stay a while. The outdoor classroom features an audiovisual area where people can meet and sit together on stone blocks. The main pedestrian area features an art scene and a “Platonic Plaza” that invites students to gather.

Project discoveries

One of the main insights from Central Washington’s Discovery Hall design was the importance of staying the course. It was critical to address everyone’s needs and to create a series of principles that would foster collaboration among disciplines. Once the principles were identified, the building committee could focus on solving problems and creating solutions.

It also was crucial for the faculty and staff to recognize the project’s potential as a powerful tool for the university. The interest in STEM facilities and the surrounding sciences has grown considerably on many campuses. Schools want to make their programs attractive and appealing, which means showcasing their offerings in ways the general public can understand.

The whole of the main spaces of Discovery Hall—the geologic timeline, vibrant images, collections on display, and the planetarium that hosts community events—are designed to be interactive and collaborative, bringing students, faculty, and community together.

Barnhart, AIA, is an Architect and Principal with Integrus Architecture. She can be reached at [email protected].

About the Author

Becky Barnhart

Becky Barnhart, AIA, is an Architect and Principal with Integrus Architecture.  She can be reached at [email protected].

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