Science Matters

Nov. 1, 2005
Today's facilities should be designed to encourage interaction, collaboration and innovation.

The spaces and structures used for undergraduate science all too often work against new teaching methods and fail to provide environments that attract the brightest students to science. The dreary undergraduate science building often is the least “cool” place on campus, offering little to inspire the imaginations of young minds.

The typical undergraduate science building also tends to work against the idea of interaction, collaboration and innovation. Faculty members frequently are segregated by department and isolated from students. Teaching and research laboratories typically are segregated by discipline. General science labs are near the “front door,” with classrooms for science majors on upper floors. Most science buildings offer little to encourage students and faculty to feel that they are part of a community of science or the larger campus community.

New teaching methods

Some faculty members have erected roadblocks to improvements. In a time when scientific boundaries are breaking down, the typical faculty member still identifies with his or her specific branch of science. These boundaries are the product of educational background, experience and scientific traditions. Too often they are reinforced by institutional structures and funding mechanisms.

In institutions where boundaries have come down and more collaborative curriculums have been adopted, new teaching methods emerge. Higher education institutions are teaching science in new ways. Many are eliminating the passive lecture format. Researchers are seeking new ways to collaborate. Students are interacting with each other. Teaching science is more hands-on and lab-focused. Science no longer is a solitary endeavor.

Trends in science

In order to understand how science will be taught in the future and its impact on structures and spaces, administrators should understand future trends in science itself. Exciting trends include computer modeling and virtual reality, genomics and nano-science. The Internet has accelerated the pace of discovery. Even the most complex data and images can be shared instantly around the world.

It also is important to understand how mainstream research organizations that are “doing science” view these changes. It is through this understanding that new teaching methods can be shaped, and spaces and structures can be designed to support their mission.

What will science buildings of the future look like? How can the design help institutions reach new generations of students? How can schools design science buildings to be “hip” places that attract the best students? Here are some tips:

  • Teaching laboratories should be dynamic, connected places

    In the corporate environment, research is conducted in teams. An undergraduate science learning experience should help students prepare for a collaborative approach.

    The most important element of any undergraduate science building is the teaching laboratory. Labs must be more flexible. They need to accommodate changing pedagogy and teaching styles, and different sciences over time. As teaching moves toward hands-on science, teaching labs must respond. Key issues include faculty interaction and oversight — clear sightlines; student group work for project collaboration; rooms that encourage interaction; flexible infrastructure with voice and data connectivity; easy-to-use, high-quality audiovisual systems; rooms optimized for both lecture and lab work; and convenient preparation and storage.

    One strategy places all student work areas at the perimeter of the lab, and the center of the room is left clear for group gatherings and demonstrations. This arrangement allows an instructor to see how each group is progressing and provide immediate help. Overhead utilities allow the room to remain flexible.

  • Student research laboratories should be dedicated and visible

    Maintaining dedicated undergraduate research labs sends a strong message to students that research is important. Many institutions depend on the after-hours use of teaching labs for student research, but the best solution is to provide dedicated labs for this purpose. This eliminates scheduling conflicts and allows students to set up long-term experiments. Having dedicated undergraduate labs for non-majors, as well as majors, also sends the message that research is important. Making these labs visible and convenient helps ensure they are used.

  • Faculty laboratories should encourage faculty to continue their research, but not at the expense of student involvement

    The challenge is to give faculty members the space they need without moving them away from the rest of the science community. As with faculty offices, it is important to encourage interaction. When possible, these labs should be intermingled with the rest of the teaching and undergraduate research labs.

  • The building organization and common spaces are important

    Spontaneous interaction among researchers often leads to scientific breakthroughs. Teaching facilities must encourage this kind of interaction. The building organization can help. The spaces in between the building's individual components — the corridors, corners, nooks and crannies — are where students hang out to talk, study and participate in the science community.

    Ask these questions:

    • Are these great places to be?

    • Do they show off the discoveries happening inside?

    • What will capture the imagination of a non-major taking a required course?

    • Where are the coffee pots and Internet ports?

    • What will encourage students and faculty to talk?

    • What will cause them to linger?

    • What will motivate faculty members to come — and stay?

  • Buildings designed to teach science should look like it

    Mainstream research emphasizes sharing progress and results. Teaching facilities should do the same. A building that supports science should be filled with exciting and challenging science displays. It shouldn't resemble a business school or campus office building. Science departments have a tremendous advantage: the ability to display their work and discoveries. Buildings should thrust science out into the open for all to see. Video — live feed, prerecorded and interactive — is readily available. Collections and lab results can be displayed in interesting ways.

  • Non-majors are important, too

    There is a growing trend of mixing non-science people into research teams to enhance collaboration. The same should hold true for science buildings — they must make science as accessible and intriguing to non-majors as it is to science majors. Innovative building design can persuade students to consider a career in science. Another goal is give non-majors a more-enlightened perspective on science to boost the scientific literacy of the general population.

  • Faculty offices

    A growing trend is to bring researchers out of isolated offices and create a more collegial working environment. The placement of faculty offices affects the interaction of faculty, departments and students at every level. One strategy is to place the majority of faculty in a suite that ignores departmental boundaries. Collaboration and innovation can occur only when people know each other. The space should provide areas that encourage conversations and spontaneous discussions. Supplying a variety of seating options, whiteboards and community coffee pots will bring people together. Interaction will occur in support service areas as people use printers, copiers, libraries, seminar and conference rooms, and workrooms.

    The location of faculty in relation to the rest of the building also is important. This must balance the need for faculty privacy with the need to be available to students. It's prudent to err on the side of being more accessible.

  • Make the building a model for environmental responsibility

    All buildings should move toward sustainability in their design, construction, operations and eventual re-use. Science buildings have a special responsibility in this regard. They also have the inherent advantage of being populated with people who understand and embrace these issues in their curriculum. Environmental responsibility can be achieved through buildings that look no different than “conventional” facilities.

  • Classrooms can be a key asset

    In new mainstream laboratories, high value is placed on the sharing — formally and informally — of information and resources. The design of science building classrooms offers special opportunities. The proliferation of personal computers, web access and file sharing creates many opportunities if the room is designed correctly.

    The key issues in science classrooms are to design for:

    • Interaction among faculty and students.

    • Opportunities for group work.

    • Clear sightlines for students.

    • Easy audiovisual for multiple screen presentations.

    A modified tiered classroom offers students good views of up to three visual projections and displays, along with a full whiteboard. This arrangement allows for a good lecture arrangement and allows students to form small breakout groups.

  • The campus location is important

    For institutions remodeling or expanding existing facilities, location is critical. Those with a choice should select a site that is as close as possible to the center of student life on campus. An undergraduate science building should be placed front and center as the “cool” place to be.

Odell, AIA, LEED AP, is director, HOK Science + Technology, St. Louis.

Environmental responsibility

A new science building can be environmentally responsible and reveal the decisions that went into its design in ways that allow the building itself to be part of the pedagogical mission. Among ways to do this:

  • Building systems can be exposed and explained.

  • Material selections can demonstrate life-cycle implications.

  • Real-time reports on the building's performance, energy consumption, emissions avoided, and daylight contributions can be displayed.

  • New technologies, photovoltaics, fuel cells and new-generation wind generators can act as valuable parts of the building that demonstrate its science mission.

  • More conventional technologies such as water harvesting, daylighting and natural ventilation systems can be part of the building and its mission.

  • If land is available next to the building, demonstration gardens, water, test plots, and native plantings can extend the environmental mission outside the building.

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