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November 21, 2019

3 STEM projects that aim to break down learning silos

  • New spaces at Montana State, Santa Clara and WSU Tri-Cities are designed to inspire a culture of cross-pollination, innovation and exploration.



    As colleges and universities shed traditional silos to promote advancements in instruction, learning and research, campus buildings are adopting new roles: as conduits for incidental and intentional engagement and collaboration.

    This trend is most visible in the growing number of interdisciplinary campus buildings, where proximity and transparency are bringing disparate departments together — often for the first time.

    It’s no wonder the trend is gaining momentum. In today’s competitive higher education landscape, students increasingly seek colleges and universities that support workplace readiness. In turn, employers seek graduates with disciplinary knowledge in at least one field and the fluidity to work across others.

    And, there’s a growing recognition that introducing crossover between departments increases the number of creative collisions, fueling new ideas and discoveries that may not have come about otherwise.

    A living laboratory

    Time and time again, students and faculty stakeholders shared the same refrain with designers at ZGF Architects and A&E Architects during the planning stages of the new Norm Asbjornson Hall at Montana State University, home of the College of Engineering and the Honors College.

    If prospective students could see firsthand the type of innovative problem-solving done by engineers, they would be more likely to become interested in the field.

    The resulting building, which opened in late 2018, embodies donor Norm Asbjornson’s vision of creating a cross-disciplinary environment that brings students and faculty together in unexpected ways and to “change the way engineering is taught.”

    Photos by Lara Swimmer [enlarge]
    At Montana State University’s Norm Asbjornson Hall, collaboration spills out of the laboratories into the central commons.

    Unlike a traditional college building, much of the active program of engineering education and collaboration spills out of the laboratories and into the central commons, exposing the engineering design process to students of other disciplines utilizing the wide range of classrooms, the cafe, or the Inspiration Hall multipurpose space.

    Transparency into and through the laboratories reinforces the strategy, and the broad array of functional spaces within the commons inspires interdisciplinary idea-sharing.

    The tapered commons, with abundant access to daylight and views out to the Montana mountains, encourages random encounters and social interaction. It starts as a narrow “street” beginning with quiet spaces on the west end and living-room type seating interspersed with areas to plug in and quiet corners to study. It becomes increasingly social with the large seating stair and Inspiration Hall anchoring the east end. An open connecting stair at the central “crossroads” lets students easily move between levels.

    The building is designed as a living laboratory. The floor-by-floor HVAC systems are celebrated in glazed mechanical rooms facing the commons, rather than being relegated to ceilings and utility closets. Graphics on the glass will explain the mechanical systems and components, underscoring their functions and benefits, and enabling instructors to integrate them into lesson plans. Built-in data-gathering systems allow students to analyze the building’s energy performance. The project is LEED Platinum certified and net-zero energy ready.

    Flexible spaces

    Views into the labs reinforce the cross-disciplinary environment at Norm Asbjornson Hall.

    At the ZGF-designed Sobrato Campus for Discovery and Innovation at Santa Clara University, the campus is co-locating 13 previously disparate STEM programs into one building.

    Departments that previously functioned independently will be physically sharing teaching and research labs, project spaces, classrooms and support space. A diversity of learning spaces located throughout the building are designed with baseline flexibility in mind.

    Given the number of programs sharing teaching space in the building, each student who graduates from Santa Clara will have taken at least one class in this building. The intentional lack of program definition in the student-driven project spaces, in particular, will encourage students to make them their own and break down historical barriers between departments.

    The layout will establish learning neighborhoods for cross-discipline inquiry that extend horizontally and connect vertically. Significant attention is paid to the placement of classrooms and collaboration spaces with the intent to pull students of all fields of study through the various floors of science, engineering and technology labs, offering visual and physical engagement in the broad range of STEM disciplines and activities. Collaborative spaces are deliberately located at key intersections on each floor with direct access to vertical circulation, daylight and views.

    Shared buildings are not without their challenges. Teaching spaces still require some level of specificity, particularly in the sciences and engineering curricula taught in their shared spaces. The result is very careful and deliberate teaching lab designs and program pairings that will maximize flexibility without compromising productivity.

    Biology and bioengineering, for example, are co-located in one shared lab with shared equipment. Unique but less frequently used program-specific equipment is located in nearby support or instrument rooms, in some cases shared by additional programs.

    A unique double-height maker space will face the courtyard, creating a window into the work of students as they ideate and fabricate projects and prototypes. Transparent glass partitions are used throughout the building to encourage connectivity and put student explorations and work on display.

    An inclusive environment

    Renderings provided by ZGF [enlarge]
    This 40,000-square-foot STEM building at WSU Tri-Cities is slated to open in spring 2021.

    Informal spaces in the WSU Tri-Cities building include a lively collaboration zone and central grandstand stair.

    Just as there has been recent backlash against complete open-office environments, the same lessons apply to education. Open and collaborative user spaces need to be balanced with an appropriate mix of small group collaboration niches, individual focus spaces and breakout solution (or problem solving) rooms for more concentrated, undisturbed learning. Brain science confirms that breaks are required for deep learning and physical space should support that by providing opportunities for introspection and reflection.

    At Washington State University Tri-Cities’ future 40,000-square-foot academic building, a range of informal learning spaces including nooks and niches will be located on both levels one and two. The design team likens one of them to a treehouse, as it will allow students to study and work from a perch directly above the entry with views to a grove of trees. Spaces like these are the direct result of a proactive student engagement process that revealed a strong desire for a variety of informal spaces with direct access to daylight and views.

    Eight- to 12-foot-wide corridors lined with a mix of flexible seating and writable surfaces are designed to encourage spillover and breakout collaboration from the two large adjacent active-learning classrooms. The added width will let the sunlight of southern Washington more easily filter through and into the heart of the building (a key consideration for the project’s stakeholders), aiding in directional wayfinding by providing visibility to each cardinal side. These areas complement the livelier atrium-like collaboration zone and central grandstand stair, which can further support informal learning and more formal campus community gatherings.

    The outboard side of the eight planned lab classrooms will offer recessed niches with plenty of whiteboards and display boards for sharing student work and generating interest and excitement about what is happening within the labs. A highly flexible and reconfigurable space called the Creative Design Lab will accommodate a broad range of independent and group work that goes even beyond STEM to include the liberal arts. Large windows to the corridor will put these activities on display to passersby.

    Design workshops with the campus building committee and student representatives have informed the vision for the project as well as numerous design elements. The overarching aim is to create an environment that is welcoming and inclusive to students of varying backgrounds and ages. Although campus housing is being added nearby, the majority of students will continue to commute to campus, which necessitates that the building provides a comfortable home away from home and campus heart where students want to stay.

    The Sobrato Campus for Discovery and Innovation at Santa Clara University will co-locate 13 STEM programs into one building.

    Proposed interior materials are clean, modern and honest, and draw on the surrounding natural regional context for its inspirational earth tones and textures. Along with thoughtful use of color, carefully selected furnishings will inject a clear WSU brand, but it’s the students that will bring the vibrancy and life into the building.

    The project is slated to open in spring 2021.

    Meeting needs

    As the role of the modern university campus evolves, project- and team-based work are coming to the forefront, all of which can benefit from an assortment of spaces tailored to meet the needs of students and faculty. In response, designers need to provide a thoughtful balance between specificity in teaching spaces and diversity in engagement spaces to allow for optimal space utilization and student performance.

    As is the case with the kind of learning and research that interdisciplinary buildings are meant to encourage, their design ought to offer a similarly broad range of inspiring environments.

    Sara Howell, a principal in ZGF’s Seattle office, collaborates with and leads project teams, including consultants and clients, throughout all project phases. Amanda Hills is an associate principal in ZGF’s Portland office.

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