Volume IV: What works, what matters, what lasts

The Ideal Facility for 21st Century Learning Communities

In 2003, PKAL engaged a roundtable of STEM faculty, architects and planning experts to envision how an ideal STEM facility could foster rich and integrated learning communities. This report describes key findings and provides a launching point for continued discussion on the role of architecture and design in creating spaces that work.

1. Connects to communities beyond the campus.

Classrooms incorporate communication technologies that connect students to each other, to their campus community and to undergraduate STEM colleagues around the world. Students in undergraduate science programs now interact electronically on a regular basis with elite research facilities and the researchers who head them; they access and analyze real-time data, while pursuing hypotheses and making scientific discoveries. The opportunity for carrying out experiments at remote state-of-the-art research facilities (that only a few places can afford) has opened up valuable research opportunities for students at many institutions; it is also generating national and international research communities- consortia of students and faculty collaborating and sharing equipment for their research activities. Curricular connections on scientific and technological problems with a global dimension are made on a regular basis, facilitated by 24/7 electronic conversations, sharing of data and materials and question and answer sessions.

Buildings also facilitate connections with science (STEM) teachers at all educational levels, as well as with politicians, industry and community leaders and philanthropists. This broadens the base and the support of the community that understands, teaches and learns about and supports science.

2. Connects to communities within the campus.

Learning spaces are shared spaces. They serve the entire campus community, as well as students in science. Enrollments in science have increased because English, history, languages, etc. are taught throughout the science facility. As students in non-science classes pass thru and see 'science in action,' their curiosity is piqued, they inquire about the courses and they are motivated to take part in the action.

Due to the presence of the new facility, it is now widely recognized that science is at the core of the liberal arts in the 21st century. Everyone on campus recognizes that the natural science community involves the broader community, including both students and faculty from other departments. The facility is designed to introduce all students to science as it is practiced, it is a venue for open discussions about the role of science (STEM) in society. Spaces are designed both to enrich the experience of science majors and to attract students whose pre-college experience has not fostered an interest in science thus far.

3. Fosters 21st century scientific communities - A.

Facilities have become multi-disciplinary, reflecting the increasingly hyphenated world of science and technology. Increased technology is also shaping science learning in the undergraduate environment. Research is no longer done in isolated labs by single professors, but rather in multi-disciplinary project labs involving interdisciplinary teams which shift as the work progresses. Spaces for analyzing samples can be integrated with analytical facilities used by laboratory researchers, thereby fostering collaboration between field and laboratory scientists.

4. Fosters 21st century scientific community - B.

Facilities are designed for social interaction and interpersonal, face-to-face communication. Multi-story atria with spaces for putting science on display, along with areas for individualized research and group study spaces are common. Science buildings exude energy and stimulate discovery 24/7. The quality of spaces throughout the facility makes everyone want to participate by sharing ideas, studying, and discovering.

The presence of coffee shops that provide good, sustaining food ensures that students linger in the facility for further exchange and interaction.1

5. Opens up the world of science.

The scientific world is rich with complexity, and by displaying its richness communities can be built. The facility includes an interactive museum that teaches and excites students, faculty and visitors about the delights and potential of science. The science building has an accessible, "free" media center with electronic internet-based research stations, a wide variety of the best journals prominently displayed and the best current literature to promote discussion and bring colleagues together. Sprinkled throughout the corridors and common spaces are plasma screens that bring the science of today into the learning environment.

6. Becomes an agora for the exchange of ideas.

The structure of the building gives an over-arching sense that the essence of community is the active exchange of ideas. There is a commons area- serving as an interface between the broader campus community and the science community- that has become a hub of excitement and interaction. There are also relatively intimate spaces that foster the informal and serendipitous encounters that are central to learning and doing science. The characteristics of the commons are that it is:

  • a forum for informal gatherings which signals that this is a place for scientific discovery.
  • a site from which to gain access to information, mail, departmental and support services.
  • a place adjoining active learning spaces such as, lecture rooms, seminar rooms and labs.
  • a venue for the exchange of ideas through poster sessions, displays of collections, formal and informal presentations.

7. Reflects an openness and hospitality that attracts people.

The facility is nearly as welcoming as the campus center. It is delightful to visit because it is generous in its public and social spaces; it is light and bright in its interior and full of opportunities to see science on display and people in action. It is a place in which students feel their program space and program options are maximized, and their individual potential is respected and realized.

The adjacencies between labs, seminar rooms, offices and conference spaces have been designed to encourage many different modalities of instruction and interaction. The quality and arrangement of spaces make possible surprise encounters and the sharing of ideas. Attention is given to human comfort by promoting exposure to natural light. The quality of large spaces is dynamic, profiting from a hierarchy of changes of light levels during the day. There are opportunities to observe seasonal changes, and- in a different sense- there is flexibility in these spaces to accommodate a number of evolving programs.

The emphasis is on creating a spectrum of places, rather than just rooms. Buildings are not designed to serve departmental >turfs,= but rather to serve the entire science community. The best common spaces make each of the users feel a sense of community.

Another Way to Articulate Community:

Providing a sense of community will guide building design. It will be organized around a central commons which will act as the "town square." This will be a forum for informal gatherings to foster scientific discussion beyond the classroom. It will be a site from which to gain access to information and a place from which to move into lecture rooms, seminar rooms and labs.

The commons also serves as the point of interface between the campus community and the sciences, providing visible access into the various working "neighborhoods" of the building. Facilities are social spaces in that they respond to the student's need for personal space, with a variety of spaces that accommodate casual "meeting and greeting."

New visualization tools that enhance the learning experience are pervasive, allowing advanced three-dimensional tools to be used in every learning space (imagine a holography planetarium for molecular and atomic structures); these learning spaces are shared spaces and are used to serve the wider campus community and the general public as well as students in science.

Final Thoughts:

From Tom Greene:
In a situation like this my thinking often turns to Christopher Alexander's (1977) A Pattern Language, a manifesto for participation in design. Many designers and behavioral scientists encounter Alexander in school. Although his focus is broader than science buildings, some of his patterns may be relevant.

Alexander, C. Ishikawa, I. Silverstein, M. (1977). A pattern language. New York: Oxford University Press.

A brief search for some of his potentially relevant principles (some of which may have actually informed the PKAL list) leads me to suggest the "brainstorming" potential of some of Alexander's patterns such as: 1) Pattern #31. Promenade: a public space where people can see and be seen. 2) Pattern #61. Small public squares: large spaces, but sized so as not to look too large or even deserted. 3) Pattern #69. Public Outdoor room 4) Pattern #42 Sequence of sitting spaces: "Every corner of a building is potential sitting space. But each sitting space has different needs for comfort and enclosure according to its position in the intimacy gradient." 5) Pattern #147. Communal eating


1 A wonderful high-end coffee system that produces a remarkable range of gourmet coffees by the cup has become a hot spot for discussion and interaction. Good food (vending machines and warmed over pizza do not count), good music, great art and enough non-assigned, comfortable seating areas make for good parties, good introductions and good debates about science that promote discoveries.

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