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Studying the spaces designed for studying science

What makes a successful study space in an academic building? We revisit our projects and learn it’s all about currents and eddies

The Straz Science Center at Carthage College showing a perfect example of a current and eddies.

By Michael Reagan, Vice President, Science and Technology Sector Lead (Cleveland, Ohio)

The notion that interaction spaces are important in science buildings has been around a long time. But more frequently today we’re being asked, do we really need them? These collaboration and study spaces look great, but how do we know anyone will use them? What proof is there that they are really being used? And if these spaces are important, how much space should we devote to them in our educational building?

Fair questions. We wanted to know more ourselves, so we gathered data on study and collaboration spaces in some of Stantec’s recent science and medical education projects. We wanted to see if these spaces are being used and more specifically how they are being used so we can better plan them in the future.

We visited education buildings such as Straz Science Center at Carthage College, Scott Hall at Carnegie Mellon University, and the Center for Innovation in Health Professions at Cleveland State University. We observed the areas with school in session between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. We gathered data on how many people were using spaces, how many seats were occupied for how long, and what students did with them—as well as subjective data from a survey. In general, we were observing and surveying college-age students, but at research schools, we sampled adults well into their 30s.

Related item: Education: Designing the ultimate student experience

Anecdotally, our experience is that these interaction spaces work best when they’re like eddies next to a current of a stream. If you locate these spaces in the middle of a strong current, they’re not going to work because everything is going to be washed away.

Here’s what we learned, and there are a few surprises.

The Center for Innovation in Health Professions at Cleveland State University.

Everyone studies a little differently.
We were observing study spaces—not just group study spaces--and we saw firsthand how differently each of us approaches studying. Spaces further off the beaten path, for example, were favored by students that like quiet and privacy. Others liked to study with people around—more on that later.

What kind of seating works best?
In most of the facilities we design, we include a combination of soft seating (lounge seating, couches, and sofas) and hard seating (tables and chairs). So which comes out on top in the real world? Good news, it all gets used, so effective study spaces need to have both.

What do students think is important?
Surveys showed us that with today’s tech-enabled learning, access to electric outlets is crucial. Whiteboards are not considered as important, despite getting a lot of use. At the bottom of the list? Flat screens. Very few students found available flat screen monitors useful for what they were doing. In one case, we found out that the students didn’t even know they could access the flat screens in the study areas. Educating building users about available technologies they can utilize is as critical as providing those amenities in these collaboration spaces.

Eddies and streams
Did our observations confirm our instincts about eddies and streams? Yes, but with a number of caveats and new revelations.

The College of Veterinary Medicine at Texas A&M University.

Where do people sit?
They usually chose places near classrooms or offices or places that had windows. When various spaces were offered on multiple floors, in most cases, students preferred the spaces on the main level with a ground-level entrance. When the spaces were too far from the main entry level, the usage dropped off significantly. This reinforces the eddy and stream concept. We saw that if you get too far from the energy, the spaces tend to be less popular.

Where do they like to be?
Students clearly like to be near other students who are working on similar projects, or near the classrooms, labs or faculty offices so they can ask professors questions if need be.

There were some surprises, too. Start with occupancy.
In most cases, these spaces exceeded 50 percent seat fill. In some cases, it was slightly less than 50 percent. Does that mean we are overdesigning these spaces? We don’t think so. This rate of occupancy can be a function of the types of seating available and students’ expectations for the availability of space. If you have a three-seat sofa and you’re not studying in a group and one person takes that sofa, you’ve got 33 percent occupancy and you won’t likely achieve more than that.

What that might suggest is don’t have sofas, just have individual lounge chairs, because they’re never going to be used for group seating.

Another surprise? Solo studiers.
We were surprised at the number of people that use these spaces to study alone, even when they arrived or met with a group of people. That seems odd, but maybe it shouldn’t. There were roughly the same numbers studying in a group as were studying alone in a group setting. It’s not unusual to see a group of independent studiers with others that are doing the same.

This raises the question, if students are there to study alone, why do they choose public spaces where there are people around? What makes a study space feel effective? It appears that other people studying nearby somehow makes these spaces more effective or desirable. Even if the student isn’t working with anyone else they want to be around others as they study. Maybe they want to see or be seen? 

Enclosed rooms, like this one in the Straz Science Center at Carthage College, were popular with students even if they were not studying as a group.

Low-distraction spaces
Enclosed rooms were gathering places. We were surprised how often people, either individuals or groups, co-occupied an enclosed study space at the same time. That might be because the distraction level is low in these spaces, even with disparate groups in them.

Permission
At one location, several conference rooms with incredible views of Lake Michigan were unlocked but rarely used. Students wouldn’t go into them, preferring the designated group study rooms, which were very similar.

Biggest surprise? These spaces were used almost exclusively for studying.
These are important spaces and students really use them to study, not socialize. It was, in some ways, remarkable how little socializing there was going on. These spaces are taken seriously. Even when they’re half occupied, students place great value on them. They are truly there to use these spaces in an academic manner.

A small study area in Scott Hall at Carnegie Mellon University.

What students liked best
Surveyed students said they liked these study spaces and enclosed rooms because they gave them a place where they can study with others in a group or work on group projects, which can be hard to find in a traditional library setting. You don’t typically design group study rooms, but we probably should consider them in the future, particularly for schools with STEM and group-learning pedagogies.

Takeaways:

  • These types of study spaces often find themselves on a list of expendable features—corners that can be cut for budgets. From our point of view, they are an important ingredient to creating successful learning communities in our academic buildings. But, if some have to be cut, look on the upper or lowest floors, but keep the ones on the main level.
  • It’s important to make sure that these spaces aren’t too public or they won’t be used. There’s a fine line between accessing the current and being in the middle of it.
  • If you have contiguous enclosed rooms, make sure they are acoustically private. Students really want these spaces to be distraction-free.
  • Consider adding more enclosed study rooms. They’re very popular. The enclosed study rooms we designed in these buildings were always booked, with roughly 75 percent occupancy. They tend to be off the main circulation with a fully glazed wall, giving students a good view of the energetic current passing by. No need to miss a thing, even when the books are open.

We will continue to gather data on student collaboration and study spaces. Keep your eyes on this blog for our latest research gleanings.

Related item: Architecture & Interior Design: Shaping our communities

Michael is a nationally recognized authority on the architectural and technological intricacies of laboratory planning and design.

These are important spaces and students really use them to study, not socialize. It was, in some ways, remarkable how little socializing there was going on. These spaces are taken seriously.

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