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From the Design Quarterly: Creating the right collisions for higher education

January 17, 2019

By Rich Hlava

From a transdisciplinary approach to flexible spaces and coffee shops, designing for collaboration in health and science research environments is changing

A push for interdisciplinarity at the university level really took off in the ’80s and ’90s as schools followed successes at the Santa Fe Institute and Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology in Illinois. In 2004, the US National Academies released Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research, which advised how to lower the barriers to interdisciplinary research. A decade ago, the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, and others began touting the benefits of multidisciplinary research and its connection to innovation.

And yet, opening up research to discovery from other disciplines has been a challenge in science institutions. Lab space is often still organized in siloed departments in separate areas of campus with proprietary lab spaces tucked into dark corners of respective buildings. Day-to-day interaction can be limited.

While separate labs and departments may sometimes be needed for specialized equipment, by and large, institutions now recognize that these scientific disciplines often have similar requirements. And bringing them together in theme-based research settings can spark new synergies and perspectives that are essential to breakthrough discoveries. Today’s researchers are being gently nudged into shared spaces for their benefit.

Team-based approaches are surging in the private sector. The agile workforce is now sought after. In robotics, biomedical research, and drug development, teams are assembled from clusters of people in different specialties. These clusters of specialists iterate a broad range of scenarios quickly.

George Brown College—Daphne Cockwell Centre for Health Sciences in Toronto, Ontario. (Stantec/KPMB)

Similarly, the healthcare industry is becoming interconnected with care delivered across a continuum. Nurse practitioners, for instance, are now expected to master a broad spectrum of knowledge. And the earlier they can get in touch with all the various facets of practice in their education, the better. In hospitals and in the working world, barriers are becoming blurred.

Simultaneously, the design of new spaces for science and health research and education is rising to take on new challenges. The team-based approach is mirrored in a changing pedagogy in higher education toward collaboration and interdisciplinary thinking. Education and research are not so different in that much of the real learning happens outside the classroom or labs. How do you provide space that facilitates learning in the new pedagogical model while replicating the impromptu learning and collaborative situations that are the norm in the real world? And going one step further, how do you apply this multidisciplinary approach to solving today’s problems?

Design strategies that foster this interdisciplinary approach have been in development for the past 10 years but continue to morph as pedagogy evolve. Here’s the latest thinking in science and education design:

Carnegie Mellon University’s Scott Hall in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

It starts with the process

The University of Lethbridge’s new Science & Academic Building is taking a step beyond interdisciplinary collaboration toward a transdisciplinary approach to teaching and research. Transdisciplinary approaches bring together different disciplines (e.g., Chemistry and BioPhysics) to generate innovative ideas or approaches that move beyond discipline-specific solutions or approaches, to solve real-world problems.

Transdisciplinary thinking is familiar to designers—we know the best buildings are designed collaboratively. At Lethbridge, we needed a nontraditional approach to spark the transdisciplinary culture the University desired. We leveraged an Integrated Design Process, where multidisciplinary user groups participated in the design process together in large group sessions in which research process and space needs were discussed simultaneously. These sessions exposed these researchers to a transdisciplinary way of working together in an open collaborative format, laying the groundwork to achieve the goal of fostering transdisciplinary environment.

Science and Academic Building at the University of Lethbridge in Lethbridge, Alberta. (Stantec/KPMB)

How do you provide space that facilitates learning in the new pedagogical model while replicating the impromptu learning and collaborative situations that are the norm in the real world?

Creating collisions. Breaking down barriers.

How do you break down those barriers between departments, and what does that really mean to health sciences learning and innovation? It means you design for the public realm, provide public space for informal gathering and impromptu teaching opportunities. It’s built off the idea that a significant amount of the learning takes place outside the classroom. Administrators now recognize that places outside the lab are critical elements for their programs. Social spaces, places to get a cup of coffee, informal areas to gather, share ideas, ask questions, and get results are essential.

The social space is key to the idea of interdisciplinarity. At George Brown College, we developed the idea of “interprofessional education,” or IPE. Within the public realm at George Brown, we designed space for collisions between staff and students from different disciplines where they can have those crucial unplanned conversations. Creating connections outside of the traditional lecture room pedagogy, these spaces are used by small groups for a group project or just an alternative small class setting.

We extended this idea throughout the building. This social space embodies a fluid “learning landscape” that follows a legible vertical circulation from the ground floor up to the green roofs. Informal gatherings along this learning landscape manifest the IPE model, providing the opportunity to nurture multi-program collaboration and allow students to casually share information and, in effect, teach one another. A transparent podium along the ground level houses public program components further elevating the project’s vision to become an intercommunity education model. These spaces are the heart of the building and nurture the collaboration skills necessary for our future health-care professionals.

Carnegie Mellon University’s Scott Hall in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Creating clusters around research themes

Designing spaces that can support research themes, rather than research disciplines is an overarching approach in modern interdisciplinary buildings. The promise of these theme-based research clusters is their ability to create crossover and synergy, encouraging application of a variety of perspectives from colleagues from different backgrounds to accelerate iteration in research.

The realization that many types of research can take place in a similar basic space informs our interdisciplinary planning. Our planning modules allow for commonly used spaces, wet labs for instance, which can add or substitute specialty environments, increase or decrease full time equivalent (FTE) densities, swing from wet bench to computational, with fundamental infrastructure to support those changes over time..

Shared lab support space, shared core facilities, shared flexible spaces

Interdisciplinary research buildings have critical needs for collaboration space, office space, and computational research space as well as wet bench space. Sharing these spaces has synergistic effects. We’re seeing design details imported from the workplace world make flexibility possible. Moveable benchwork and casework, plug-and-play services, reconfigurable furniture, and in-lab breakout meeting spaces are changing the dynamic of a traditional laboratory environment.

  • Lab and lab support: Typically, the size of a research team fluctuates with the project and grant funding available. Today’s researchers need more adaptable and flexible spaces and labs that can adjust to the scale of their research cluster. We’re moving toward more sharing of certain lab support space, such as environmental, tissue culture, or radioisotope rooms.
  • Core: Core facilities are shared and made accessible to multiple research teams in this model, which means money wisely spent but also easier collaboration. At Carnegie Mellon’s Scott Hall, for example, we placed biomedical engineering on one floor, energy research on another floor, and computational analytics on another floor, all of which share an adjacent class 10/class 100 core cleanroom facility.
  • Flexible: We’re also looking at sharing of resources in the softer spaces where we can implement ideas about collaboration percolating through the corporate workplace. Communal work spaces are more likely to be modeled after WeWork or along the lines of the The Johns Hopkins Sibley Innovation Hub. The square footage traditionally assigned to offices is reduced while more space is assigned to a range of amenity spaces now incorporated into the design—lounges, group huddle rooms, mini offices (60 square feet) rather than traditional offices and conference rooms. Groups traditionally assigned to offices may now be in open workspace environments.

Read and download the Design Quarterly Issue 04 | Intersections

Maker spaces and fusion labs

We’re seeing the startup workplace influence these buildings, too. With the growth of entrepreneurship in curriculum and industry partnerships, these buildings will sometimes host fusion labs adjacent to primary labs, which provide maker/build space and testing/prototyping space made temporarily available to small teams or groups.

Visible to the public

At the University of Lethbridge, we’re using the idea of “science on display” to help break down barriers to the public realm from lab spaces. From the public area, you can see into the wet lab and research space while the researchers can see out to the public. This idea of “science on display” educates visitors in the building, demystifies the building’s purpose and pulls back the curtain on the inner-workings of the scientists within—connecting the public to scientific purpose in new ways.

This transparency fosters that informal communication through the public realm and through the space itself.

Inspiring next-gen scientists

Transparency and flexibility is also about connecting to the community. At Lethbridge, an outreach program includes summer science camps for high school and elementary kids utilizing the teaching labs and familiarizing the next generation of researchers with the campus. A large 240-seat auditorium space and central atrium space provide opportunities for the community to use the building and get engaged with the ongoing research and scientists at the University, thus bringing the science community itself to the public.

Faster problem-solving

Theme-based research clusters enable researchers to increase iteration, developing more drug samples before going to trials, for example. From an educational standpoint, these spaces teach individuals how to work in a broad-based team, how to collaborate or problem solve, to develop more varied skillsets through cross-training, and ingrain a natural ability to adjust to a variety of working environments. These interdisciplinary features help prepare students and researchers to work in increasingly collaborative industries.

Accelerating toward the next frontier

The pace of discovery and change is swift in today’s world. Modern teaching and learning facilities that adapt to trans- and interdisciplinary approaches and pedagogy are positioning them-selves at the forefront of discovery.

  • Rich Hlava

    As a designer, Richard’s thoughtful, scenario-based design process ensures an innovative design solution that enhances the client’s ideologies and long-term vision.

    Contact Rich
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