Lessons in Space

An academic scavenger hunt.


June 18, 2015

Harvard University, especially in the summer, is a destination site for thousands of tourists. These visitors are not bashful about poking their heads into every part of the campus and pushing on any door that might open.

Ironically, those who teach and work at Harvard seldom venture outside their day-to-day routine to see what the campus has to offer. They behave, in the words one faculty member, “like ants,” marching to a set number of destinations in set patterns around an office or lab.

The tables were finally turned when campus natives had the opportunity to do some exploring of their own during a four day event June 8-11 dubbed “Learning Spaces Week.”

Akin to an academic scavenger hunt, participants were encouraged to explore innovative teaching spaces, hear from experts ranging from architects to technologists to physicists, and share their own discoveries and insights.

Sponsored and organized by the Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching (HILT) and the Teaching and Learning Consortium (TLC), over 200 people took part in the four day event that featured spaces at every school at the University as well as the libraries and museums.

Below are some of the big lessons learned…

Unfinished is empowering. As lazy rivers and 5-star dorms are once again in the news as a leading cause of tuition increases, the recommendation by Harvard’s Melissa Franklin to embrace what’s broken might come as welcome news.

The physicist helped to design the “SciBox,”a blackbox space incomplete with unfinished walls and only portions painted; the room itself has the look and feel of a friendly warehouse. She wanted to create an atmosphere where it was okay to “break stuff.” In the words of her colleague Logan McCarty, “It’s like a kindergarten space! You can do whatever you want (but also drill).” Leaving the space unfinished turned out to be a huge challenge, Franklin admitted, as the idea is so counter to a campus culture where students and faculty are hesitant to mess around with new and shiny environments, even when they are meant to be flexible.

And it is flexible – the entire 2,500 sq ft space is on wheels, from the flat screen TVs to the lab benches to the couches – to enable students to set up the room however fits their needs for the day. “In the 3 minutes it takes to change a room,” Franklin stressed, “it gives everyone the agency to take part in the learning experience.”

Measure twice, cut once. Architects, planers, and administrators alike suggested testing new classroom designs before committing to a complete overhaul of a building, and especially prior to designing an entirely new one.

Some of Harvard’s schools, in fact, have built life-sized mock-ups in existing spaces as a way to test the tires. Others started with one finished innovative classroom before converting others across buildings or the campus.

The break-it-in before you build it approach means testing everything: acoustics, the comfort of the seats and tables (after 5 minutes or even after an hour), air and light quality, and of course, all of the technology (including where it is placed).

Often motivated by budget constraints, the approach will save money and frustration in the long run. Architect Stephen Baker, who has managed numerous projects at Harvard’s business and education schools, is a fan of real life testing, especially as it may be the optimal way to create infrastructure to “future proof” a facility.

Ultimately, getting things right by tweaking before the cement settles offers more than just an economic reward, as, Baker says, “there is an emotional reaction when you walk into a room that was designed to welcome you and help you flourish.”

Build around what’s known. Learning experts had sage advice about the expectations and limitations of even the most innovative teaching spaces. Lecturer and Project Zero Director Daniel Wilson at the Harvard Graduate School of Education commented, “space is simply a context for human behavior,” it does not necessarily motivate particular kinds of behavior (learning or otherwise) on its own.

In the case of the SciBox space described earlier, Franklin said, "you cannot think that the space will remake learning." For example, to make the space work as intended, she had to cut the number of labs in a course she was teaching by half so students would not default to always sitting at the same lab tables; they needed non-structured activities. “You need to build in pedagogical opportunities for students to engage in the space in new ways otherwise they will default to what is comfortable.” 

Put another way, don't try to generate new behaviors, rather, remove obstacles and create environments to amplify existing behaviors. If you build it, they indeed, will come. The question is, however, what will they do once they arrive?

In many cases users also define a space in unexpected ways. One of the most in-demand teaching spaces is in Harvard’s Lamont Library (for undergraduates). It turns out the room is ideal for traditional presentations, due to its size and easy-to-use technologies. An ornate chapel at Harvard Divinity School is used for services, events, lectures, and even yoga. No doubt, users were drawn to the beauty of the room – it’s high paneled ceiling, arched windows, and intimacy.

That kind of thinking leads to another tenet: think about all the possible uses a space might have and don’t necessary limit it to one.

Mind the maintenance. Some of biggest challenges of executing any successful new space, apart from the usual technical hitches and HVAC issues, turns out to be thoughtful scheduling, along with proper and set-up and custodial maintenance.

It may be great to have a flexible classroom, but what if faculty are not equipped to move all of that furniture around? Likewise, who is responsible for cleaning all of those writable walls? Is 24/7 access vital? How many set changes can a given space withstand in a given day? What happens, as often does at Harvard, when a new space becomes over-booked – how are priorities set?

Finally, as nothing will come out-of-the-box perfect, leave five percent of the initial budget for ongoing maintenance and upgrades.

The event was designed with practicality in mind, especially as online and active learning are becoming more common, requiring rethinking and realignment of existing spaces. Harvard also has the enviable problem of building an entirely new campus in Allston.

Beyond the pragmatic principles, the biggest takeaway may have been to act more like those nosy tourists. Franklin, in fact, invited “everyone to be bad. To open doors that you are not allowed to; to go to place that seem off limits. After all, you belong here. Find and then share your secret spaces.”

Sarah Shaughnessy is Senior Project and Outreach Manager for the Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching and Michael Patrick Rutter is Communications Director for the Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning at Harvard University.

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