Science Facilities Reconsidered

Unusual meeting of architects, campus administrators, faculty members and learning experts focuses on ensuring that colleges ask different set of questions when replacing their classrooms from the ‘60s.
March 6, 2008

Science facilities are on the minds of many a college administrator. Most of the boxy buildings from the ‘50s and ‘60s are no longer doing the job, at a time when undergraduate science enrollments are beginning to swell. Those realities have campuses wrestling with the usual decisions: Do we renovate or build from scratch? How do we pay for the construction? How do we make the building environmentally friendly?

Jeanne L. Narum and the organization she heads, Project Kaleidoscope, are trying to change (or, more precisely, add to) the questions that college officials are asking as they plan the next generation of campus facilities that house science and technology classrooms and laboratories. The group’s overall focus is on helping colleges create strong undergraduate programs in the so-called STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math), but a central part of its quest for improving the “learning environment” is to challenge colleges to reconceive how they approach the literally physical environments: the classroom and lab.

At a meeting in a Washington, D.C., suburb last weekend, Project Kaleidoscope, or PKAL, as it is called, created its own little laboratory for, it hoped, innovation and ferment. The group’s “Roundtable on the Future Undergraduate STEM Learning Environment” brought together teams of deans, facilities officers and professors from colleges that are undertaking new science facilities, architects with expertise in designing such projects, representatives of institutions that have built or are building such facilities, and a collection of scholars – such as learning scientists and environmental psychologists – to create an environment designed to challenge those planning new facilities to think more creatively. “A weekend of questioning,” as Arthur Lidsky, president of Dober Lidsky Craig & Associates, called it.

“We want to make them edgy,” added Narum.

Teams of administrators and professors from colleges such as Auburn and Coastal Carolina Universities, San Diego Mesa College, and the University of Massachusetts at Boston were matched up with architects at the start of the weekend, and by Sunday morning they were required to produce “institutional agendas for action” that were critiqued by the entire assembly.

Along the way, participants absorbed a mix of practical and philosophical guidance. Presenters from institutions such as Albion, Schoolcraft, and St. Olaf Colleges and Colgate, Furman and North Carolina Central Universities described their completed, planned or currently being constructed facilities, discussed how they conceived them (in cases such as Furman, thanks in part to participation in several previous Project Kaleidoscope meetings), and offered suggestions for approaches to take (and avoid).

Interspersed with those hands-on discussions were somewhat loftier discussions aimed at teasing out the bigger picture “burning questions” that college officials should be asking themselves as they contemplate new facilities for science teaching and learning: “What does the 21st century learner need to know? How should spaces encourage faculty to experiment with pedagogical teaching styles? Can we build in ways to tell us whether or nor the spaces work? What is the connection between pedagogy and environmental sustainability? How do we inspire students to be engaged in the sciences?

Some of the questions seemed designed to make participants uncomfortable, and they succeeded. After officials from several campuses described how their new or planned science facilities were designed to open up classroom and lab spaces (with big windows, for example) so that people could see what was happening inside, Wendy Newstetter, director of learning sciences research in Georgia Institute of Technology’s Department of Biomedical Engineering, expressed dismay.

She said she was troubled that campuses seemed to be replacing one metaphor that she has criticized -- which views professors as “performers” – with what she called a “museum or zoo” metaphor. “There seems to be this idea that witnessing or watching this zoo actually has an impact on decisions to pursue science or not,” Newstetter said. Is there any factual basis, she asked for assuming that letting students see what happens in science classrooms would attract them? “What assessment has been done that would give you evidence that this visibility movement I’m seeing in a lot of science buildings is doing what you think it is?”

Most of the architects in the room demurred, saying that their profession tends not to do very much in the way of assessment. “We don’t have big bodies of research about the efficacy of what we do,” said one.

But some also challenged Newstetter’s assumption that the “visibility” movement as she termed it was only about having people see in. “Windows work both ways,” said one audience member. “People in the sciences spend an enormous amount of time in those buildings. One of the primary motivations is not to seal people in, to reduce claustrophia.”

Elizabeth S. (Zibby) Ericson, a principal at Kahler Slater, an architecture and design firm, put a literal spin on Newstetter’s “zoo” metaphor. With new buildings with open classrooms and big atriums and lots of public spaces, “we’re going from the cage to the habitat, just the way zoos are getting the monkeys out of their cages,” she said. “Students felt that having the building open demystified science.... There were certain communications or interactions that did not exist before. They were playing in a larger sandbox, a bigger habitat,” just like the monkeys.

For many participants, the unusual mix of those attending was its most stimulating feature. Joe Woodin, capital projects manager at the State University of New York at Cortland, which is in the planning stage of determining how to update its two science buildings from the 1960s, acknowledged that he was “somewhat apprehensive” about the conference, given the heavy attendance of academic types there.

But the Project Kaleidoscope approach of asking the hard questions won him over. “When you first start out as we are, you tend to think, How do we update the things we have? It’s the natural process of human nature that you say, we now have an office here. What it really needs is better lighting and air conditioning. That’s not a vision.

“We need to work a little bit harder to extract those vision kinds of things. What PKAL is helping us start to question is, Do we need the things we have, or should we go in a whole new direction? We were already doing it to some extent, but now we’re really asking, How are we going to teach science in the next 40 years?”

A few years from now, Woodin might be back at a Project Kaleidoscope meeting giving the sort of advice to his colleagues that he absorbed last weekend. If so, he'll be like Thomas Kazee, the provost at Furman University, who was part of the team that described the South Carolina institution's ongoing effort to update its science facilities. Kazee and other Furman officials attended a PKAL workshop several years ago at DePauw University as Furman was just beginning to plan its new facility, and found the meeting invaluable.

"It opened up a whole new world for me," Kazee said. "My background is in political science, but this helped give me the knowledge of what I should do as provost to stimulate the conversations around science education." He was particularly aided by the group's template for how to design the process of planning a new science building, with its notion of a "project shepherd" (typically a senior faculty member who serves as an intepreter of sorts between the academic, administrative, design and construction worlds) and "what questions to ask when, and of whom."

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