| 8 minute read

Beyond the lecture hall: Creating collaborative learning spaces

Elena Galán-Muros
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In our latest episode, we sat down with Brent Miller, Registered Architect and Managing Principal at HED, one of the oldest and largest architecture and engineering firms in the US. We discussed the future of educational spaces and effective facilities. With over 30 years of experience, Brent shared insights on working with higher education institutions to design spaces that foster collaboration, prepare students for industry careers, and integrate sustainability.

In this article, we summarise part of that conversation, but you can listen to the full interview in our podcast:

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Lauren Kroemer-Pope:
Can you tell us more about how effective facilities contribute to educational spaces that attract industry partners and prepare students for careers in industry?

Brent Miller:
We’re seeing a lot more of these types of collaborations between the higher education institutions and industry partners. And in terms of the types of spaces that HEIs are looking for, they want to really simulate what’s happening in the industry.

We investigate things like state-of-the-art equipment and technology, simulated work environments that help the students learn the skills they are required to have in the industry, and collaboration spaces within the buildings that help foster teamwork and communication skills.

A great example of this is our project for the University of Michigan, the Ford Robotics Building. It is a 134 thousand square foot facility (around 12.400m2) for graduate students. The first three floors are all academic, but the fourth floor is leased by the Ford Motor Company for supporting their mobility program. There is a real, close connection between the graduate program and the Ford mobility program.

The facility includes things like an outdoor drone port for testing autonomous aerial vehicles, it’s got a high bay garage space for self-driving car research, an outdoor yard that simulates the surface of Mars to test rover vehicles, and a robotics maker space.

Those are kind of active state-of-the-art equipment technology spaces, but the important thing is also the collaboration spaces where students, faculty, and staff mix together. The space invites those conversations and provides ways to push the technology further.

Another example would be the Iovine and Young Academy for the Arts at the University of Southern California. This was actually part of a gift from Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young, who you may know better as Dr Dre.

This donation came in from the music industry and its mission was to develop the next generation of innovative leaders, to think critically and comfortable in the world of arts, technology, and business. It all started after Jimmy Iovine and Dr Dre developed Beats and had trouble finding potential employees that were proficient in both technology and arts.

They then filled a program, which was much more entrepreneurial than other programs until then, that allowed for industry partners to come in and work with students and to focus on real-life challenges. Their pedagogy is based on the challenge-based learning model, and they really help advance students into a real-life situations. They work collaboratively with partners like Mattel, Adidas, and Spotify, so they needed maker spaces for metal, wood, 3D printing, they have a fabrication studio with CNC milling machines and even podcast studios, which allows the students options to be entrepreneurial within their studies.

Lauren Kroemer-Pope:
It is great to see the broad range of students that are impacted by these spaces, but how does the design of effective spaces specifically help academic researchers?

Brent Miller:
Academic research is mostly based on grants. You may have a program that you are designing for a specific research component but that may change over time, and you need to make sure that research spaces are open and flexible. They should encourage idea sharing and facilitate interdisciplinary collaboration, but they specific programs will change over time if there’s a grant lost, and a new one comes in.

We also do a lot of laboratory work, so we look for a modular configurations that they can change over time and, believe it or not, something as simple as natural lighting helps improve the mood and focus of researchers. We don’t want to put them in a black box and say, “go and research”, right?

Lauren Kroemer-Pope:
Makes a lot of sense, and it’s funny that the very human elements are probably the most overlooked, so it is important to bring that user experience to the high-tech innovation spaces.

Maybe you can speak a little bit more about the shift to digital and hybrid environments and how it’s affecting your work and the aspects of designing effective spaces for higher ed.

Brent Miller:
We are seeing less of the traditional lecture halls; they are not as relevant as they used to be before the pandemic. We need to make sure that we are designing flexible spaces and providing different types of learning environments.

Another project that we did at the University of Michigan is their central campus classroom building. They have a variety of active learning spaces, not most traditional classrooms, but spaces that we have dubbed as “learning lofts” that have movable tables, chairs, technology, and allow the spaces to reconfigure.

Let’s say that you wanted to have a class of 30 students and have a smaller group of four students collaborate right after. You can quickly change the room settings and create small and large learning cohorts within the space. There is also a unique classroom, which is the “classroom in the round”.

It’s a 200-seat classroom with a 360º experience. The instructors stand in the middle of the room and there are four rows of circular seats around them. It also has large format screens around the perimeter of the room, and it’s a very intimate space because even the student in the back is only four rows away from the instructor. It is an innovative and integrative teaching space, also for doing hybrid due to the equipment in the space.

Lauren Kroemer-Pope:
When collaborating with external partners, like HEIs, it’s all about communication from the start. You now have a chance to speak to our audience directly, some of them who might feel this push, they know they need to do something to future-proof their campuses, but they don’t really know where to start. How would you guide them?

Brent Miller:
As pedagogy changes, as social issues changes, as pandemics occur, there’s always something that’s going to affect a campus and a building in ways that you couldn’t predict. Technology seems to be one component that we need to make sure that we are advocating for, creating big spaces for technology because we do know that will change over time. Really making sure that the campus infrastructure can support the technology, that is one of the key aspects of it.

We also look at different types of ways of developing buildings. The Open Building Institute created an interesting process to develop buildings that over time can be adjusted.

Their idea is to have a raised floor system and all the ductwork runs below the floor in a modular component system. That way, if you have to move walls in the future or renovate in a different way, you are not putting the money into things like moving mechanical systems or electrical outlets – which are critical to the success of buildings – and you reduce the cost of renovating over time.

A good example of that can be found here at the Santa Monica High School, which HED has just finished building. It is a flexible space and, as they start to renovate that building in the future, it will be done at a very low cost and in a very sustainable way. We are really trying to make sure that the building lasts as long as it can and adjust over time to different learning requirements.

Interested in more Insights like this?

Head now to our episode How universities can contribute to a more humane society to hear all about the evolution of education, the power of interdisciplinary collaboration, and the pivotal role universities play in fostering a more humane and compassionate society.

You can also find a collection of some of our most forward-looking content on Higher education in the 21st century: Where are we heading?.

Stay tuned for the next episode on this series and don’t forget to follow us on your preferred podcast platform!

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