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Computer science surge sparks campus building boom

Ann Bednarz | March 24, 2015
College campuses across the U.S. are building new computer science facilities that encourage hands-on education and interdisciplinary research.

The spaces in between classrooms and offices become "this kind of circulation zone that can be just as dynamic a learning environment as what's happening inside classrooms," Thaler says.

Flexibility is a hallmark of one of Gensler's recent STEM projects, the SUTD-MIT International Design Center (IDC) at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (photo above). Part engineering laboratory, part architectural design studio and part fabrication facility, the space can be reconfigured as needs change.

It's designed to accommodate not only programmatic changes such as more testing areas, or fewer office spaces, or larger student workspaces but also changes in technology. "As innovation and inventions continue to change the face of technology, architects need to stay in front of that. We also need to stay current with how teachers want to teach now and how they might be teaching in the future," Thaler says.

Given the time it takes to build a new campus facility from the ground up, flexibility is key. "If it takes three-and-a-half years from inception to completion of a building, it's a real challenge to create something that doesn't age out by the time you've topped it out," Thaler says. "We try to build as much flexibility as we can, both spatially and from an infrastructure standpoint."

The power of STEM
Designs that encourage collaboration aren't exclusive to STEM instruction, but STEM was an early proving ground for ideas about interdisciplinary learning given the natural relationships among the sciences, technology, engineering and math.

"Historically, sciences existed in a chemistry building, or in a physics building," Kamal says. "You'd go to college and there'd be a sign on the door that said 'physics building,' and that's where you'd study physics."

As liberal arts colleges, in particular, began to strengthen their STEM offerings in the 1990s, there was a move to combine disciplines under one roof to promote interdisciplinary thought and increase opportunities for hands-on learning. Different departments coexisting in the same building took some getting used to. Once faculty and students adjusted to sharing spaces, the focus shifted to promoting integration.

"Institutions realized -- and we as architects also realized -- that if you really wanted to make science interesting, to make it more hands-on learning, to really engage students in the sciences, the way to do that is to provide places in the building for informal gathering," Kamal says. "It's a mechanism to keep people in the building and talking about and engaging in scientific discovery."

At a large scale, public gathering spaces are important. Designers carve out dynamic spaces, outfitted with clusters of seating and accessible to gardens, food and networks. The goal is to promote intentional and serendipitous interactions. "It tends to bring the community in, bring other students in. If you put food in it, it brings everybody in," Kamal says. But it's not about simply carving out a giant atrium. "Where you place them in the building relative to other programmatic elements is really important."


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