Facility Design | Feature

Creating New Learning Spaces on a Budget

Think Tank KState

Source: Kansas State University

For many institutions saddled with decades-old buildings that were never designed for group collaboration, updating classrooms with team-oriented spaces is like trying to shove a square peg into a round hole. Sparkling new collaborative workspaces can bust the budget as schools wind up building from scratch to accommodate this new learning style.

Yet a number of colleges and universities have come up with creative ways to update aging buildings and classrooms without breaking the bank.

Kansas State University, for instance, recently transformed its circa-1960s Kedzie Hall photography darkrooms and storage spaces into a vibrant, student-oriented workspace and gathering place. Now known as the A.Q. Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communications’ "Think Tank," the renovated space features lounge chairs, bar-height tables, computer workstations, and a 60-inch flat panel TV.

Andy Nelson, professional journalism chair, said the department spent about 75 hours cleaning and painting the 500-square-foot room, which was renovated during the summer of 2012 with help of an alumna donation, money from the institution’s general fund, and a $9,000 award from the school’s President’s Academic Excellence fund.

Nelson said the previously underutilized space today provides an active, shared learning environment for the college’s journalism students. "We wanted to provide a space where students could come together," said Nelson, "to work on projects outside of the classroom, manage client projects, and go over things in a collaborative manner."

Turning the 50-year-old space into a modern area that students would enjoy took some elbow grease. Deciding whether to smooth out cinder block walls and/or install drywall were important decisions that could have added time and cost to the project. "We felt that the extra expense of smooth walls wasn’t really worth it so we primed parts of the walls to brighten things up and modernize the space," says Nelson. "These are typical decisions for anyone working with existing classrooms and trying to figure out how to best spend their funds."

Students use the Think Tank for a variety of functions. Right now, at the mid-semester point, for example, groups of students, working on client projects, gather at the Think Tank to brainstorm and bounce ideas off one another. Pupils can also use the editing software, computers, and flat screen TV to make presentations, kick back in a lounge chair, or congregate at the bar-height tables.

"It’s a super flexible and comfortable space that’s helped us make the jump into more collaborative learning," said Nelson, "and without the huge time or money investment."

Introducing the 'Teaming' Room

Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, located in Terre Haute, IN, came up with a smart way to turn some underutilized real estate into a spacious work area for student competition teams working on automobile projects.

"We took some existing storage space where the car parts were stored and turned it into a suite of new classrooms," said Kay C Dee, associate dean for learning and technology. "We created a special space for those teams instead of just sticking them in a big, grey, concrete room filled with long, straight tables." The teaming rooms include five pods, round tables, flat screen TVs, and laptop plugs for up to four users. Instructors can stand in the middle of the room and display work on the flat screens for all five pods or work independently with a single pod.

The student teams are working on projects including maximizing mileage on an SUV, developing human-powered vehicles, and building efficient engines that run hundreds of miles per gallon. Prior to the retrofit, the teams collaborated on these projects in traditional classrooms where faculty members had a hard time navigating the room as the teams worked. "Now we’re moving around the room and instructing. It’s a big change," said Dee. Convincing the powers that be to invest in the renovation – which was funded in part by a corporate partnership – wasn’t easy for a non-credit class.

"We’re fortunate that we have a critical mass of student competition teams and we could invest in a space specifically where those groups could work," said Dee, who advised other schools to maintain a flexible mindset when making similar moves on their own campuses. "Flexibility is key. As we go forward renovating other rooms we’ll be keeping this point in mind ourselves."

A New Way of Teaching

When Harcum College in Bryn Mawr, PA, noticed that more of its faculty members were infusing collaboration into their classrooms, the college decided it was time to transform some of its existing space into areas that would be more conducive to group teaching and learning. The school library was one of the first targets, according to Ann Ranieri, director of library services. "A lot of what goes on in the classroom spills over into the library," she explains. "It just made sense to make the latter more collaborative and enticing for students who want to work together outside of class."

Along with a new coat of paint, new ceilings, and new carpet, the library renovation includes the construction of three "tech labs" (former office space) where students and faculty will be able to work in small groups. Currently in the final stages of renovation the library will also include a 2-floor rotunda that’s roughly the size of the building’s total square footage. "The two floors will be allocated to group study and collaboration," said Ranieri, "and will include furniture and technology to support that type of learning environment."

Ranieri said that while the college was generous in handing over three offices to turn into tech labs, her department did have to work through some challenges concerning just how much additional space would be renovated for collaboration. Actually turning that space into open areas without alienating the individual learner and accommodating varied noise levels also presented hurdles. "We found that two groups working close to each other and speaking in normal voices don’t bother one another, but individuals are bothered when situated near a group," said Ranieri. "We tackled that problem by creating the individual tech labs."

Measuring the Benefits

When asked what the top benefits were of retrofitting existing space versus building new collaborative space, all three interviewees agreed that lower cost was a primary driver. Because all three were at least working with standing walls, floors, and ceilings, for example, most of the sweat equity went into the design and renovation of the space itself. In some cases a coat of paint and new flooring made a huge difference, and in others the walls literally had to come down and be repositioned to accommodate very specialized learning experiences.

"Being able to achieve your goals by spending $20,000 on existing space versus $2-3 million on a new facility is pretty much a no-brainer for today’s budget conscious institutions," said Nelson. "With a much smaller budget, some sweat equity, and creativity you can come up with some excellent, collaborative solutions."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at bridgetmc@earthlink.net.

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