The power of interdisciplinary learning lies in the ability of students to solve problems by taking information and processes from multiple disciplines and integrating them into a unique solution for the problem at hand. This is why interdisciplinary teaching and research is one of the fastest growing trends in science educational pedagogy. Interdisciplinary approaches teach students how to "think outside the box," and how to operate and solve problems in real world scenarios.
The challenge is to create learning environments that foster thinking which transcends traditional disciplinary boundaries. This is the challenge the University of Scranton faced in designing a new unified science center that would house five traditional STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) programs. Currently under construction, the new center includes about 150,000 sf of new construction (estimated cost $75 million, scheduled to open by the the Fall semester 2011), that will connect to 50,000 sf of renovated space (estimated cost $15 million, scheduled for completion by Fall 2012). Upon completion, it will house all the Science and Mathematics programs at the University of Scranton – about 80 full-time and part-time faculty.
All About Integration
It is easy to design a space that houses multiple disciplines: it is just a matter of clustering departments within the same external shell. The power of interdisciplinary learning, however, lies in encouraging productive collaboration among these disciplines. In other words, it is all about integration.
The University of Scranton is a smaller, primarily undergraduate liberal arts university with about 4000 undergraduate students, small classes (average class size is 23 students), and a low student-to-faculty ratio (12:1). As a smaller institution, we had to take advantage of our strengths and leverage our weaknesses to create a facility that would best ensure our educational future. While smaller schools generally have fewer resources (funds, extramural grants, or research equipment), there are certain advantages: undergraduate students can conduct one-on-one research with our faculty in both research labs and in laboratory courses as part of the regular curriculum. This intimate contact builds a strong sense of community, where learning can take place both in and out of the classroom.
Working with EYP Architecture and Engineering, we are designing a science center that leverages our strengths. One of the central themes of our building design was to increase opportunities for interaction between and among faculty and students, and to create non-traditional spaces that increase the frequency of “effective intellectual collisions” among all building users.
Lab Space > Lab Bench
Traditionally, the laboratory is the place where science “happens.” Thus the configuration of teaching and research laboratories is often seen as central to science building design. However, it is important to remember that much discovery in science does not actually happen in the laboratory. Instead, it happens when scientists are thinking about their problems, or working out solutions with their colleagues outside of the laboratory. We therefore had to redefine our idea of the “research laboratory.” While the lab bench is the place where we conduct experiments and acquire data, much of the scientific learning should take place away from the laboratory bench.
Therefore, a critical aspect of designing our new science center was the creation of our undergraduate student spaces. Not only was this a welcome addition to our existing facilities (which currently do not have any dedicated student areas), but these areas will be central to student learning. We moved the student workstations away from the research laboratories and consolidated them into easily accessible spaces adjacent to the research laboratory, in areas that have high student traffic.
This arrangement has a practical advantage: it reduces the amount of “wet lab” space that needs to be maintained, heated, and ventilated, resulting in an overall reduction in operating costs. Conceptually, this creates a comfortable and inviting space that enables students to sit down outside of the formal and restrictive research bench, and discuss scientific concepts and ideas. This provides new and exciting opportunities for intellectual exchange and promoting collaboration.
We also wanted to mix students and faculty from different academic departments. Clearly, this will not take place in research laboratories, so we added several study and “social spaces,” designed to be comfortable and welcoming to everyone. These are peppered throughout the building at locations where students and faculty from the different departments are likely to gravitate.
These opportunities for casual interaction serve as the foundation for effective intellectual collisions. These spaces, therefore, conceptually expand our “laboratory space” beyond the laboratory bench to the student study areas and the social spaces that exist throughout the building.
At the University of Scranton, we believe it is important to reinforce the notion that science is largely a human endeavor. While we had to build traditional classrooms and teaching laboratories to serve our current needs, the spaces that would be most transformational to our institutional culture are the social spaces. In a liberal arts college, the intersection between the sciences and humanities are critical to the educational philosophy.
We are designing the building to provide a physical space that would encourage integration among the traditional STEM disciplines as well as the humanities to drive the development of new pedagogies and engage our students in practices that would prepare them to face challenges in their future.
By George Gomez, PhD
Gomez is an Associate Professor of Biology at the University of Scranton, where he teaches Biology, Neuroscience and Biochemistry, Cell and Molecular Biology. He was named Teacher of the Year in 2005 and was tenured in 2008. He serves on numerous committees, including the School's Faculty Development Board, its Health Professions Evaluation Committee, and the School's Committee for University Image and Promotion. This report is based on his presentation at Tradeline’s 2010 College & University Science Facilities conference.
For further information, see the National Research Council publication “New Biology for the 21st Century,” which provides guidelines for envisioning the future of such integrated educational approaches. These guidelines are broadly applicable for any field of scientific study.
Editor's Note: The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Tradeline, Inc.
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