Trends in Learning Space Ratios in Medical Science Buildings

Medical Students Want More Informal Places to Study, Collaborate
Published 4-24-2012
  • Configurable Furniture

    Clinical skills pods at Emory School of Medicine have moveable furniture so students can configure them however they want.

    Copyright Jonathan Hillyer, Courtesy of The S/L/A/M Collaborative

  • Elbow Room

    Wherever students work, they want tables to spread out their laptops, books, cell phones, and food.

    Copyright © Bryan Meltz, Courtesy of Emory University and The S/L/A/M Collaborative

  • Resource Room

    The resource room at the University of Georgia’s College of Pharmacy has the feel of a traditional library.

    Copyright Robert Benson Photography, Courtesy of The S/L/A/M Collaborative

Graduate students in the health sciences are very clear about the kinds of spaces where they learn best: Well-lit rooms with plenty of table space; comfortable, moveable furniture, and convenient power sources. And more often than not, they want their classmates there, too.

Collaborative space, also called informal learning space, is becoming ubiquitous at medical educational facilities. The need for it is so great that even formal instructional space is co-opted by students after class, so that it too must be designed for flexibility and collaboration.

“There are a number of really good reasons to collaborate,” says Mary Jo Olenick, chief of strategic planning for The S/L/A/M Collaborative. “Generational styles and preferences favor collaboration. It promotes innovation and models the team-based work environment that our students are going into after graduation.”

In order for students to collaborate, they need to interact, and that occurs naturally in buildings that are more densely populated. Medical schools, however, are among the least densely populated because of the proliferation of lab space and the low utilization of instructional seating. A typical lab building has 650 gsf per person, whereas office buildings contain an average of 250 gsf per person, and the ratio drops to 100 gsf per person in a typical classroom building.  A medical education facility could average more than 500 gsf per person, putting significant distance between occupants and diluting the human energy that so important to community building.

Grad students spend much more time in one facility than undergraduates who have classes in many departments. Undergraduate science buildings typically contain one collaborative seat for every eight to 12 instructional seats, whereas professional schools program as many as one-third of their seats for informal learning.

“One of the challenges in creating collaborative spaces is to bring people together when they are in this kind of a geography,” says Olenick.

Graduate students consider their building their “home” and they access it 24 hours a day, so it is critical that the facility contain the right mix of informal learning environments as magnets for students: study spaces where they can work quietly for extended periods of time either alone or in groups, apart from the hubbub of the building; breakout space located in the midst of hallways, research labs, and offices where they may “touch down” between classes or work in small groups as part of a class; and social space which is critical to creating a sense of community.

Collaborative learning clearly happens in all three types of spaces, but planners should be aware that multi-purpose spaces will not do the job of three separate types of collaborative space, says Olenick. Students say they need all three types to be available, convenient, and properly outfitted.

Study Spaces Replacing Traditional Libraries

The Emory University School of Medicine, Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health and the University of Georgia College of Pharmacy serve as case studies for effective collaborative space. All three occupy new buildings opened since 2008, and all have rapidly growing enrollments. Surveys reveal that students value study spaces highly, and that they would like more small, isolated spaces to study alone or in a small group. Ideally, they want fully half of the informal learning space to be study space of some kind, with another 30 percent as breakout space and 20 percent designated as social space.

In all cases, the availability of tables is paramount. At Emory’s Rollins School, collaborative spaces were furnished with attractive and comfortable tablet chairs: upholstered chairs with a small side boards to use as a work surface.

“The students hated them,” says P. Dean Surbey, associate dean for administration and finance at Rollins. “We thought it looked cool but it is not serving their needs with a laptop, a book, and a phone. They want a table that they can sit around with five other people and not the tablet arm thing. We’re in the process of replacing them.”

The resource center at the University of Georgia College of Pharmacy looks for all intents and purposes like a library. In contains bookshelves with reference materials that are not available digitally and journals and other periodicals with prohibitively expensive online subscriptions. A row of tables, each seating eight, fills the middle of the room, which is flooded with natural light. Smaller alcoves can be found along the perimeter, as well as 30 computer stations and seven walled-off group study rooms with white boards, tables, and chairs.

“The room has great acoustics, so even when people are working together, it’s very quiet,” says George Francisco, associate dean of the college.

In some ways, study spaces within medical schools are replacing traditional libraries.

“A library as a place to study is coming back, but a library as a place to store books is becoming obsolete,” says S/L/A/M's Sidney Ward. “A library could be anywhere because the collections are online. Students are acquiring a lot of content outside the classroom, and that content has such a short shelf life.”

Some of this content is the professor’s own lectures, which many record for students to stream or download so that class time can be spent on more interactive activities. Perhaps a sign of the digital age in which students now live, students consider any solitary study activity “reading,” including listening to a lecture online.

Learning After Hours in Classrooms

Medical students seem to work 24 hours a day, and building access must reflect that. When classes are not in session, instructional space morphs into collaborative space.

“If you come in on Saturday, you’ll see every classroom in use as a collaborative space,” says Surbey. “To facilitate that, everything is on wheels – tables, chairs – just let them configure the space however they want.”

“If you provide space, you need to provide the opportunity to change the space throughout the day,” he says. “I don’t like to have a space that’s only for one use.”

Being able to repurpose instructional space into collaborative space is especially important for schools that lack a big facilities budget, says Olenick.

That was the case at the University of Georgia. All the classroom furniture at the College of Pharmacy is moveable, and there are 10 multipurpose rooms that can be used for hands-on instruction and practice during the day and collaborative study space after hours. Each room includes four workstations where students can compound drugs, and a Murphy bed for physical exams. The mattress can be removed from the bed to create a table for individual and group work.

Ward stresses that collaborative space is not a frill; it is a critical training device for students.

“The number one thing employers ask for is people who have the ability to work within a team,” he says. Skills like that used to be called “soft skills” because they were valued less than the content of a person’s knowledge base. But information changes so rapidly in science and medicine that what a person learns in college can be obsolete within a year or two.

“These soft skills, like the ability to work in a team and collaborate, are rising to the top now,” he says. “And you can’t teach someone to do that in the classroom. They need to learn how to do it themselves like they will do it in the real world. Providing these kinds of collaborative spaces is really integral to the educational process. It is not icing on the cake.”

By Lisa Wesel 

This report is based on a presentation given by Olenick, Ward, and Surbey at the Tradeline Academic Medical and Health Science Centers 2011 conference in December.