WPI’s New Innovation Hub: Active Learning, Maker/Innovation Space, Entrepreneurship, and Residence Hall in One Building

Design Promotes Project-Based, Hands-On Learning to Solve Real-World Problems
  • Foisie Innovation Studio & Messenger Residence Hall

    The Foisie Innovation Studio & Messenger Residence Hall sits in a high-traffic area in the heart of the campus at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Its unique design is visible to people when they initially enter the campus.

    Courtesy of Gensler

  • Maker Space

    A distinct feature of the maker space is a sense of openness—it has no doors and connects to the rest of the innovation studio.

    Courtesy of Gensler

  • Collaborative Workspaces

    Collaborative workspaces are open areas with moveable furniture and whiteboards, providing opportunities for collaboration among students.

    Courtesy of Gensler

  • Active Learning Classroom

    Active learning classrooms feature display screens and whiteboards on all four walls. Moveable furniture will enable various configurations to facilitate teamwork and active learning.

    Courtesy of Gensler

The Foisie Innovation Studio & Messenger Residence Hall at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Massachusetts supports a project-based curriculum and inspires new generations of students by merging three facility types in one building: interdepartmental maker/innovation space, high-tech active learning classrooms, and a 140-bed residence hall. The $50-million building, slated for completion in August 2018, is designed for use by students from all academic disciplines. It offers a multidisciplinary environment to facilitate hands-on learning; collaboration between faculty, students, and external partners; and opportunities for entrepreneurship and innovation.

The five-story building includes 42,000 sf for the innovation studio on the first and second floors and 36,000 sf for the residence hall on the three upper floors, which form an L-shaped structure that contributes to the unique exterior of the facility. The innovation studio features active learning classrooms, a robotics lab, a global impact lab, maker space with a rapid prototyping center, entrepreneurship space, collaboration space, and café. Faculty offices are limited to those who directly oversee the work taking place in the building and those who serve as advisors/mentors.

“The priorities and initiatives of WPI’s strategic plan, called Elevate Impact, were the driving force behind the decision to locate several of the functions in the innovation studio,” says Jim McLaughlin, assistant dean of student programs at WPI and facility manager of the new building. “Other functions, such as the active learning classrooms, were included due to the identified need for more of these types of classrooms on our campus. The unification of these functions reflects WPI’s distinctive educational approach centered on project-based learning.”

Faculty members who want to teach in this building must submit a proposal and obtain approval from a faculty committee. Classes must be interactive, and students must work in groups. WPI’s management does not want any particular faculty or academic department to assume ownership in the innovation studio. Instead, they want all of the institute’s 4,000 students to use the building and all of its educational, collaborative, and social amenities.

“The activities in Foisie are interdisciplinary and cut across the educational experience,” says McLaughlin. “As such, they are not owned by a single academic department, but by all departments. The process of making projects and the entrepreneurial mindset are infused throughout our curriculum, and in this spirit, we want all faculty and departments to feel a sense of ownership for the activities in the innovation studio.”

Design Features of the Innovation Studio

The building is designed with sufficient flexibility to meet WPI’s changing needs. The open layout includes 16-foot floor-to-floor height with many areas of open ceilings, a row of offices that can easily be repurposed as small conference rooms, additional shaft space for future lab exhaust, and an abundance of power outlets on the walls and in the floors.

The first floor houses the maker space, active learning classrooms, robotics classroom, an amphitheater, and a collaborative project workspace with 100 seats. The second floor includes the global impact research suite, more active learning classrooms and collaborative workspace, an innovation and entrepreneurship incubator, a global projects area, and faculty offices.

“One of the fundamental concepts was that the building needs to provide the right mix of resources—workspace, technology, tools, access to mentors—to facilitate interdisciplinary student teams working to solve global problems,” says Keller Roughton, senior associate at Gensler, the project architect. “Innovation arises out of looking at problems in new ways and having an environment that supports the creative process.”

The maker space is distinctive because of its openness to the rest of the building. It has no doors and is connected to the main double-height, sky-lit gathering space, which connects it to the rest of the innovation studio. It is also open in the sense that it will welcome students from all backgrounds, many of whom have little or no experience working in this type of environment. They will be overseen by a student-staffed help desk, where they can check out tools or get advice on their projects. This is a comparatively low-tech maker space, where students can do early-stage prototyping work before moving on to more specialized maker spaces available on campus.

Other areas of the innovation studio also feature specially designed elements. The active learning classrooms have display screens and whiteboards on all four walls, 12-foot ceilings, and mobile furniture to facilitate active learning. They each accommodate approximately 60 students with sufficient room for instructors to move freely around the tables of six students each.

In the robotics lab, about half of the space is dedicated to work benches and half for test pits, where robots can be assembled and tested. The lab can be connected to the main gathering space by opening a glass garage door.

The global impact lab is a home base for connecting to the institute’s global project centers around the world, where students conduct project work during their third year. It includes a global media lab with a video recording studio and editing suite for students to document their global projects.

The entrepreneurship space is an open area for project teams to collaborate and develop ideas into prospective for-profit and nonprofit business ventures. Meeting space is available for mentors and external partners to advise student teams.

The amphitheater, which can be used for formal or informal events and presentations, can seat approximately 50 students with room for more around the perimeter of the second-floor overlook. The stadium seating area faces a large video display wall comprised of 40 monitors. Below the display wall is a horizontal band of magnetic glass marker boards that can be used for lectures or poster sessions.

All collaborative workspaces are open areas, where most of the furniture is on wheels for easy reconfiguration. There are numerous portable whiteboards available for students to use in the maker spaces and the collaborative workspaces.

Design Features of the Residence Hall

The residence hall—which includes single rooms, double-occupancy rooms, student lounges, a laundry area, and technology suites—operates independently of the academic floors, with its own entrance and elevator.

“While security for the residence hall was an important factor, we wanted to balance the creation of an integrated building while also ensuring the necessary separation between the residence hall and the academic building,” says McLaughlin. “The innovation studio is for all students to use, and we did not want the students living in Messenger Residence Hall to feel that the building was only for their use, especially after hours. Similarly, the residence hall is only for the students who were selected to live there, and we need to maintain the same level of privacy for them that we do for all of our other residence halls on campus.”

Location, Exterior Design, and Management of the Building

The building is located along a prominent campus circulation route, situated next to the admissions offices and at the intersection of the academic heart, student life, and many other residence halls.

“The president and provost made a decision early on that this building needs to have a presence on campus,” says McLaughlin. “It is the place that will show off the pedagogy of WPI and its project-based curriculum, so it is really nice to have it adjacent to the admissions buildings for campus tours. It needs to communicate the mission of an innovative building.”

The building does not have a traditional front or back, and the approach happens at each of the corners. The curtainwall of the innovation studio slopes upward toward a high point at the southeast corner, giving it visual interest and defining it as a separate volume from the residence hall.

“The fourth and fifth floors cantilever out at the northeast corner toward the heart of the academic campus beyond,” says Roughton. “At the southwest corner, stacked student lounges get great views overlooking the quad and sit behind the five-story glass curtainwall. The northeast corner is the residence hall entry with another series of stacked lounges on the floors above.”

The brick, precast concrete, granite, zinc panels, aluminum composite panels, and glass curtainwall take cues from the architecture of nearby buildings, but at the same time the materials are used in a way that distinguishes Foisie from its neighbors. 

Planning and design for the building began in 2015 after it was determined that a gym previously located on the site could not be repurposed. The old gym was demolished, and construction of the new facility began in the summer of 2016.

Input from students and faculty has been important throughout the planning, design, and construction processes. A committee of students, faculty, and administrators is developing policies and procedures regarding the operation and management of all aspects of the building, and an advisory board consisting of these stakeholders will continue to offer input after the building opens.

“The Foisie Innovation Studio & Messenger Residence Hall is designed to both serve our students’ academic needs and support their life outside the classroom,” says McLaughlin. “Therefore, it is critically important that we listen to our students about how the facility can best support them. Students have been involved throughout all phases of the design and construction process, and people support what they help create.”

By Tracy Carbasho