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Next-Generation Engineering and Science Facilities

Student-Industry Projects and Burgeoning Research Require Bigger, Technologically Advanced Spaces
Published 8/9/2023
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Academic science and engineering institutions are evolving as quickly as the research they conduct and the programs they teach, requiring more equipment-intensive and specialized labs, larger student work areas, and enhanced design flexibility. These next-generation facilities, which are experiencing growth in the engineering, computer sciences, and medical sciences, focus on the future with innovative research, new teaching methodologies, and hands-on learning, in spaces that will be relevant for decades.

“We are seeing increased space requirements, especially for the engineering programs,” says Brian Tucker, principal and senior academic planner at Page. “There is a need for large spaces with open ceilings, but institutions want to use it without dividing it, because walls and separate mechanical systems can hinder future use.”

The new space requirements are partially attributed to a change in the engineering pedagogy over the past 10 years, where lecture-based teaching has been combined with hands-on learning, drawing more interest from industry partners seeking future employees and from students wanting to participate in activity-based education. There is a growing need for more student project spaces with advanced equipment and the necessary infrastructure support.

Tucker is seeing an average increase of approximately 100 sf in the size of many engineering teaching labs compared to traditional science labs. In some cases—such as interdisciplinary, mechanical, electrical, and computer engineering labs—the increase is as much as 500 to 1,000 sf. One metric that has remained consistent over the past decade is the allocation of 58 sf per student in teaching labs

However, project spaces—such as maker spaces, student work, and assembly areas—have increased to more than 70 sf per student. Mechanical engineering and robotics disciplines are often among the biggest users of space due to their need for large-scale equipment and tall or double-height spaces. Robotics, which is becoming more popular, incorporates elements of artificial intelligence and data science, areas that are increasingly growing in demand.

Trending Space Types

There is a growing need for five types of spaces: maker spaces, student projects and clubs, equipment-intensive labs, robotics labs, and computationally driven labs.

Maker spaces – Growth in several fields of study—particularly civil, structural, mechanical, electrical, and computer engineering, as well as robotics—requires more maker spaces. Common activities in these large, open spaces are design and fabrication of student projects in support of engineering accreditation programs, general curriculum, and personal projects. A variety of spaces is necessary to support student making: metal shops, machining labs, woodshops, prototyping, and 3D printing.

In addition to the big open spaces, key design elements include the segregation of activities to prevent hazards, and the use of overhead services and wide or overhead access doors. Allocating space in these areas is often contingent upon how much total square footage is available, what activities will take place, the flexibility of the space, and how many disciplines and teams will use the resources.

Student projects and clubs are akin to maker spaces, but used more for curricular and co-curricular activities and for specific projects, such as building a steel bridge, concrete canoe, baja car, solar boat, or planes for use in competitions. Dedicated spaces are needed to leave projects assembled for a semester; some need to be clean and some need to allow dirty activities; and the spaces must be flexible enough to accommodate different projects with large access doors, sometimes overhead cranes to lift and maneuver projects or large components, and durable, easily maintained finishes. Some space may require additional specialization: Construction of the concrete canoe, for example, would require temperature control and access to water to create the mix and carefully cure the concrete.

“These different projects, whether it is a human-powered vehicle or a plane, give students the ability to work in interdisciplinary teams and build a rapport across years and disciplines,” says Melissa Burns, principal and senior academic planner at Page.

Equipment-intensive labs can include fluids and thermodynamics, materials, advanced manufacturing, sustainability, and energy. Designing these large spaces often requires overhead services, special exhaust connections, large heat loads, special chemical hazard mitigation, and the inclusion of wind tunnels and large water tanks. The spaces need to accommodate zones for teaching, equipment, and simulation, and even offer flexibility in case students need to leave their projects assembled for a certain time. The specialization of such labs is driving the demand for larger spaces.

“We have been doing a lot of advanced manufacturing spaces with that big push from industry for students to understand what is happening on the factory floor,” says Tucker. “This space requires a large amount of square footage, a huge instrument area with major pieces of equipment, a teaching area, and space for project work.”

An addition to the science complex at The College of New Jersey epitomizes a facility that requires equipment-intensive labs, with a large wind tunnel and water tanks that occupy the 80-foot-deep flexible lab block. Tall spaces with open ceilings allow the college to incorporate large equipment setups with ease.

Robotics labs are becoming increasingly popular and are usually designed with extra height, some as tall as multiple stories, with netting to protect lighting and sprinklers from flying objects; perimeter truss support systems or rails to hang equipment or motion-capture cameras; plenty of power and data resources; and adjacent assembly or support labs. The design of these spaces also must consider light sensitivity, privacy when necessary, and the ability to showcase the work when appropriate.

The new Life Sciences and Engineering Building at George Mason University, slated for completion in late 2024, will include instructional spaces for robotics, advanced manufacturing, materials characterization, and sustainability, as well as maker spaces and dedicated spaces for student projects.

“Project bays are included at George Mason for large student projects, as well as large, shared assembly space for more mobile or short-term student projects,” says Burns. “Design features include a double-height testing area for robotics, plentiful overhead services, and visibility into the instructional spaces.”

Computationally driven labs often combine computers with small and clean fabrication and construction activities like electronics, artificial intelligence, and sensitive government-related research using compartmentalized and shielded spaces. Secure research space is a big driver for institutions, particularly with grant money coming from the federal government.

The computer coding and programming in the computationally driven labs involves individuals with these particular technical skills, so it is important to create a good working environment with amenities to retain these people or compete with recruitment from private industry.

“We want to create a dynamic hub space that draws researchers, students, and staff into the space with a vibrant environment that features different types of working and gathering spaces to accommodate from one person to many people,” says Tucker.

Driving the Need for Bigger, Better Spaces

Five drivers are pushing the new space needs: entrepreneurship and industry, resource optimization, hands-on learning, space needs for student projects and research, and bolstering the student experience.

Entrepreneurship and industry partners are fueling the need for a variety of spaces, providing both money and experience to support capstone projects. The partnership between industry and academia enables institutions to create a talent pipeline for companies.

The design elements required for this driver feature planned amenity spaces; dedicated project space, which may be either visible to the public and other students or in a more secure location; and a diversity of meeting spaces, including large multi-use areas for events and smaller rooms.

With resource optimization, institutions invest in special equipment and lab resources to be shared by research groups instead of dedicated to one researcher, thereby fostering more interdisciplinary collaboration. Collocating expensive equipment, infrastructure, and other resources makes sense financially. Johns Hopkins University’s new imaging suite is highlighted by a central corridor that features 10 high-end instrument rooms containing multimillion-dollar equipment that has been brought from across the campus to focus on efficiency and to optimize grant dollars and staffing.

George Mason University’s FUSE Building, a new academic-industry hub for digital innovation, offers a core of specialized labs: high-bay labs, robotics, simulation spaces, and secure work areas, as well as visualization and media spaces for use by both the institution and industry partners. A startup company unable to build a robotics lab would be an ideal candidate to use the space.

Mason is also using resource optimization on the teaching side by bringing together specialized teaching labs in one facility for use by multiple departments, rather than locating them in separate buildings. Shared spaces need to be larger to accommodate more equipment and activities, and require additional storage and preparation areas. It is essential to design the facility around shared activities and performance characteristics.

“Our third driver is hands-on learning, being able to have students work on a series of activities at one time instead of a more didactic activity or direction from a faculty member,” says Burns. “Keeping things fixed at the perimeter and movable in the middle allows different groups to come in and for that space to be flexible over time.”

Hands-on learning requires a design with a combination of lecture spaces for classroom activities and labs for research and experiments. A network of space types—such as space for collaborating around a table, machine shop, support spaces, prototyping areas, and being able to roll a project outside—must be available to support and adapt to the iterative process.

Providing optimal space for student projects and research requires enough flexibility to offer public/visible and secure/closed areas, individual work rooms, and group collaboration zones. Research can take precedence over student co-curricular activities as a result of funding, but institutions and accreditation systems are now requiring dedicated student project spaces. This makes it imperative to provide first-class research space accessible to students, and to create dedicated project spaces.

Giving students the work space they need to be productive and providing areas they can call home in an attractive and welcoming environment is part of bolstering their experience. The quality of the facilities and the faculty relationship with students are also important to an institution’s goal of maintaining its enrollment numbers and recruiting new students and faculty.

“Older engineering buildings with cinder block walls lining the corridors were built to keep the mess inside, but now the ability to see into those spaces helps you see another peer who is doing something difficult,” says Burns. “It also provides opportunities for collaboration spaces in that corridor, and that makes it an environment where students succeed and the retention rates are higher.”

By Tracy Carbasho