Designing Spaces for Today's Students

“Learners in supportive environments have high levels of self efficacy and self-motivation and use learning as a primary transformative force.” — Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1989

Since the late 1980s, college administrators and architects who design higher-education facilities have trained their sights on creating learning environments that support greater student engagement and enhance student collaboration. But only recently has the impetus to extend such learning environments beyond the classroom and into service, study, and social spaces throughout buildings on campus taken hold.

Two new college projects exemplify the depth and variety of strategies that architects are currently deploying to design learning environments that transform student achievement and attitudes toward learning.

The Science Teaching and Student Services Center (STSSC), on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River in Minneapolis on the University of Minnesota campus, showcases the latest pedagogical methods and the University’s commitment to the student experience by providing spaces for studying and social interaction.

The Chaffey College School of Visual, Performing, and Communication Arts Village, nestled in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains in Rancho Cucamonga, CA, is an arts neighborhood designed to foster inspiration and discussion between students, faculty, and the larger arts community.

Science Teaching and Student Services Center: Site, Circulation, and Flexibility
Kohn Pederson Fox (KPF) and HGA Architects and Engineers worked together in creating the STSSC. The team organized the five-story STSSC with a bar of classrooms on the east side, which faces the historic University of Minnesota campus. A zone of more informally organized student service programs, study spaces, and meeting spaces on the west side offers students, staff, and faculty inspiring and panoramic views of the Mississippi River and downtown Minneapolis skyline.

In the workplace setting, architects have long designed informal areas for staff brainstorming and casual gatherings on open staircases, adjacent to offices, and in informal lounges. Similarly, the team of KPF and HGA designed spacious and light-filled public circulation areas and a dramatic atrium with vertical circular stair that connects classrooms on each level to bring students together for spontaneous or planned interaction.

Throughout the STSSC, the interior architecture balances transparency for light, airy interiors, and views to the outdoors with gradations of acoustical privacy and visual security. A full height sculptural wall defines the classroom corridors on the east side; to the west, transparent and translucent glass open up the corridor to light and views. Waiting areas outside the classrooms double as after-hours student study space or gathering places for working on team assignments. 

Teaching spaces were designed for maximum flexibility and future adaptability. To accommodate educational practices ranging from traditional lecture (with tiered classrooms) to interactive or project-based teaching configurations, the classrooms incorporate raised floors that house HVAC ductwork and electrical cables for technology; movable partitions for easy space reconfigurations; and technology-enriched chairs and tables that are grouped to promote interactive, collaborative learning opportunities.
To ensure the STSSC’s long-term flexibility and adaptability, different educational methods and strategies used in the classroom environment, as well as strategies for engagement and interaction in social and study environments, were examined. In light of these variations, fixed and flexible programmatic systems in STSSC’s interiors were balanced for efficiency, organization, and clarity. Their programming resulted in fluid, dynamic spaces that connect students with each other, their professors, and with great ideas, thus transforming learning into an immediate and everyday experience.

Chaffey College School of Visual, Performing, and Communication Arts Village

Two new buildings designed by HGA are the keystones in Chaffey College’s master plan to create an “Arts Village” that consolidates its diverse creative and communications programs which were formerly scattered across campus. The team created this state-of-the-art village to transform learning through architecture that promotes interdisciplinary interaction and creative collaboration — integrating students, faculty, and staff from the drama, music, communications, broadcast, multimedia, interior design. and visual arts departments.

The first steps in giving built form to this ambitious master plan were the design and construction of a new Music Building and a new Art Center. Overall, both buildings were designed to generate inspiration through open circulation, views to the outdoors, and abundant natural light.

The Art Center for dance, visual arts, and digital media sits at the foothill, strategically oriented as the village gateway on the northern perimeter. The Art Center frames views of the mountains to the north and outdoor stairs that cascade down through the village to the south. A glass-walled, two-story student gallery at the Art Center’s main entrance exposes passersby to campus art exhibitions and serves as a dramatic events space.

To take additional advantage of the natural context, HGA incorporated glass bi-fold doors in the dance and art studios, which fully open to mountain views while expanding the program performance space to the outdoors. When the doors are open, a patio provides for audience seating while the 40-ft.-wide door opening functions as the dance studio’s proscenium stage for performances, thus turning the studio into an al fresco recital hall.

Elsewhere in the Art Center, gathering spaces, expansive windows, and easy building access to encourage interdisciplinary interaction between students from different departments were included. The department classrooms are organized according to lighting needs in order to take advantage of the site’s natural slope. Classrooms requiring artificial light, for example, were pushed into the hill or on the south face. Departments requiring natural light were positioned on the glass-walled north side.

Challenged with creating a sense of interaction and transparency despite the Art Center’s many light-sensitive black-box spaces — including a lecture hall and broadcasting, digital media, photography, and multimedia studios — HGA worked to maximize views to the outdoors and utilized the site’s topography to meet programmatic needs while highlighting entrances and exits.

The other new structure in the village, the Music Building, steps down toward the lower side of the site and defines the eastern perimeter. A two-story-high rehearsal space for instrumental music includes acoustical ceiling panels and flexible seating to accommodate a variety of rehearsal needs and teaching modalities. A smaller rehearsal space for choral music is similarly designed for acoustical acuity.

Floor-to-ceiling windows cut into the building’s four corners maintain clear connections between creative activities occurring inside the building and the curiosity of passersby. In fact, the interior and exterior circulation patterns generated by the Music Building and the Art Center inspire pedestrians to walk through and passed the new buildings, thus reinforcing gathering areas within the village while fostering interdisciplinary interaction among students and faculty.

The addition of the two buildings strengthens the developing Arts Village, enabling the college to meet its strategic goals of promoting arts on campus while creating an arts community that inspires students and faculty as they contribute to their on-campus culture and the greater community.

Inspiring Transformative Learning

By extending learning environments beyond classrooms and into study and social spaces throughout buildings on college campuses, HGA has created non-traditional areas for continuous learning. STSSC on the Minneapolis campus at the University of Minnesota showcases dynamic, light-filled circulation and study spaces with views to the historic campus and Mississippi River for inspiration and social interaction.

The two new buildings anchoring Chaffey College’s Arts Village foster collaboration and creative innovation between students, as well as spontaneous interaction between learners, staff, and faculty, against the majestic backdrop of the San Gabriel Mountains. Through the depth and variety of strategies deployed in creating these interior environments, student achievement levels and learning attitudes continue to improve, as creative engagement becomes a part of students’ everyday lives.

Bill Blanski, AIA, is a design principal and Steven Dwyer, AIA, is a senior project designer at HGA Architects and Engineers, a full-service architecture, engineering, and planning firm. HGA has more than 150 LEED-Accredited Professionals in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Sacramento, CA; Minneapolis and Rochester, MN; and Milwaukee, WI. For further information, visit HGA.

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