How design thinking helped one university redesign learning space

'Lots of flexibility to use the place in different ways'

Design thinking encourages collaboration, bold ideas, and experimentation—and some administrators are bringing the approach to campus, Tim Johnson reports in University Affairs.

At its heart, design thinking is about collaborating and brainstorming solutions to solve a problem. But what characterizes design thinking is its encouragement and consideration of all ideas—even if they are difficult, outlandish, or radical.

"Design thinkers try to figure out what the key problem is—they look around and try to understand what's going on, and come up with some wild ideas, thinking big and bold, on how to solve it," says Cameron Norman, a lecturer at University of Toronto's Dalla Lana School of Public Health. "They assume they're not going to get it right the first time."

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Design thinking's application to physical space design on campus comes as many institutions are digging out from a mountain of deferred maintenance and, at the same time, noticing how classroom environments can affect student success.

Design helps facilitate learning outside the classroom

At the University of Calgary, the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning is using design thinking to renovate its space. Traditionally, the learning process "was focused on the facts and concepts and procedures of a discipline," says vice provost Lynn Taylor. This means most campus buildings revolve around individual classrooms with podiums and chairs fixed to the floors. Students occasionally continue class conversations and collaborate, but the building design forces those interactions into the very limited public space (that is, the hallway) or out of the building entirely.

"There's a sense that more learning probably happens outside the classroom or between the classrooms, than happens inside the classroom," says lead architect Don Schmitt.

Supporting that kind of collaborative learning is a major goal of the renovation. When the institute reopens in February, it will feature a flexible floor plan, with collapsible furniture and moveable walls. The building will also include one large, open space that can transform into whatever is needed at the time: a dance studio, theater, lecture hall, or gathering area.  

Improving space utilization on campus: classroom space

The new design creates "hackable" spaces and much more flexibility, says Schmitt. Lynn Taylor, the institute's vice provost, says that she hopes to bring the approach to more renovations on campus (Johnson, University Affairs, 1/13).


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