What's the optimal environment for student learning? Ask a neuroscientist

Architecture that sparks creativity, problem solving, and more


Many colleges are renovating campus facilities and thinking about the best ways to design the new spaces to support working, teaching, and learning.

Recent studies of architecture's effect on the brain can offer some clues about design decisions, Nat Levy writes for GeekWire. Levy shares some insights on the subject from John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist and professor at the University of Washington who has advised planners, designers, and architects on incorporating neuroscience findings into their projects.

Medina identifies five lessons neuroscience can teach those in the process of building or renovating facilities:

1. Bring the outside in

We evolved to live outside, but now we spend most of our days in an office. Based on research from Edward Wilson, a biologist at Havard University, Medina suggests adding outdoor features such as natural light, greenery, and fresh air. But people also like having quiet nooks to retreat to for focus and calm, be sure to incorporate more private areas as well.

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2. Ceiling height affects problem solving

The height of an office's ceilings can encourage or discourage problem solving, Medina says, based on research into the "Cathedral Effect" by Joan Meyers-Levy at the University of Minnesota. Individuals are more detail-oriented when the ceiling is lower—but when it's higher, they're more likely to think strategically about big ideas.

3. Colors affect focus and mood

Medina points out that green is the color of plants, and because of our innate human attraction to foliage, the color itself makes us more attentive and calm. Research by Mariana Figueiro of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has found the color blue can also have psychological effects: it  quells melatonin, which is a chemical that promotes sleep. Medina suggests our ancestors only saw blue when it was daytime, so we still become more alert when seeing the color.

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4. Distance between desks affects communication

NBBJ, a design firm that worked on Amazon's new campus and who Medina has advised, is currently focused on the amount of space between teams in a Seattle building they are working on. One of its partners, Ryan Mullenix, says 65 feet is the range at which people consider emailing instead of walking over.

5. Variety encourages creativity

Designers have also focused on variety. Making every space different—whether it is landscaped external areas or internal areas of the office—encourages creativity. "The mind is awakened by new experiences," Levy writes (Levy, GeekWire, 3/21).

Your field guide to active learning classrooms


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