Published June 8, 2016 on labdesignnews.com
In this month’s column for Lab Design News, we explore how utilizing technology in classroom design is evolving the spaces from rigid instructor-centric to environments that promote decentralized group learning.
Evolving classroom design has allowed for a progression in how technology is used in the classroom environment. It’s transformed from rigid, instructor-centric spaces to environments that promote decentralized group learning. Instructional labs have also utilized technology to enhance the teaching environment, with MIT’s TEAL labs as a prominent example. While these teaching labs do promote hands-on learning, they seldom function like the research labs where students aspire to one day work. With that in mind, Payette (with Jacobs Consultancy, Inc.) has sought to leverage technology to create a more realistic setting in which students will learn how to conduct tissue based research. Historically, tissue culture work in an instructional setting has been conducted by students working at multiple stations, each of which was meant to replicate a certain aspect or technique of a typical tissue culture lab. However, there was often little semblance to actual research lab space and students were afforded little ability to control the pace of their studies.
Northeastern University’s new Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex (ISEC) is currently under construction and the first classes are scheduled to be offered for the spring 2017 term. This 220,000 SF facility was envisioned with state-of-the-art, highly flexible lab space to serve as a recruiting tool for new faculty and to foster cross disciplinary collaboration. As a result, Payette worked closely with the University to develop a building program that supported the University’s goals all before user groups were identified. While this added a certain layer of complexity, it also provided a unique environment in which to test new planning concepts.
The approved program ultimately made provisions for two instructional labs to support the ISEC’s core focus areas of pharmaceutical science and bioengineering. While one of these labs would remain more traditional with the idea that its use might easily convert for multiple disciplines, the other was programmed to be tailored to the bioengineering curriculum with a defined focus on tissue culture work. It was this latter instructional lab where our team identified the potential for innovation.
Plan diagram of teaching lab with satellite tissue culture labs indicating student utilization.
Payette’s conceptual idea focused on multiple, smaller learning environments that closely replicate actual tissue culture labs present in research settings (including those within the ISEC itself). We developed a teaching suite of six tissue culture labs arranged in a saddlebag configuration along each side of a larger, central instructional space. This was a clear departure from traditional arrangements and gained the support of the core group of administration and faculty overseeing the program development.
Rendered model view of tissue culture teaching lab suite showing fit out and organization of spaces.
The central instructional space (approximately 1,000 SF) was sized to accommodate 24 students with a fixed teaching wall and movable tables to allow easy reconfiguration as desired. Fixed storage was provided along the rear wall. The adjacent tissue culture labs (each approximately 100 SF) are separated from the main instructional space by full height glass walls and sliding glass doors to maintain maximum visual connectivity; both outwardly for the students within the labs and inwardly for the teaching assistants providing oversight. The labs themselves are fitted out to resemble typical research based tissue culture labs with each containing a 6’ bio-safety cabinet, stacked incubators, bench space for a microscope and centrifuge, as well as a sink. Each lab also has storage space for its own consumables and additional equipment. The intent is to teach students how to work within an actual lab setting while, at the same time, instilling procedural and safety protocols.
Connectivity between the instructional area and the tissue culture labs is further maintained both visually and technologically. Working with our audiovisual consultant (ACT Associates LLC), we overlaid a system of visual connectivity to allow the individual spaces to work together as a singular, integrated teaching environment. Similar to grouped student tables in a typical interactive classroom space, each tissue culture module will be fitted out with a flat screen monitor with the capability to display the image the instructor is sharing in the central teaching space. These can also display input from a local laptop or microscope through inputs at the lab bench. Conversely, at the instructor’s discretion, and utilizing a fixed control panel at the teaching wall, any individual lab can share its local monitor with the projector in the main teaching space or with the monitors in the other five tissue culture labs.
In terms of anticipated process and workflow, once an initial lesson is presented, the class will break into smaller groups of four students. The members of these smaller groups will alternate between working within the tissue culture lab and performing supplemental tasks at bench space outside in the main lab area.
This configuration has the potential to change the pace at which students learn. Multiple tissue culture rooms allow more students to simultaneously experience the same task than a station based approach typically does. Biosafety cabinets in each lab are sized for two students to work side-by-side, allowing for half of the anticipated class to be working in hoods at the same time. Small groups can work at their own pace, pausing and accessing the instruction as needed, without affecting the pace of other students in the class.
One of the most valuable aspects of this environment is its relevance to the research laboratory environment. Students will be trained in lab safety and lab protocols, and every time students use the lab, their training will be reinforced. Access to incubators will allow students to culture their own cells over time. They will learn the sterile protocols for preparing media and for manipulating cells inside the hood to avoid contamination. Immediate access to microscopes in the lab will allow students to ensure that their cultures are unadulterated. They will also be responsible for cleaning up after their work and maintaining a shared lab environment. In a traditional teaching lab, where materials are only available during the lab section time, several of these responsibilities typically fall to a lab technician.
At approximately 67 SF per student, this teaching suite requires 10-15 additional SF per student when compared to more typical instructional lab spaces. However, we believe this design advances the trend of project-based learning and proposes a new teaching paradigm that expands the role of technology. While the central instruction area is flexible and reconfigurable, the satellite teaching labs are robustly equipped to provide students with hands-on experience. Interactive media allows a holistic approach, giving the students access to the instructional overview while they work in a lab setting. Working in small groups will foster collaboration and innovation. These labs can be a resource for independent study as well, giving students the space and equipment they need to conduct their own research, thus reinforcing the link between theory and practice.