Monthly Archives: December 2015

Interdisciplinary Spaces: Redefining Education, Encouraging Entrepreneurship

Posted on by

Paul Orban, AIA, LEED AP, market leader for the higher education studio at BHDP, examines the purposes and benefits of “creative lab” spaces on college campuses that encourage collaboration across disciplines and lead to the generation of new ideas among faculty and students alike.

Interdisciplinary Spaces on College Campuses makerspace at UNC Chapel Hill

Increased competition from online colleges is prompting many to question the relevance of traditional higher education institutions. Do they still provide students with the necessary skill sets to be successful in today’s rapidly changing business world? Is class attendance really essential when electronic courses are readily available?

According to a recent survey of academic and industry leaders by the IBM Institute for Business Value, 51 percent of respondents felt the current higher education system fails to meet the needs of students, and nearly 60 percent believe it fails to meet the needs of industry. Additionally, survey participants indicated college graduates lacked essential business collaboration skills such as analysis and problem solving, business-context communication, and flexibility, agility, and adaptability of skills.

In response, forward-thinking leaders at brick-and-mortar colleges and universities are creating more effective learning environments, incorporating new spaces that encourage student collaboration. In these innovative settings, students engage in a way that builds the skills and the relationships necessary to thrive in the evolving workplace.

Facing a Changing World
Survey results from the Babson Survey Research Group, which conducts regional, national, and international research projects, reveal online learning increased by 3.7 percent in 2014, or about 5.3 million students. In fact, online growth has far exceeded that of overall higher education in the 12 years Babson has been tracking enrollment numbers.

Yet, for today’s graduating student, will a diploma be enough? A 2014 survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) suggests otherwise. When hiring from a college or graduate school, hiring managers are most interested in an individual’s skills, specifically, the ability to work in a team structure, make decisions, solve problems, and communicate verbally with people inside and outside an organization. At the same time, 71 percent of corporate recruiters say finding applicants with sufficient practical experience is the greatest challenge when recruiting from higher education institutions, according to the IBM Institute for Business Value study.

Rethinking Space
Survey results such as these are prompting many traditional higher education campuses to reconsider how they teach. As a result there is a trend to create interdisciplinary or cross-disciplinary spaces.

The emerging “makerspaces” consist of designated areas that allow students, faculty and staff to work together on multi-disciplinary teams. Sharing knowledge and expertise, team members collaborate on an idea or product from conception to production. Often located in academic buildings, but becoming more popular in libraries, these spaces utilize moveable furniture and include various machines and technologies in order to adapt and accommodate different group sizes and project types. Overall, they benefit both the campus and the student population.

Some of the ways these unique spaces bring additional value to traditional colleges and universities include encouraging students to leave their rooms and interact with others. Advanced technology allows students to access information, complete assignments and even communicate with professors, yet, reliance on technology alone hinders the development of personal contact strategies necessary to work with others.

They also build community that helps students thrive in the stressful college atmosphere. College students who interact with more people were happier and felt a greater sense of belonging, according to a paper published in the July 2014 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Additionally, they provide an environment that supports ideation as well as a structured environment to learn the process of “making.” A hands-on space, complete with cutting edge technology such as 3-D printers, allows students to experience ideas from new perspectives. They also invite students to take more ownership of their learning. This leads to greater satisfaction from the process, which in turn, increases self-motivation.

By fostering entrepreneurship, these environments create a space where students can dream and envision opportunities beyond the classroom of today and into the boardroom of tomorrow. They also give students a leg up in the job market following graduation. Simulated business situations such as assigning a team of student engineers, advertising and marketing majors to design and build the next generation tablet and sell the idea, provide individuals with valuable experience businesses seek in potential employees. This means they add value to the institution’s reputation. When students are better prepared for the job market they compete more successfully. With higher job placement rates prospective students are more inclined to choose that institution over others with competing programs.

Finally, they break down the silos of departmental space. By joining forces rather than building walls. Departments share information, ideas and innovations that move the college or university forward.

Making It Work
Changing the purpose of an existing space or creating a new one can be challenging. Dedicated funding is essential to cover renovations, rebuilds or new construction along with initial costs for equipment and furniture. Older spaces in particular often require updated electrical wiring to increase the number of outlets for student is and to successfully handle the demands of modern technology. Of equal consideration are the staffing costs necessary to supervise the space.

Institutions that recognize the benefits far outweigh the costs are embracing the makerspace concept. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is one example. Recently, in collaboration with the Department of Applied Physical Sciences, the university began transforming a previously unoccupied space on the first floor of a research building into the Murray Hall Makerspace (pictured above). The highly flexible, multipurpose area with numerous tools and equipment will provide students with different working areas, from a wood and metal shop to a textiles area. Upon completion of the approximately 10,000 square-foot space, students can explore the design and fabrication process while having access to equipment and technology. In addition, the design includes adjacent flexible research laboratories, along with offices and spaces for meeting and collaboration.

Stand Out in the Crowd
Traditional institutions struggle to compete with online alternatives. But as technology continues to advance at breakneck speed, chances are tomorrow will bring more players onto the field. By focusing on the unique aspects that make higher education institutions stand out from the crowd they can continue to remain relevant in a changing world. Institutions that understand and embrace this important concept are moving forward by creating environments that provide students with the skills and tools necessary to be successful today and in the future.


Paul Orban, AlA, LEED AP, is a higher education market leader for BHDP Architecture with offices in Ohio and North Carolina. BHDP Architecture is an experiential design firm that focuses on creating environments tailored to the client culture and work process. You may contact him at porban@bhdp.com.

To learn more about how BHDP can help your campus create interdisciplinary spaces to redefine education and encourage entrepreneurship, visit http://www.bhdp.com/work/higher-education/

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2015 print edition of School Construction News. Republished with permission.