Integrating Maker Culture Into Educational Environments

Susan S. Szenasy talked with EYP, the award-winning Boston architecture and engineering firm, about creating educational spaces that foster engaged, hands-on learning and making.

A rendering of Lehigh University’s proposed New Horizons 21st Century Learning Initiative, planned by EYP to be a revolutionary learning space that will energize faculty and promote intellectual collaboration between students and faculty.

Courtesy of EYP

Throughout 2015, Metropolis’s publisher and editor in chief, Susan S. Szenasy, led the Metropolis Think Tank series of conversations on the seismic cultural shifts reshaping our society and the importance of injecting a new humanism into design and architecture in order to better deal with emerging challenges. As part of these ongoing discussions, Szenasy engages key industry leaders and gives a voice to different knowledge groups that participate in these processes—from architecture firms and clients to researchers and consultants.

On July 23, she talked with EYP, the award-winning Boston architecture and engineering firm, along with some of the firm’s clients from institutions of higher learning: Bryant University, Massachusetts College of Art and Design, MIT, and Harvard. They discussed the role and responsibility of maker culture and the process of creating educational spaces that foster engaged and hands-on learning. What follows is an edited transcript, prepared by Dora Vanette. Think Tank 2016 kicked off in San Francisco last month.

Approaching Makerspaces

​Glen Sulmasy, provost, Bryant University (GS): What’s going on right now is transformational. We’re answering the call of 21st-century education. Students and their parents are all asking for the maker-type environment. The new generation of students has a desire to work together. All of this is substantially different from the traditional classroom, where a professor stood and presented before a class of 45, 200, 400.

Bryant University’s new Academic Innovation Center (AIC), designed by EYP and rendered above, is envisioned as an immersive collaborative learning environment for all academic programs.

Courtesy of EYP

Susan S. Szenasy (SSS), Metropolis: Many academic institutions don’t seem to pay attention to retraining faculty. That passive behavior fails the institution miserably, especially because students are prepared for change. How is Massachusetts College of Art and Design dealing with this?

Patti Seitz, professor of architecture and head of the graduate architecture program, Massachusetts College of Art and Design (PS): I would say Mass Art is unique. What makes us different is that our teachers are already makers, both in art and design. We have 22 different majors that span fine arts through architecture, and every faculty member is also a practitioner. Second, back in the late ’90s, we conducted a vision study, with the participation of many of our faculty, to see what we needed to change. At that time, we realized that our departments were becoming siloed, and we wanted to create spaces that would require collaboration among departments, faculty, and students within those departments. Our new Design and Media Center is a result of this collaboration. It took many years to get there, but I think that is what the faculty envisioned many years ago.

SSS: MIT is famous for its research. Can we get a timeline of how MIT has been dealing with this issue of making and where you are now?

Robert Boes, senior planner, campus planning and design, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (RB): MIT was founded 153 years ago with the motto Mens et manus [Mind and hand], so we were a maker community from the start and continued in that tradition to this day. In 2010 to ’11, our senior leadership started thinking about how we would continue to evolve as makers. How do we adapt to ongoing change? Students coming in now are very service oriented—they’re interested in and influenced by global affairs. In addition, the student body is much more diverse than before, and it’s about a 50/50 split between men and women. This group is also already incredibly tech savvy when they walk in the door.

One thing we try to understand is what creates the sticky quality that attracts both students and faculty to a space. What makes them want to be there before class, stick around after class, and talk, work, socialize? We found that there’s a village quality that captures people and keeps them in place. One of those qualities has to do with complementary spaces. Coffee and food will always bring a crowd. In looking at the spaces that would cluster around a makerspace, there’s a need for some kind of a forum, a place clean enough that you could bring a venture capitalist in, talk about theories, and a glass wall to show people working on or demonstrating prototypes. There tends to be a great need for meeting spaces, and they’re often team spaces. These two types of spaces have become really critical. A makerspace is not just a shop!

SSS: There was a time when trophy buildings defined the American campus. How is that changing with this new way of teaching, learning, and being?

Nazneen Cooper, assistant dean of campus design and planning, Harvard University, Faculty of Arts and Sciences (NC): A key factor today is flexibility. Another is to hire very good architects—not always the world-famous ones—who can provide the bones of beautiful buildings to a campus that has history and presence. This architecture has the ability to be molded over time as programs evolve or users change or as our new students bring in different ideas of how they want to learn.

Harvard is a university. That is distinct from an institute of technology, where the idea of making is integral to its mission. Harvard has always been about scholarship and theory. The breaking down of a very strict silo effect of disciplines exists, but there are still spaces where more traditional teaching and learning can occur, and then there are spaces which have this innate flexibility that allows students, faculty, and other groups to occupy and change them. The key is to create a flexible space. If a space is very fixed, there is a hierarchy that is already set up. So when students can come in and rearrange furniture to suit how they want to work with each other, or with their faculty, then that empowers them to shape their collaboration.

The Design of Makerspaces

​Toni Loiacano, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP BD+C, laboratory planner, EYP (TL): Every school writes its own formula. For MIT there are spaces that are really just Post-it notes and people working together. Other spaces are more entrepreneurial or focus on fabrication. It’s important to understand the differences. The most interesting and exciting spaces are those that create a sense of community and are really playful. There should exist spaces that are really inspirational as well as those that connect to people and to resources. Makerspaces are a range of spaces, but it’s important to understand safety and processes. Some makerspaces are really laboratories; others might be machine shops or art spaces. That’s why we’re talking about an ecosystem of spaces that create a makerspace. It’s not one place; it’s a collection of places.

For Trinity University’s Center for the Sciences and Innovation, EYP wanted to create a makerspace that would create a sense of community, and connect people to resources, while still remaining playful.

Courtesy © Tim Griffith Photography

SSS: I have issues with the technology fantasy that tells us that we’re heading into a future where gadgets are making everything so much better than what we have now. At the same time, we continue to live in the same toxic places that we have gotten used to in the last century. What do we need to solve first and foremost as we think about makerspaces?

Jeffrey Schantz, AIA, NCARB, science and technology sector leader, EYP (JS): If there’s anything that’s going to drive change, it is energy. Maker buildings like laboratories tend to be energy hogs—they use a lot of electricity, and they need a lot of ventilation and airconditioning. So what we need to do is find ways to deal with the industrial hygiene without adding to the energy equation.

Hopeful Hopelessness

SSS: A common feeling among students is this sort of hopeful hopelessness. They hear and feel that the world is falling apart. At the same time they want to fix our broken world. So how do you, in academia, not play up to apocalyptic predictions, but rather recognize the new generation’s energy and figure out what kinds of spaces and what kinds of programs can tap into that energy?

RB: The first thing I would say is that it’s not just about the space. MIT has an innovation or an entrepreneurial ecosystem, and by that I’m referring to more than fifty courses dealing with various aspects of innovation and entrepreneurship. There are more than forty student clubs. There are endless numbers of competitions, any number of ways to engage the students. We’re fortunate to have a student body that has a hopeful attitude and is very forward-looking. Our challenge is providing enough space for people who are already engaged.

NC: I guess I’m a bit of a traditionalist in this. I do believe it is the sense of place, identity, and institutional memory that is essential in grounding our youth. Once there is that foundation, there is a security to leap from it and do something innovative. I think examples of this are seen in the curriculum at the Harvard GSD, where you have students who will travel to Mexico, India, or other places to address homelessness, lack of food, water, shelter, and hygiene in very innovative, creative ways—small steps that have large impacts—by educating local citizens to do it themselves. But I do believe that when it comes to the institution itself, there has to be a sense of place; you come here because it looks like Harvard. It is what gives the school an identity and the students a sense of belonging. And from that you have the foundation to be creative and to reach out to collaborate and create a new network.

The Metropolis Think Tank series is presented in partnership with our sponsors, Bretford, DuPont Solid Surfaces, Sunbrella, Teknion, and USG.

Glen Sulmasy, provost, Bryant University; Patti Seitz, professor of architecture and head of the graduate architecture program, Massachusetts College of Art and Design; Robert Boes, senior planner, office of campus planning, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Nazneen Cooper, assistant dean of campus design and planning, Harvard University, Faculty of Arts and Sciences. EYP: Jeffrey Schantz, AIA, NCARB, science and technology sector leader; Toni Loiacano, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP BD+C, laboratory planner. Susan S. Szenasy, publisher and editor in chief, Metropolis.

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