Engineered Systems Magazine
Online Exclusive

Designing the Learning Space of the Future: An Engineer’s Perspective

June 8, 2012

The students have changed, and the way spaces get used is changing as well. How do we need think about educational environments to foster better thinking inside them?

Architects and engineers are constantly challenged in the higher education market with the same goal from clients over and over again. “We want the learning space of the future,” they say. What does that mean, really? Before we can answer that, we need to nail down what today’s learning space really is.

Traditionally, the primary location for learning in colleges and universities was the classroom or lecture hall. Today’s learning spaces are no longer defined by those terms. Those spaces will continue to exist, but a multitude of different “back of house” spaces are now used for a variety of different teaching uses and learning opportunities throughout the day. Collaborative spaces in corridors, cyber cafes, or the middle of a courtyard are all examples of how learning spaces have evolved, adding another layer to how engineers approach the design of the mechanical systems serving them.

 

Everywhere, all the time

Understanding that learning spaces are more than just a traditional classroom, we can now answer the initial question. What is the learning space of the future? In short, the answer is: flexible. As simple as it sounds, flexibility can be quite difficult to achieve with the constantly evolving teaching techniques in today’s educational environment. The days of row after row of desks focused on a wall of chalkboards gave way to digital smart boards and projectors quite some time ago. The next evolution of teaching techniques is already upon us, and engineers will need to continue to study and adapt their designs to accommodate this evolution.

The amount of technology in today’s learning space would shock most adults who have not stepped foot in a classroom or library since finishing college or high school. Technology is evolving at an unprecedented rate, and the truth is that the teaching methods and ideologies are doing their best to keep up. This evolution has made both architects and engineers treat every area of a building as a potential teaching space. Predicting mechanical system needs of “what is” and “what will be” is one of the single biggest engineering obstacles in future-proofing the teaching spaces of tomorrow.

Part of what is currently known as the “The Net Generation,” any person born after 1980 has never known a world without the Internet, computers, or a multitude of other gadgets. Today’s average student sent his first email before kindergarten, will have her first cell phone by age eight, and will have joined social networks like Facebook™ before starting high school. The Net Generation has already learned to multitask and handle several different activities at the same time at a very early age. Getting students to stay engaged in the act of learning is difficult enough, and teachers have had to adapt. Students want to experience learning, put their virtual hands on their subject, and be able to manipulate and gather information from anywhere. The learning space has to be a dynamic environment that can be functional in a multitude of scenarios for instructors to deliver their message. Engineers need to understand this challenge and adapt their buildings and systems to be just as dynamic. Our responsibility as engineers is to make sure the physical bounds of the systems we design provide the fewest number of limitations in the future for teachers to implement new techniques for learning.

 

Evolving mechanical system design

The impact of flexibility on the mechanical system seems like the least important thought when designing the learning space of the future. The reality is that it can have a huge impact. Traditional mechanical design has focused entirely on the traditional teaching areas and left the remaining parts of the building like corridors or lobbies to be considered transient spaces. Today’s colleges and universities use the entire campus — both interior and exterior —as learning space. Collaborative learning in corridors and lobbies is just as important as the classrooms. Mechanical engineers need to understand this change and know that their systems will see heating and cooling spatial load profiles unlike the educational facilities of the past.

For example, HVAC systems need to handle a variety of teaching scenarios that today’s classroom could experience. It is possible that art students and their laptops will occupy a classroom one day and the middle of an entry foyer the next. Central chilled water plants and VAV systems have typically been the best solution to allow for this flexibility in load throughout a building. Central plants also provide the energy savings and sustainability that will continue to be common benchmarks for all institutions. The key is that mechanical engineers recognize these opportunities and design their systems to be adaptable to a multitude of potential arrangements.

Research has proven there are significant increases in student performance and teacher retention when improved IAQ and natural daylight are implemented into the learning environment. Educators are demanding their buildings be designed to take advantage of these benefits. HVAC systems need to be designed and sized appropriately with this research in mind, not just for the immediate solution but for future flexibility. Both solar heat gain from windows and incorporation of fresh outside air have major impacts on the mechanical system and should be accounted for.

In addition to the system types and expandability, HVAC controls need to be flexible as well. High performance standards like LEED® and Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS™) recognize that the need for individual control of thermal comfort in each learning space is essential to the performance of students and teachers. Control systems need to be expandable to monitor not just temperature in each learning space but other variables like humidity and CO2levels to make sure both equipment and students are working at prime conditions for learning.

According to the Cisco Visual Network Index Forecast, by the year 2015, every single person is expected to have two wireless devices on their body at any time, and the amount of Internet traffic over non-PC devices is expected to grow 101%. Those devices require a network infrastructure that will be expected in the learning spaces of tomorrow. This equipment and its associated technology closets will need air conditioning systems that are expandable with new technologies all while maintaining appropriate temperature and humidity.

As a result, centralized server rooms, also known as network operations centers, are commonplace on the majority of college and university campuses. The redundancy and expandability of the HVAC equipment for these pseudo data centers is critical to the communication networks that support today’s interaction between students, teachers, and the outside world.

In addition to the mechanical system, there are many other factors that engineers need to consider when designing the learning spaces of the future. Power, lighting, and even lighting controls are all key factors to consider when flexibility is your goal. Engineers need to account for the fact that the way a teaching space is used today will likely change a few years from now as technologies and techniques evolve.

In summary, designing the learning spaces of tomorrow is one of the single biggest challenges facing engineers in the higher education market today. The most important concept that engineers need to remember is that the spaces and technology used by teachers and students is only a tool for learning. Understanding how the resulting teaching and learning styles will affect the design and functionality of these spaces we design is critical. Our goal is flexibility, and our designs must provide it.