Computer science surge sparks campus building boom

College campuses across the U.S. are building new computer science facilities that encourage hands-on education and interdisciplinary research.

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Tim Griffith

Space is tight for computer science students at the University of Washington. The program can accommodate only one‐third of UW students who fulfill prerequisites and apply to the major. With lobbying support from a number of big-name tech neighbors – Microsoft, Amazon and Zillow, to name a few -- the university is soliciting state funds to help pay for a second building for its Computer Science & Engineering department in Seattle. With a new building, UW expects to double its compsci enrollment.

UW isn't alone. Colleges and universities across the country have been building new facilities to keep up with expanding STEM – science, technology, engineering and math -- programs. Cornell University, University of California at Merced, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and George Washington University in Washington, D.C., are just a few of the many schools with slick new facilities for computer science and engineering ().

As colleges add capacity, they’re also rethinking how STEM facilities should be designed.

"The buildings that we're designing now are really about engaging people in the sciences," says architect Leila Kamal, vice president of design & expertise at EYP Architecture & Engineering.

One of EYP's newest STEM buildings is at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas (pictured at top). The Center for the Sciences & Innovation (CSI) is designed to encourage hands-on education and interdisciplinary research. Home to six departments, it’s a campus hub for students and faculty across all majors. Tech is on display everywhere, from glass-walled laboratories that let visitors view experiments to an open-air innovation lab (photo below).

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CSI is representative of what many institutions want to achieve, Kamal says. "They're all looking to create a welcoming space for students and faculty to congregate, study and learn. Creating a destination place on campus is a huge theme. They're also trying to advance student and faculty research,” she says. “Nine times out of 10, they're coming from an environment that's highly inflexible and won't support contemporary, modern pedagogy.”

Today’s STEM architecture is a reflection of more contemporary learning methods. Long, empty hallways are avoided. There are fewer traditional lecture halls and more opportunities for hands-on instruction. Labs are on display instead of tucked in basements. Circulation spaces become opportunities for students and professors to mingle and collaborate.

"We're investigating ways to create spaces that are adaptable, multimodal, and flexible,” says Mark Thaler, senior associate and education practice leader at global design firm Gensler. "We bring in natural light, we create transparency between the corridor and what's happening in the classroom. The idea is to create spaces that people want to be in and will learn better in."

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The spaces in between classrooms and offices become “this kind of circulation zone that can be just as dynamic a learning environment as what's happening inside classrooms,” Thaler says.

Flexibility is a hallmark of one of Gensler's recent STEM projects, the SUTD-MIT International Design Center (IDC) at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (photo above). Part engineering laboratory, part architectural design studio and part fabrication facility, the space can be reconfigured as needs change.

It’s designed to accommodate not only programmatic changes – such as more testing areas, or fewer office spaces, or larger student workspaces – but also changes in technology. "As innovation and inventions continue to change the face of technology, architects need to stay in front of that. We also need to stay current with how teachers want to teach now and how they might be teaching in the future," Thaler says.

Given the time it takes to build a new campus facility from the ground up, flexibility is key. "If it takes three-and-a-half years from inception to completion of a building, it's a real challenge to create something that doesn't age out by the time you've topped it out,” Thaler says. "We try to build as much flexibility as we can, both spatially and from an infrastructure standpoint."

The power of STEM

Designs that encourage collaboration aren't exclusive to STEM instruction, but STEM was an early proving ground for ideas about interdisciplinary learning given the natural relationships among the sciences, technology, engineering and math.

“Historically, sciences existed in a chemistry building, or in a physics building,” Kamal says. “You'd go to college and there'd be a sign on the door that said 'physics building,’ and that's where you'd study physics."

As liberal arts colleges, in particular, began to strengthen their STEM offerings in the 1990s, there was a move to combine disciplines under one roof to promote interdisciplinary thought and increase opportunities for hands-on learning. Different departments coexisting in the same building took some getting used to. Once faculty and students adjusted to sharing spaces, the focus shifted to promoting integration.

"Institutions realized -- and we as architects also realized -- that if you really wanted to make science interesting, to make it more hands-on learning, to really engage students in the sciences, the way to do that is to provide places in the building for informal gathering,” Kamal says. “It's a mechanism to keep people in the building and talking about and engaging in scientific discovery."

At a large scale, public gathering spaces are important. Designers carve out dynamic spaces, outfitted with clusters of seating and accessible to gardens, food and networks. The goal is to promote intentional and serendipitous interactions. "It tends to bring the community in, bring other students in. If you put food in it, it brings everybody in," Kamal says. But it’s not about simply carving out a giant atrium. "Where you place them in the building relative to other programmatic elements is really important."

At a smaller scale, students need places to study – nooks with tables and chairs, chalkboards, network access, lots of natural light, and 24/7 access. "The students can’t get enough of these spaces,” Kamal says. “They fill them up, they're occupied all the time. The more we put, they more they want."

Buffer spaces are also important – such as informal meeting spaces among a cluster of faculty offices; department-centric spaces where students can find others in their majors; or gathering spaces outside of research labs.

Another kind of space that’s changing campuses across the country is so-called maker space. These studio spaces have an entrepreneurial vibe. Tools and technologies are accessible to help students conceptualize, develop, and fabricate their ideas. There’s also often meeting spaces for connecting with the business world and potential funding partners. (See related story, “Maker spaces boost student tech innovation”)

These incubator and entrepreneurial spaces aren’t only for STEM students; they’re for the university community at large, Thaler says. Students want “opportunities to meet with other interdisciplinary groups, to formulate ideas, to fabricate ideas, to test and prototype and, ultimately, to meet with individuals outside of the university setting that could help them realize implementations of these ideas," Thaler says.

Gensler recently completed a maker space at New York University, named The Mark and Debra Leslie Entrepreneurs Lab. The 5,900-square-foot space includes co-working spaces, meeting rooms, an event space, and a fabrication lab. "Students from any walk of life can come there and see what entrepreneurship at NYU is all about,” Thaler says.

Maker spaces can help colleges and universities recruit fresh talent, forge relationships with business, and retain inventive students. "They're building them to remain competitive and remain relevant and to keep students who have this increasingly entrepreneurial bent on campus," Thaler says.

Campus competition

The college admissions process is notoriously competitive, and universities are becoming more selective as the pool of qualified candidates continues to grow. It’s not only the most prestigious schools that are becoming harder to get into; it’s across the board. “Everybody is affected by this more competitive admissions landscape,” says Bari Norman, co-founder and president of Expert Admissions, a college and graduate school advisory firm. “Everything is much more competitive than it was even five years ago.”

At the same time, schools are competing to attract students, and cutting-edge facilities can help sway prospects.

Families go on college tours and see impressive new facilities – whether it’s a science center or a gym or a student center – and if another school’s facilities appear tired and old by comparison, they’ll notice, Norman says. “That definitely registers with them,” she says. “Whether or not it’s a deal breaker is an individual thing.”

Research facilities and lab space are particularly important to STEM studies, and an outdated facility can give the impression that a program might not have access to cutting-edge resources. “I’ve had students go visit one top Ivy League school, and then go visit another top Ivy League school, and very clearly the facilities and the opportunities just don’t match,” Norman says. All things equal otherwise, “they’ll pick the one that seems more developed, more up to date, for their particular interests,” Norman says.

As record-breaking numbers of students apply to colleges and universities, campus construction projects are accelerating.

In 2014, colleges and universities spent $9.8 billion on the construction of new facilities, building additions and renovations, according to Dodge Data & Analytics, a market-research firm that specializes in construction industry data. That’s up 20% from 2013, when the tally was $8.2 billion. In terms of square footage, construction volume at colleges and universities grew by 15% to 20.5 million square feet (compared to 17.8 million square feet in 2013).

The industry is still shy of its 2008 peak ($10.2 billion and 26.3 million square feet), but the gap is closing.

EYP has seen growth in STEM projects, in particular, over the last five years. "Year over year, if you look at the projects we're designing, STEM building continues to accelerate for us over almost all of our other project types. It's still a huge opportunity," Kamal says.

From STEM labs and research centers to maker spaces and entrepreneurial studios – schools are transforming. "It's a really fertile time, especially for higher education, to be reimagining and rethinking how they're going to be delivering education," Thaler says.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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