McKinney York Architects

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Student-Centered Spaces

As higher education is transformed by online learning, forward-thinking institutions are seeking ways to make themselves more attractive to top students and faculty.  The quality of the campus as a learning environment has become an ever-more-important differentiator in the minds of students and faculty.


“My students now watch my lecture at home.  In class we do homework.”


There is a shift in how teachers engage students in the classroom.  The previous model placed the faculty member at the head of a classroom – the center of learning.  The new model is developing around learning that is centered on the student.  In the classroom, this has driven new types of spaces.  The lecture hall with fixed seats focused on a screen or podium still has its place, but alongside these traditional configurations, more and more campuses are creating student-centered classrooms.  These classrooms are more flexible, allowing for exchanges between students, learning in teams, and access to the breadth of information available within the college and beyond.

The change in the way students approach learning doesn’t end at the classroom door.  The traditional computer lab, library cubicle, and dorm room desk are ill-suited for the social interaction and teamwork that characterizes the way many students approach learning today.  A coffee shop, hotel lobby, or city park can be a more engaging place for students to learn than many of the traditional study spaces on campus.

So what are the characteristics of these successful student spaces?

  • First, they have a unique identity.  In short, they are ‘places.’  They have a scale and unmistakable character that allows them to stand out from their setting while fitting into their broader context.  Think of the Spanish Steps in Rome or Faneuil Marketplace.
  • Second, these spaces have a permeable boundary.  Like a sidewalk café or front porch, they are within the public thoroughfare but subtly set apart.  Students want to have a place at the edge of the action.
  • Third, these places offer choices.  There are places to perch for a few minutes, places to sit alone to engage in focused study, and places for groups of various sizes to work together.  There are places to lounge, to annotate, and to write.
  • Finally, a great place encourages interaction.  Somewhat counter-intuitively, spaces that encourage interaction also allow someone to disengage and withdraw.  People avoid places where they feel they may be trapped.  If they feel they can make a polite exit, they are more likely to open themselves up to interaction.

In all cases, access to natural light, shade (if outdoors), power, and internet are fundamental amenities.  Enhanced amenities such as a coffee or juice bar bring traffic and encourage interaction.  At night, well-lit, active environments provide a sense of safety.  Using these principles, we’ve completed several projects for The University of Texas at Austin that have transformed underused, marginal campus spaces into vibrant environments for learning outside the classroom.

The east courtyard of the historic Texas Union was a stagnant exterior plaza between buildings of different architectural character.  We created an outdoor dining space to provide shade and welcome patrons while streamlining “through” circulation. A steel arbor accented with granite pavers provides a backdrop for the dining area and delineates a speedy circulation path. A new fountain is a focal point and provides white noise for study or conversations, along with a psychological cooling effect on the space. A trellised pavilion on the edge of the courtyard defines a place for larger groups and special events such as rallies or small concerts. Seating areas were planned around the shade canopy of the existing large live oaks. Fixed umbrellas were located for additional shade and to define the perimeter seating areas.

Why is it such a student magnet? It is lively, even late into the evening when the sparkle of tree lighting provides not only a safe environment but a charming one. The space always provided quick access to food purveyors and was on a direct cut-through route for pedestrians, but discrete areas for sitting versus moving make both functions far more satisfactory. The design team brightened the space and provided more appropriate furnishings. The fountain is not just an enhancement; it is an organizing element, the anchor to the design.

Inside, just a few steps away, we replaced an outdated cafe with a comfortable Wi-Fi lounge.  Located near a Starbucks and the food vendors on the main floor of the Union, the lounge serves as additional space to study, eat, or just hang out. An integrated ramp against the wall allows the raised seating platform to be accessible to all visitors and doubles as a queuing area for ticket holders to evening functions at the adjacent Cactus Cafe.

This space exhibits all of the characteristics described above. It is an eddy in a major stream of people moving through the main floor of the Union. It provides many seating choices – high “bars” for short-term checking of e-mail and waiting for friends to arrive; club seating for entrenched activities; café seating for study and pairs of people wanting a bit of separation but also wanting to be part of the action. The character of the furnishings and finishes are complementary to the beautiful architecture and the sense of heritage, and the strong sense of place it provides is integral to its appeal.

Our public lobby and study lounge at the School of Communications replaced an outdated student computer lab with a new space that is all about communication, in concert with the School’s mission. The space facilitates different activities, offering a variety of “zones” designed to facilitate interaction between students and faculty. To set the tone, a wall of flat-screen televisions makes a dramatic entry corridor. It displays donor recognition, student projects, directories, and announcements, and broadcasts local and national news.

The space therefore provides a sense of belonging for its occupants by personifying their academic passions. It forms spaces to see and be seen, places for conversation and study adjacent to the bustle of people arriving and leaving the building. It offers a variety of seating which lends itself toward accommodating the people who are just “perching” for a few minutes, those who want to mingle, those who want to sit together at high collaboration tables and those who want to be a part of all that but also need to sequester themselves into study alcoves. The space offers energy and variety, catnip for students.

At the Jackson School of Geosciences, we carved a new student center out of the existing office and lab building and added an adjacent exterior courtyard which doubles as a classroom and outdoor “living room” for the school.  The program described a vision that included a large community lounge for casual gathering featuring a dramatic 6-foot diameter illuminated, programmable globe.

A sense of place is established with liberal use of stone, which appears in the exterior sculpture, the courtyard walls (recycled from panels removed from the façade), the donor recognition, the mosaic arroyo pattern in the floor, and a giant, 800-pound geode which anchors the far end of the lounge space.  Both the interior and exterior offer seating choices, allowing for different interactions including peer-to-peer learning and serendipitous meetings with teaching assistants and professors.  It is casual and open to students adept at multitasking and processing multiple stimuli.

The courtyard and glassy interior provide perfect places to participate in the vibrancy of campus life, either directly or tangentially.  The building’s prominent location along the East Mall offers an opportunity for a dramatic space to showcase a portion of the school’s rock collection, which is often used for teaching.

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