Magazine article Matrix: The Magazine for Leaders in Higher Education

When Mind Sparks Mind Building the Future at Agnes Scott College: Merging Tradition with High-Tech Was the Goal in Creating New Learning Spaces at a School That Hadn't Seen a New Building in 30 Years

Magazine article Matrix: The Magazine for Leaders in Higher Education

When Mind Sparks Mind Building the Future at Agnes Scott College: Merging Tradition with High-Tech Was the Goal in Creating New Learning Spaces at a School That Hadn't Seen a New Building in 30 Years

Article excerpt

When Mary Brown Bullock, president of Atlanta's Agnes Scott College, talks about the new and renovated buildings on her campus, it is with an eye to both the past and the future. She quotes the words of Katherine Marshall, an Agnes Scott alumna from the first half of the 20th century who referred to the moment when "mind sparks mind"--when the interaction between students and faculty makes learning more than the sum of its parts.

"Learning is individual, but it is also corporate," Bullock says. When she took office with the task of increasing enrollment from 600 students to 1,000 (aiming for a capacity of 1,300), Bullock set out to create an environment where the women of Agnes Scott could experience the kind of learning synergy that Marshall had described 70 years earlier.

The Importance of Space

Bullock had a large task in front of her: increase the learning space on a campus that had not seen a new building in 30 years, add technology, and respect the historic appearance of the campus. A tall order, and one that called for a new approach to the use of space.

"Space is important to what we do, both in terms of conduciveness for personal and interpersonal interaction," Bullock says. So, the architects hired by Agnes Scott spent a great deal of time examining how those spaces would be used. The team observed students as they studied in groups and alone, watching them pull chairs together to form a study group or throw their legs over chair arms to create a comfortable solo position. They considered the nooks that were used for togetherness and those used for privacy.

What emerged from the observation was a new way of creating learning spaces--buildings that combined the technological needs of the students with the classic look of the campus to create. Take the McCain library expansion, for example.

"Noise is no longer verboten in the library," Bullock says. Instead, students are encouraged by the architecture to find places to work together. And technology has also been welcomed into the conversation: "[Students] can plug in a computer but also can sit by a fireplace."

Keeping the fireplaces intact was part of the overall plan to respect the existing architecture of the library, which was originally constructed in American Collegiate Gothic style. When expansion plans were made to double the size of the existing library, one plan called for altering the large, formal reading room, a hallmark of that style. However, a decision was made to retain the classic room and add space in other ways. Today, the library includes not just the traditional reading room but a reading terrace and high-tech computer labs.

"I have a profound belief that spaces affect behavior," says Fran Fergusson, president of Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and an architectural historian by training. She has seen the effect that a physical environment can have on learning through observing Vassar's own classroom and study spaces, many of which have been remodeled to encourage what she terms "transactional learning." "People have to become engaged" in these spaces, she says.

Building these spaces reflects the expectations of learners in the university environment. "Students now think of themselves as learning in groups and teams," Fergusson says. She has noticed that "the `murmurous' quality of the library," in which students congregate to study together, has replaced the "dead quite of yesteryear. …

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