Instruction Zone: How student learning shapes university building

Eric Wendt

Every campus in the country is accustomed to new faces: a fresh crop of incoming students, the new professors, the visiting lecturers. Someday soon, new faces of a different kind may leave their mark on Nebraska Wesleyan University.

Welcome the crane operator. The architect. The bricklayer.

The university’s Board of Governors has contemplated bold decisions on the future of NWU science facilities.

Should the 46-year-old Olin Hall of Science be renovated?

Should it be expanded?

Or should Nebraska Wesleyan build an entirely new home for the sciences?

After careful consideration of how best to sustain the university’s excellence in the sciences, in May the Board of Governors directed that planning proceed for a new, stand-alone science building. The process for determining what shape that facility might take, as well as when, where and how it will be financed and built, is just beginning. Still, years of soul-searching and reimagining by science faculty and administrators are already reshaping the science learning that happens here.

That evolution will not stop. And as we examine the brick-and-mortar prospects of a new science facility, we will always keep in mind what will truly be built here. Nebraska Wesleyan builds learners. Thinkers. Scientists. Artists. Problem-solvers. Citizens.

That’s who we are.

Beakers before bricks

In 2007, Nebraska Wesleyan University professors from the laboratory-oriented sciences met as a division in Olin Hall to explore what they’d most like to see in a new science facility. By almost every account, that discussion, now four years passed, didn’t go so well.

“We’re teachers,” said Associate Professor of Chemistry Jodi Ryter, “not architects.”

Asking a roomful of science professors to discuss building design was sort of like asking master pastry chefs to build a better bulldozer. The task was, to put it mildly, outside their skill set. Professor of Physics Bob Fairchild said that maintaining that course to guide the planning process would have been “a recipe for disaster.”

Fortunately, the freshly inaugurated President Fred Ohles quickly recalibrated the discussion. Instead of asking faculty to attempt to directly shape a future science facility from the outset, Ohles and Provost Judy Muyskens engaged the university’s new Science Learning Task Force by asking, “What will characterize science learning at NWU in 2020?”

Fairchild praised this honed approach. “They weren’t beginning with the question: ‘What do you need for a new science building?’ Instead they’re asking, ‘What do you need for learning?’”

Think of it as putting the beakers before the bricks.

Fairchild said, “That’s a good approach. It’s driven us to think broadly.”

Faculty from the departments of biology, chemistry, forensic science, health and human performance, mathematics and computer science, nursing, psychology and physics then began an ongoing conversation that is already shaping how they teach—or rather, how their students learn—the sciences.

That distinction between teaching and learning is significant, Ryter said, because it’s easy for faculty to slip into what she called “professor-centric” mindsets. “But a facility isn’t about teaching outcomes,” she said. “This is about learning outcomes.”

And while science faculty may have opinions about things like floor tile, office sizes and natural light, they have much more informed and deeply rooted passions for student learning. This new task of exploring science learning was perfectly inside their skill set.

Ohles’ charge to the Science Learning Task Force dramatically changed the dynamic. “We got really excited talking about how we wanted our students to learn now and in the future,” Associate Professor of Mathematics Kristin Pfabe said. “It brought out the best in us.”

Their best thinking will shape the work of architects who specialize in higher education facilities.

The process makes sense. A clear vision of science learning is necessary to wisely plan a new science facility. But what exactly is that vision for science learning? And, frankly, what role does a building play in achieving it?

To build good scientists

Associate Professor of Chemistry Nathanael Fackler’s students arrive at his classrooms in Olin Hall from a variety of backgrounds. They bring with them different abilities and career goals. Many of them, he said, intend to work in health care. But Fackler’s vision for their time in the Chemistry Department involves something more basic than launching future physicians. “On a certain level, I don’t care what careers they choose,” Fackler said. “I want to build good scientists.”

That deceptively simple, fundamental goal of building better scientists is shared across the science division, extending to departments and programs housed today not just in Olin Hall, but also in Burt Hall (forensic science and nursing), Smith-Curtis Classroom-Administrative Building (psychology) and the Weary Center for Health and Fitness (health and human performance).

A strength of the liberal arts lies in fostering interdisciplinary learning—showing how the things students learn in one field advance their understanding of another. For instance, an art history student’s knowledge of, say, the art of Thailand’s Buddhist temples, is well served by comprehending world religions and modern languages. Such overlaps in fields are at least as significant in the sciences, where a psychologist wanting to understand the neurological impact of a certain antidepressant better know his biology and chemistry.

To continue meeting Fackler’s goal of building good scientists, NWU must help its students to better recognize and navigate the overlaps between disciplines. Provost Judy Musykens said, “We have to ask ourselves, ‘What is our interdisciplinary future together?’”

And here is where a new science facility can truly advance science learning at NWU. 

Demolishing silos

Ryter agreed that science learning is increasingly interdisciplinary. “The really interesting discoveries are coming from these points of overlap,” she said. She’s happy to see more new NWU professors coming from interdisciplinary Ph.D. programs. She said students recognize the value of multidimensional learning partly through the quality and experiences of their teachers.

“We can also make that point to students through space,” Ryter said.

The value of interdisciplinary work can be lost when students rarely see it happening around them. And the way we currently house science departments makes interdepartmental collaborations less visible, less intuitive and less likely than they could be.

The delineations between academic departments in Olin Hall are stark and opaque. A number of professors interviewed for this story in their Olin offices said some variation of: “I just don’t get off my floor very often.” They tended to concede this point sheepishly, as if they were admitting to a personal flaw. But to Michael Reagan, the principal architect of Burt Hill’s Cleveland office and a national expert on the design of postsecondary science and technology facilities, such admissions reveal the flaws of buildings, not of individuals.

Reagan has made several visits to Nebraska Wesleyan University to learn more about campus and Olin Hall and to propose ways the university can meet its current and future needs. He believes that a facility can change the very nature of student and faculty interactions.

Muyskens put it this way. “Open architecture can help us come out of our silos.”

“A science building should espouse that boundaries do not exist,” Ryter said. “Supporting collaboration means taking down the barriers between disciplines.”

It also means having the relevant disciplines represented under one roof. A new facility could house some combination of Nebraska Wesleyan’s forensic science, health and human performance or psychology departments in addition to the ones currently housed within Olin Hall.

It may make most sense for some of these departments to remain where they are currently housed while taking advantage of designated lab space in a new science facility. The Department of Health and Human Performance could make ample use of biology lab space and equipment, for example, while remaining in the well-suited Weary Center for Health and Fitness. After all, in housing the Athletic Department, the Weary Center is the exemplary arena for HHP students to witness and study human performance.

Decisions about potential department moves will come later in the process. “Still,” said Associate Professor of Psychology Jerry Bockoven, “I’m happy that psychology is at the table when science is being discussed.”

Bockoven described psychology’s image problem in American culture. “There’s no Dr. Phil in physics who’s just making it up as he goes along,” he said. “A move would make a statement against pop-culture’s inaccurate notions of psychology. It would let our identity as a sound science be known.”

But a potential move for the department is about more than appearances. Psychology, Bockoven said, is a field fertile with interdisciplinary applications. He pointed to growth in biopsychology, psychophysics and psychopharmacology. “I can see us merging very well (with the other laboratory-oriented sciences).”

The faculty’s emphasis on collaborative learning meshes with Reagan’s priorities as a higher education architect. He said, “To be successful, science, mathematics and computer science facilities must address at least five key attributes including hands-on learning, collaboration, interaction, visibility and adaptability.”

Like the disciplines it would house, Reagan’s five architectural attributes for a successful science facility also overlap one another. For instance, much of the hands-on learning in science takes place in the laboratory. To be conducive to collaboration, these labs must be adaptable to multiple uses and fields. And for that collaborative culture to truly take root, interdisciplinary work must be easily visible to students and visitors interacting in attractive spaces nearby.

The prospect of spaces adaptable to integrated classroom and laboratory work has a number of science professors excited. Ryter described the functionality of a seamless classroom/laboratory space. “I want to be able to talk, turn around and do.”

“It’s about getting away from what (Professor Emeritus of Physics) Bill Wehrbein called ‘the sage on the stage,’” said Fairchild. “We’re going in the direction of workshop-centered, active, collaborative, technology-oriented learning.”

The sandbox

Planning, funding and completing a new science facility is, of course, a multiyear process. And the university isn’t about to wait for a finished facility to begin experimenting with different kinds of learning environments.

Olin 120, or the “learning commons,” was the university’s first “sandbox experiment” in science learning. Olin 120 stands at the busy point where Olin Hall merges with Smith-Curtis via the Olin Lecture Halls. The experiment’s intent was to create a highly flexible study space in this common area where students were free to move tables and furniture and use technology as they saw fit. (The capacity to easily shape and reshape the space is what gives this style of experiment its sandbox name.) Faculty and administrators observed how students chose to use the space. They changed the room’s layout and watched to see how students’ use changed in response.

“This experiment helped us to prioritize working together across our disciplines and to focus on learning above all,” Muyskens said.

Olin Hall’s south entrance area has served as the university’s second experiment in informal learning spaces. While technically a student lounge, this space is geared for work more than rest. Positioned along the high-traffic area immediately inside Olin’s main entryway and just feet from many faculty offices, the space’s tables and chairs are the academic equivalent of shiny fishing lures. The goal is to attract students to study in a space where meaningful impromptu exchanges with professors will naturally occur. And the fish are biting.

“Having that study space so close to our offices has been wonderful,” Pfabe said. “As soon as students have a question, they can just get up and ask. We’re literally steps away.” And as professors walk by, they can casually check in on the students they find working there.

These informal exchanges of ideas with faculty are too rare for students on many campuses. Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa wrote in Academically Adrift (see our review on page 12), “[W]hile 95 percent of college seniors in a large national sample reported having discussed ‘grades or assignments’ with an instructor, 29 percent reported that they had never discussed ideas from their readings or classes with faculty members outside of class during their last year in college.” Among first year students, they said the percentage of students not discussing ideas with faculty outside of class rose to an alarming 42 percent.

Spaces that facilitate these interactions by their placement, furnishings and nature are wise investments in student learning. They’ll play an increasing role in any new science facility.

It’s amazing what you can learn about learning in a sandbox.

Back to the future

Much of NWU’s science facility planning today strikes a familiar tone to Professor Emeritus of Physics Walter French. French’s distinguished career at Nebraska Wesleyan University stretched 37 years from 1951 to 1988. He served as a faculty liaison for Olin Hall’s architect throughout its design and construction. “(President) Vance Rogers and I were the first two who worked with the Olin Foundation in St. Paul. I was active in that process from the beginning,” he said.

“I remember lots of meetings, lots of planning.” He also remembered the challenge of looking ahead. “We had to account for not just what we have today, but what we’ll need tomorrow.”

French’s early-1960s priorities for the future melded well with Reagan’s today. He, too, wanted flexible spaces that could adapt to change. “The goal was not to marry the building to present technology but to leave it open to adaptations.” By any measure, French and his colleagues succeeded in that effort, creating a facility that has served the university well for going on half a century. “Bill Wehrbein complimented me not so long ago for my insistence that we not tie the lab tables down and bring in power from the ceiling so we could move things around,” French said.

French also pushed for a science facility that was forward thinking in its technology. “I wanted to reserve spaces for doing computational kinds of things for students,” he said, referring to essentially a precursor to today’s computer labs. “This was at a time when we were using mechanical calculators. But one company was producing electronic calculators. I took heat (from the mechanical calculator service representatives) for going with the new company. But this was the direction I saw physics going and I knew we needed to be a part of it.”

French recalled the dozen or so years before Olin’s construction. “I inherited a department that had no technology,” he said. “That was a big difficulty to move away from some of the classic experiments which were then fundamental to physics, but weren’t in the direction physics was going.”

It’s ironic and seemingly contradictory, but there’s value in recognizing the historical nature of being relentlessly forward-looking. Fackler discussed the ongoing efforts to modernize equipment in the Chemistry Department. He said the arguments for such upgrades are little different today than they were 30 or 40 years ago. Such moves have always been necessary and expensive. And it has always been important for the university to balance its pragmatism with its drive to modernize.

French paid a visit to an advanced lab in the basement of Olin Hall recently. “I saw people using equipment I know I bought myself in the 1960s. I said, ‘You’re still using this stuff?’ ‘Sure!’ they said. ‘It still works.’”

French appreciated that “if-it-ain’t-broke” mentality that makes Nebraska Wesleyan an especially strong and conservative steward of its resources. But that mentality, he said, cannot become a reason to shy away from opportunities to grow and evolve.

“Staying current is not a new concept,” French said.

Nor is staying interdisciplinary. “I’ve seen how departments are compartmentalized at larger universities,” French said. “At some places, it’s not just the departments that don’t talk to each other. It’s also sub-areas within departments that wall themselves off.

“At small universities like Nebraska Wesleyan, you really have the opportunity to talk to each other, work with each other and learn from each other,” he said. “You have to make the very most of it.”

No matter what shape a new science facility takes on campus, making the most of it will be something every science professor and student at Nebraska Wesleyan will instinctively do. That’s what we’ve been doing for 124 years.