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Mitchell showcases redesigned learning spaces

Studio teacher Carol Burns and architecture graduate student Chris Muskopf talk about a model in the new undergraduate architecture studio (Room 7-432).
Studio teacher Carol Burns and architecture graduate student Chris Muskopf talk about a model in the new undergraduate architecture studio (Room 7-432).

In its renovations and redesigns of learning spaces, MIT is embodying the spirit of optimism and commitment to innovation that UROP founder Margaret MacVicar personified, Professor William J. Mitchell said in his MacVicar Day keynote talk on March 7.

The five fundamental principles guiding MIT's construction and renovation efforts are community, intensity, variety, flexibility and ubiquity, said Mitchell, dean of the School of Architecture and Planning and head of the MIT Media Labs.

In his talk, "Places for Learning: New Functions and New Forms," he illustrated each principle by description and contrast, showing historic slides of classrooms at MIT and elsewhere to emphasize how ideas about education and learning spaces have evolved in the past century.

While Mitchell focused on architectural and design principles in his talk, he emphasized that at MIT, these are fueled by a "transformation in pedagogy that is already having a big impact on student and faculty lives."

He noted how a one-room schoolhouse nourished a multigenerational community, but at MIT today, laptops and the web mean every classroom community is international as well as intimate. To foster community here, classrooms must encourage hands-on learning and rich peer-to-peer interaction as well as accommodate new communications technology, he said.

Slides of redesigned learning spaces at MIT illustrated Mitchell's points. For example, the Shakespeare Electronic Archive in a new all-purpose classroom provides space for group discussions and presentations as well as network and wireless connectivity. The Park Room for Innovative Education in the Department of Mechanical Engineering also fosters community by providing spaces for groups of students to conduct desktop experiments together.

Intensity is best realized architecturally in spaces that provide for small groups working together within an open or studio-like setting. Mitchell cited the new Technology-Enabled Active Learning (TEAL) classroom, in which round tables for six students encourage collaboration in experiments, as a successful example of intensity.

"One size does not fit all for teaching and learning, so a variety of spaces on campus is enormously important," said Mitchell. He displayed a slide of the once-standard MIT classroom "selected for its horror--ill lit, ill heated with uncomfortable tablet chairs ... all architects believe people learn better if they are comfortable."

The principle of variety applies both to physical spaces and to the ways in which information is delivered and learned, Mitchell said. New spaces support new teaching methods and vice versa. He cited the Teacher Education Program (TEP) classroom as an example of variety: "MIT students here are learning themselves, and [also] learning to teach," he said.

The Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics' Guggenheim Laboratory, with its radiant open spaces, is another example of how changes in teaching and curriculum could be supported by the five design principles, he said.

A slide of the old Building 20 launched Mitchell's discussion of the principle of flexibility.

"People didn't love this building for its beauty or its comfort, but for its flexibility. What we learned from Building 20's success was that we would need to provide modern services and technology without being rigid or constraining. Frank Gehry's design for the Stata complex does just that: it has a warehouse-like simplicity, special spaces for intensity and variety and visually compelling scenic spaces, too," Mitchell said.

The 430,000-square-foot Ray and Maria Stata Center for Computer, Information and Intelligence Sciences is scheduled to open next year.

Explaining the principle of ubiquity, Mitchell said, "Teaching and learning don't go on only in specialized spaces, but all the time and everywhere here. The whole campus system needs to work together to support teaching and learning."

Images of Simmons Hall and the Albert and Barrie Zesiger Sports and Fitness Center, both of which opened in 2002, showed how new residential and recreational spaces at MIT embody the Institute's guiding principles in unique and powerful ways, he said.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 12, 2003.

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