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It Takes an Academic Village

Feb. 27, 2015

Residential learning communities enhance the student experience

One of the most critical challenges facing our educational system is attracting and retaining quality students from all walks of life. More often, young people are questioning the value of higher education. College enrollments have been in decline for several years, and competition for new admissions is immense. Costs and student debt keep increasing while opportunities for new grads have not kept pace.

Average students may take five or more years to complete an undergraduate degree, while the risk of dropping out before graduation grows. This worrisome trend bodes serious consequences for our youth, profession, and society. Providing students with a stimulating and engaging learning experience has become a major priority.

Cultivating Learning Communities
Many colleges have found success in offering students specialized shared cohort learning experiences, called learning communities (LCs), which integrate curricular and extracurricular activities and provide a context for both intellectual and social development. Student participation in LCs is associated with enhanced general education and social life, notes Oscar Lenning, author of Powerful Learning Communities.

According to the 2007 National Survey of Student Engagement, “Participants in LCs provided higher rankings than students not in LCs on five benchmarks of effective educational practice (i.e., active and collaborative learning, academic challenge, student faculty interaction, supportive campus environment, and enriching educational experiences).”

An innovative model similar to LCs has been implemented at Colorado State University – Fort Collins (CSU-FC): the academic village. It takes the learning community concept to the next level.

Vaunting Academic Villages
Unlike dormitory-style residences, academic villages combine living and learning spaces in one complex and support a specific learning community. Students eat, sleep, study, socialize, and attend class within the village. Even some faculty members reside there, while also holding classes, office hours, and study time.

What makes these villages tick is how their design reinforces the goals of the LC. Each village is custom designed with the involvement of the respective academic departments to meet the specific learning requirements of their students. One of the villages, is the result of a three-year collaboration between architects, interior designers, housing directors, and life sciences faculty. Everything about these facilities is designed to encourage engagement, interaction, and collaboration. Living quarters are intentionally modest, because the more desirable spaces and amenities are communal, such as student lounges, open labs, and study areas.

Students learn best if they know why they are learning, what they are learning, and then have opportunities to collaboratively share their knowledge with others. In this way they make connections between the classroom and their daily lives. Academic villages foster this active learning by employing the latest design research about collaboration.

According to CSU data, students who remain on campus have a higher rate of graduation and cumulative GPA than students who live off campus. The academic village model helps keep students on campus by providing an attractive physical environment that meets all or most of the students’ needs, notes Lou Bieker, principal at 4240 Architecture, which designed the project.

“Everything is in one place,” he explained. “It is a sensory as well as intellectual environment, designed to stimulate the mind, body, and soul.”

Case Studies at CSU-FC
The campus currently has two of these sites: Academic Village, which opened in 2007 for engineering students, and Laurel Village, which opened this past fall for life sciences students.

The heart of Laurel Village is the pavilion—which Bieker describes as “town hall meets clubhouse.” It’s a place for community interaction, and the approach draws on hospitality practices. “Like in a resort, all the amenities are provided in the communal spaces to lure students out of their rooms and get them to take part in group activities,” he explained.

Study spaces are equipped with small breakout rooms, movable furniture, and whiteboard walls that allow students to quickly break into small groups to problem-solve or review and discuss content.

Designing for health and well-being was also a priority. None of the buildings are more than five stories tall, and students are encouraged to use the stairs instead of an elevator. The rooms have windows that are over twice the size of a typical dormitory window, providing ample natural light and views of nature.

In the “eco community,” which caters to ecology students, furniture and finishes are made of low-VOC materials. The building also meets LEED Platinum standards and includes a living green tower in the stairwell. The glass makes the buildings highly transparent, which also has security implications—there are no dark corridors, corners, or outside areas where someone could lurk unseen.

The academic villages have been well-received by faculty as well as current and prospective students, according to Tonie Miyamoto, director of communications for CSU’s housing and dining services. More importantly, they are producing positive results. While it’s too soon to gauge how the villages will impact long-term academic performance and graduation rates, the number of applicants has increased, as has the number of upperclassmen who choose to live on campus. Typically students spend their first year in the village and then move to other accommodations, but the demand from returning students has been so high that a new building was recently added to Academic Village. Other residential learning communities are in discussion.

Miyamoto attributes the success of the village model to how it changes the dynamics of college life. “It’s a more holistic approach to learning and living on campus,” she said. It is also a powerful example of how design can transform lives for the better.

Stephanie Clemons, Ph.D., FASID, FIDEC, serves as the ASID National Chair, Board of Directors and is a Professor of Interior Design and University Distinguished Teaching Scholar at Colorado State University. ASID can be reached at 202-546-3480 or [email protected], and on the Web at asid.org.

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