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Data, Design and Diversity: Informal Spaces and Social Inclusion on an Urban Campus

Sept. 7, 2018

New research seeks to demonstrate that informal spaces and unscheduled spaces are critical for learning and addressing issues of equity at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn.

“No studying and tutoring allowed in this area,” says the sign displayed in what used to be a popular study area for undergraduate students in the School of Science, Health and Technology at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, NY. The space now sits empty. Yet just down the hall, across from the elevator, students sprawl out on wooden benches, computers on laps, notebooks on the floor, studying for exams. It’s a classic informal learning space – a widened corridor that is unscheduled and always available to students to meet and to study outside of class hours.

Colleges have a responsibility to invest in their facilities in a way that best supports student learning. This typically privileges spaces like classrooms, labs and faculty office spaces guided by existing design standards and time-tested models. New research by User Design Information Group, MBB Architects, Architecture Outfit, along with a team of undergraduate student researchers seeks to demonstrate that unscheduled and informal spaces are critical for learning and addressing issues of equity on campus.

A recent presentation by our research team at the annual conference of the Society of College and University Planning (SCUP) previewed the results of this valuable study, which employs research to bridge the gap between strategic planning objectives, larger societal forces and the functional design requirements used to build campuses. The talk highlighted the new study’s innovative research process, specific findings about the design of spaces outside of classrooms and how both administrative policy and physical design impact equitable outcomes for students on campus. The topic sparked conversations on the role of research in planning and how to support the informal without losing the spontaneity and student-led characteristics that define it.

Informal Spaces. Multidisciplinary Methods.

To tackle this research, our research team partnered with Medgar Evers College (MEC), part of the CUNY system, to explore these issues on its Brooklyn campus. The team included a partner from MBB Architects, a partner from Architecture Outfit, members of the Users Design Information Group (UDIG) at CUNY and two student researchers from MEC. The team drew upon theory from sociology, geography, environmental psychology and anthropology to underpin the research and to model the research methods. Student researchers, engaged as interns receiving course credit, provided invaluable insight about campus dynamics. Being of the same age group and race as the campus majority influenced the data they were able to collect, allowing for an “insider’s interface” during data collection.

Informal spaces, meet informal repurposing.

The first phase of the project assessed campus-wide challenges and goals around issues of inclusion and equity. During the second phase, research focused on a single site on campus to collect data about the specific micro-culture as the location for an intervention. The intervention will include physical changes to the design of the space to improve how it functions for students. The team designed the intervention using a kit-of-parts that was developed in response to the research findings and participation with end users. The final phase is to evaluate the impact that the design intervention has on the people who use the space.

The research team expects to roll out the design changes on the site and do follow-up studies to measure the impact of the intervention during the 2018-19 academic year.

The team used three primary methods to learn about campus life: observations, semi-structured interviews, and surveys. This collaboration between social scientists and architects enabled the research to build on the strengths of both fields, seeking an open-ended approach to data collection and measurable data. The research site was considered a “sited micro-culture” and aimed to understand the culture from the perspective of its members. It’s a “problem-seeking” approach, where the researchers remain open to discovering any issues that are meaningful for the users.

Campus-wide Themes

The first step of analysis was to process the raw data. The team coded interview transcripts and observation field notes for content and themes, going line by line to see what issues emerged. When the codes were first reviewed for campus-wide issues, two dominant tensions were discovered: First, there is a tension between Medgar Evers College functioning for students as a comforting, homelike environment as opposed to a professional, rigorous academic space. The second is the complicated nature of relationships between students and mentors. In the face of the school’s low graduation rates — between 11-28 percent, depending on whether they are transfer or first-time college attendees and whether they are pursuing associate or baccalaureate degrees — these relationships are a high-stakes concern, because they can make the difference between completion and non-completion.

Regarding the home-like space versus professional space dynamic, students describe campus as feeling like an extension of home, particularly during times outside of class and across long hours spent on campus. There is warmth in students’ descriptions of the campus experience in this context. In tension with this, there is also the feeling that students are not always welcome. This is both a practical issue, resulting from the limited space on campus, and an issue of equity with students perceiving limitations on access to spaces on campus that support activities contributing to their success. 

Regarding the high-stakes student-mentor relationships, students refer to faculty relationships as important, potentially impacting student retention and success. On many campuses, informal interactions in informal spaces are an important part of mentorship relationships.

Site-Specific Findings

Based on these themes, the research team selected a location for further study: a corridor outside classrooms, labs and faculty offices in an academic building that is home to two departments within the School of Science, Health and Technology. It is a new building that features a wide corridor with fixed benches, café tables and far too few chairs in the area. The space is in good condition, allowing the impact of physical changes to be more effectively measured, as there is no comparing a space in disrepair with a newly renovated space. There were traces of the homelike setting, such as an ad hoc microwave and a blend of activities from relaxation to studying, as well as proximity to an academic department. When there was need for additional administrative space on the floor, students were displaced from a group study area; this emphasized the tensions between informal study areas and traditionally programmed space in the building.

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The first key finding is that the dynamics of the homelike and professional setting were often connected. The students found the space to be both relaxed and academic. The adjacency to classrooms allows students taking similar classes to find one another and cultivates a culture of respect for academic life. With no student center and no dorms at the college, informal spaces fill a need that is a hybrid: a place for individual and small group studying, or relaxation that is under student control, and as a corridor, cannot be easily claimed for more structured activities.

Fostering Peer Mentorship with Informal Spaces

The team’s second finding, regarding mentorship, revealed a strong culture of spontaneous peer mentorship. While school-wide narratives focused on faculty mentorship and structured mentorship programs, most of this happened in traditional academic spaces, such as offices (by appointment) or in classrooms (before or after class). Some students had challenges better met by peers and a lot of spontaneous mentorship was happening in these informal settings.

A third finding revealed that there were physical constraints at the site that curtailed the degree to which campus-wide values are supported at this site. With the loss of the study area in the office suite, work space is lacking for students hoping to study in small groups. In the resource-constrained campus, unassigned and informal spaces outside the classrooms provide much-needed spaces that students have more control over. Wide corridors near classes, labs and faculty offices are an asset to the college, but there are physical challenges that limit students’ use of these spaces. For example, the acoustics of corridors make it challenging to maintain a sound level that is respectful of the surrounding classes and quiet studying. Design, then, presents an opportunity to better meet the informal needs of the students identified within the limited space available.

Having better defined the informal, identifying how these spaces are used beyond circulation, the research team identified the need for four discrete functional types: small group work, one-on-one meetings, individual study and informal gathering. A kit-of-parts was developed to address the design requirements of each type. Some design requirements are common to all types, including visual and acoustic screening from surrounding circulation spaces while maintaining a fluid connection to circulation spaces. Enclosing the space as a fully defined room would undermine the informal nature of the space, so achieving the right level of screening is critical. Other elements include flexible furniture, supplemental lighting, work and display surfaces and a graphic identity for the space.

Treating the system as a kit-of-parts allows it to be modular, addressing the scale and specificity of each functional type. It also allows the various components to be tested in different combinations and in different locations as our research evolves. Most important, it leaves a level of flexibility for students to interact with and continue to define how the informal best meets their needs.

The next research phase will focus on implementing the kit-of-parts and tracking how students put it to use.

Eve Klein, M.Arch, is a social scientist and a founding member of User Design Information Group at the City University of New York. Sara Grant, AIA, is a partner with MBB Architects. The research project team included Klein and Grant along with Eleanor Luken, Troy Simpson, Marta Sanders, Patrick Gentles and Allysha Nelson.

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