Building a new community of practice: Translating what we know from research and from the field into planning 21st century learning environments

The Learning Spaces Collaboratory (LSC) is designed to form a new national community of practice focusing on questions to be asked by different kinds of stakeholder communities in the process of determining whether, how, and why 21st century learning spaces make a difference to 21st century learners.

What we are about: Making the case for why space matters.

This emerging community of practice will collaborate in translating contemporary findings from research and practice in the field into roadmaps for shaping built environments for learning in the undergraduate setting. The arguments to be advanced will be constructed collaboratively by a diverse cadre of stakeholders, each of whom brings to the table requisite experience and expertise in one or more dimensions of shaping undergraduate learning environments. All involved, including academics, architects, leaders of national societies, share a passion for integrating attention to how and why spaces matter into discussions and decisions about shaping the future of undergraduate learning—on an individual campus and across the nation.

How we are beginning:  

  • By working toward a common vision of contemporary learning outcomes and a common language for discussing those learning outcomes among the diverse community of stakeholders at the planning table.
  • By thinking through what learning experiences would have high potential for ensuring students achieve such learning outcomes, in a given institutional, programmatic, curricular, and pedagogical context, again developing a common language for use by a planning team.
  • By imagining, describing, and examining learning spaces that would have high potential for ensuring students achieve desired learning outcomes, advancing institutional priorities, and serving programmatic and pedagogical priorities established by a campus community.
  • By drafting questions to be explored by local planning teams in the process of imagining, prototyping, auditing, and assessing learning spaces, disseminating these drafts for critique and prototyping within the LSC community during the fall of 2011.

 If this project proceeds as anticipated:

  • There will be a valuable toolkit of practical planning approaches for the use of those responsible for shaping and maintaining the physical environment for learning. They will be practical because they will have been designed, vetted, piloted, and assessed by representatives of end-user communities (academics, architects, and other design professionals and stakeholders).
  • Money, time, and other resources will be used more creatively and expeditiously in the process of building and maintaining the built environment for learning, with long-term value to learners as well as to institutions. 
  • Increasingly, new kinds of conversations, with a common language will be happening on campuses and across diverse communities of researchers and practitioners across the country, including within educational and disciplinary societies and architectural associations.
  • Increasing numbers of undergraduates in our nation's colleges and universities will have opportunity to become active, engaged, and reflective learners, empowered as citizen leaders within our increasingly global community, as competitive candidates for work in the private or public sector and/or for graduate school.
  • There will broader and deeper examination of findings from research and from the field about how spatial properties affect the quality and character of undergraduate learning in our nation's colleges and universities.



LEADERSHIP TEAM AND PARTNERS. An intentional mix of experts and practitioners with deep interest in both learning and learning spaces will lead and advise the project.

Co-principal investigators are Jeanne L. Narum, Founding Principal, LSC and Wendy Newstetter, Director of Learning Sciences Research, Georgia Institute of Technology.  

The LSC project team, including virtual members, includes:

  • Spencer A. Benson, Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence, University of Maryland College Park
  • Robert Beichner, Co-Director of the NCSU STEM Education Initiative, North Carolina State University
  • Tevian Dray, Professor of Mathematics, PI, Paradigms in Physics Project, Oregon State University
  • Charles Henderson, Associate Professor of Physics, Western Michigan University
  • Jillian Kinzie, Associate Director of Center of Postsecondary Research, National Survey of Student Engagement Center for Postsecondary Research, Indiana University Bloomington
  • William R. LaCourse, Dean of the College of Natural and Mathematical Sciences (CNMS), University of Maryland Baltimore County
  • Michael Purcell, Assistant University Architect, American University
  • Joan Straumanis, National Science Foundation (retired)
  • Jim Swartz, Dack Professor of Chemistry, Grinnell College
  • David Van Wylen, Professor of Biology, St. Olaf College
  • Anuradha Vedantham, Director, Weigle Information Commons, University of Pennsylvania Libraries
  • Cathy Wolfe, Director of Campus Planning, George Mason University

LSC Steering Committee members are: Philip D. Long, Director of the Centre for Education Innovation & Technology, The University of Queensland, Australia; David R. Narum, Principal, Greenway Partners; and Susan Whitmer, Strategic Education Consultant, Herman Miller, Inc. Each will assume significant and specific responsibilities for advancing the project, as will colleagues from the LSC Board of Advisors and the representatives of Collaborating Partners:

  • Terry Calhoun, Director of Media Relations & Publications, Society for College and University Planning
  • Herb Childress, Dean, Research and Assessment, Boston Architectural College
  • Susan Elrod, Executive Director, Project Kaleidoscope/AAC&U
  • Edward D. Gomes, Associate Dean of Technology Services, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, Duke University
  • Sally Grans-Korsh, Consultant
  • Joan K. Lippincott, Associate Executive Director, Coalition for Networked Information
  • William C. Sullivan, Professor of Landscape Architecture, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
  • Jaime Van Mourik, Higher Education Manager, Center for Green Schools, U.S. Green Building Council
  • Phil Weilerstein, Executive Director, National Collegiate Inventors & Innovators Alliance
  • Charles (Chick) Weiss, Director of Grants & Corporate & Foundation Giving, College of the Holy Cross.

A local host site committee is being established, with representatives of regional colleges and universities and architectural firms with offices in Washington DC.


FROM THE COMMUNITY. Our search for colleagues was enlightening. It confirmed the urgency of the problem. We queried representatives of fifty of the architectural firms within the LSC; the American Council of Academic Deans (ACAD); representatives of major disciplinary societies, as well as representatives of contemporary pedagogical communities. All indicated that although they could appreciate the impact of space on learning, such sensibilities were based more often on experience-based intuition rather than on rigorous, intentional, research-based assessment. Each expressed great interest in resources to be piloted and produced through this effort, indicating how they could inform their day-to-day responsibilities relating to planning robust learning environments, including from:

  • A director of faculty development: “on our campus (an R1 institution) all decisions relating to physical spaces are made unilaterally by staff of the office of facilities.”
  • A member of the American Council of Academic Deans (ACAD): “I know of no resource that would help me make decisions about spaces. Such a resource would be of great value.”
  • A provost: “On my campus classroom renovations are determined by the registrar, based on her need to fill classrooms.”    
  • A community college dean: “Our new multi-million dollar facility is not designed to accommodate active-learning pedagogies because the faculty on the planning committee believed them to be a fad.”
  • An architect: “To my knowledge, very little data exists that falls into the category of ‘evidence.’ When I look back over time and the projects that I (we) have all been involved with, my sense is that we collaborate and share our experiences with regard to design, process, problem solving, etc., we then document and tell the ‘story,’ but the measurement of the results remains less tangible. I do however believe that the PKAL/LSC forum has been of great benefit to most everyone who has participated and heard these stories over time.”

Funded by the National Science Foundation - grant #1147341.

(Photos: Sewanee, The University of the South: Snowden Hall Renovation and Addition by MacLachlan, Cornelius & Filoni and Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative by AAC&U)