What kind of learning spaces work for undergraduate mathematics learning communities?

This question was posed by an architect with more experience in imagining and designing spaces for the laboratory sciences. It was forwarded to Project NEXT colleagues at the Mathematical Association of America (MAA).

Their responses, as outlined in the accompanying essay, suggest that what works is:

  • Giving students ownership of their spaces
  • Connecting formal and informal learning spaces
  • Ensuring there is always something to write on— boards black or white, but readily accessible
  • Making technologies pervasive but invisible
  • Designing from the research on how people learn.

Their responses also make clear what does not work:

  • Tables too small for the instructor’s station, that should be able to accommodate computer, document camera, DVD player—as well as all the papers she or he has.
  • Study spaces too near the classrooms that are not designed well enough to keep noise down, or at least manageable.
  • Classrooms with the standard arrangement of tablet arm chairs in a row. Rigid school desks are disastrous.
  • A technology infrastructure that makes it impossible to use multiple media all at one time.
  • Scheduled classes that do not use/need technologies in the spaces designed as a computer lab, increasing the maintenance costs as computers are moved back and forth.
  • A building with a linear layout, corridors bounded by offices on one side and classrooms on the other, hindering the movement of large hoards of people during breaks between classes.
  • Architects who do not listen to us in regard to our desperate need for informal spaces—which are the laboratories for mathematics.
  • Having offices so small that math faculty cannot accommodate seminars.

One respondent, Brian Birgen of Wartburg College, alerted us to a relevant article from the June 2005 issue of the MAA Focus Magazine (See Page 20).