SciBox 1.0: An innovative, experimental learning space inspiring creative approaches to teaching

Awardees: Logan McCarty (FAS), Melissa Franklin (FAS)

Summary: Awardees plan to redesign a 2,500 sq ft space in the Science Center into an experimental “black-box” classroom that could be used for existing classes beginning in Spring 2013.

“The space may not change the way people answer physics questions, but it can change how they think about physics, and how they feel about physics. If we accomplish that, it would be a huge success.” — Logan McCarty

We wanted people to feel like they can mess it up

Awardees set out to redesign a 2,500 sq ft space in the Science Center into an experimental “black-box” classroom, now known as “SciBox.” The space—half-classroom, half-lab—is unlike any other on campus. McCarty and Franklin cite the decision to put all the furniture on wheels as the most important aspect of the classroom. According to them, the space itself actually prevents instructors from attempting a traditional lecture format. Students quickly became familiar with the most appropriate set-up formation for specific activities, and can rearrange the furniture on a moment’s notice to best suit their needs. The space has an unfinished feel, according to Franklin, because “we wanted people to feel like they can mess it up,” and important quality when learning by doing. In fact, the walls have been left unpainted and unfinished.

In addition to the lab and the classroom, the space also features an adjacent workshop where students can construct projects, and “the beach”—a comfortable sitting area where students can remove themselves from their projects to think and reflect. “So often when you are doing science, you need to remove yourself,” Franklin emphasized. The space has hosted courses in AY13 and AY14, including offerings in physics, physical sciences, astronomy, and general education. McCarty and Franklin cite Physical Sciences 12a in particular as an example of the success of the space – never a very popular course, its debut in the SciBox helped it to achieve the course’s first ever Q score greater than 4, which is impressive for a required introductory physics course.

Beyond the academic sphere, McCarty and Franklin are very excited about the community uses of the space for other purposes, and can envision many more. A number of student theatrical groups have used the space after hours for rehearsal and productions, the Bok Center will hold faculty workshops in the space as part of their New Faculty Institute programming, and HarvardX will use the space for their August Faculty Academy session. McCarty thinks there might be interest from student musical groups, particularly since they revamped the acoustics of the room to make it more conducive to classroom discussion with up to 50 people in the room.

On embarking upon new space design, “it takes time to learn what you need,” Franklin noted. She added that she felt the initial planning conversations, which occurred without an architect, might have allowed for more creativity and idea sharing. The design and construction of the SciBox did not come without some challenges and unexpected hurdles. “All along we knew it would be more money than we requested,” McCarty remarked. Upon demolition, the group discovered an asbestos problem that would need to be resolved, and once constructed the additional acoustical treatments added to the cost of the space. But the lessons learned, including the need for additional storage space, as well as the discovery in practice that the SciBox was more space than necessary, will inform the construction of two new 1,900 sq ft spaces—SciBox 2.0—recently approved by FAS for construction on the first floor of the Science Center.

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