What will the future home of collaborative learning look like? In a stylish space below the ground and beyond many people’s wildest imagination, Bender Library’s new Graduate Research Center is answering that question.
The 5,400-square-foot center, located between the new School of International Service building and the library, will serve as a home to graduate students and is designed to facilitate the collaborations that many educators believe are an important new learning model.
“One of the popular terms you’ll hear in libraries is learning commons,” AU librarian Bill Mayer says. “It’s really an open space for people to collaborate. In some ways I’m trying to bridge the old traditional notions of research as well as emerging notions of collaborative work in the same space. That’s why it’s so dynamic.
“These policies are still being ironed out, but I’d like it to be available to graduate students 24 hours a day, seven days a week regardless of whether the library is open,” Mayer says. “With that as the guiding light, we’ll figure the other things out.”
That attitude—the willingness to think outside the box, or under the ground in this case—is a major reason the center even exists.
“It’s an evolutionary tale of opportunity and partnership,” says Mayer.
When he arrived at AU in August 2007, the space was pegged to be used for compact shelving and hold part of the library’s special collections.
But Mayer envisioned more. “As I began to look at all the populations we serve, I kept coming back to graduate students as severely underserved in terms of daily life,” he says. “We didn’t need more shelving, we wanted something accessible to more people. The moment of change was coming.”
Mayer consulted SIS dean Louis Goodman, who both loved the approach, and suggested—to Mayer’s delight—that the space be expanded. Next on his list was the Office of Campus Life, which brought the Graduate Leadership Council into the mix.
Collaboration was working.
The finished space is striking in its diversity. It has a reception desk, office space for the Graduate Leadership Council, and lockers for students. It can be accessed through the new SIS building’s garage or the library. The classroom has three display screens and a projection system that allows image projection on any wall.
“We’ll use the new technology to see how students can participate in class in a different way,” says assistant director for library instruction Alex Hodges, who will teach the College of Arts and Sciences’ Uses of Technology in Education course in the room.
“Collaboration is a matter of production. Students work in groups, but they’re working to produce papers, multimedia projects. They’re coming together to find solutions to problems they’re facing in the curriculum.”
The collaborative areas also have display screens, as does the open area, and all the screens can be slaved to show the same images. Glass partitions are soundproof and a large skylight lets in natural light.
True, the center doesn’t come close to solving the library’s space constraints, but it does something very important: serves its students.
“It’s additive,” Mayer says. “This space shows what’s possible. It’s an opportunity to try out things that are exciting and different and new. It showcases that if we can do this much with [5,400] square feet, imagine what we can do with 120,000. I want to show people possibility.”