Squeak & Hum
Shouldn’t a college campus be a natural place for challenging conventions?
What began as an effort to revitalize classrooms in one of Harvard’s original buildings has resulted in a new set of standards for classrooms across the largest division of the University — along with an object lesson in the importance of challenging assumptions.
Jones Architecture was hired by Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) to consult on learning environments and guide an effort to re-think the typical classroom. Over the span of four years, the two-part project began with a pilot classroom and culminated in a revamp of all classrooms in Harvard Hall — and will ultimately result in changes across the division’s 400+ classrooms.
A college campus is a natural place for questioning assumptions. Students are urged to expand their critical thinking skills — to question, probe, analyze, synthesize; to see things as they are, not as we are. And yet in the case of this classroom innovation project, Jones started with a wrong assumption — that our central challenge would be to execute a sensitive historic renovation of a landmark building to create and test state-of-the-art instructional space.
That was definitely a big part of the project. But as it turns out, the real challenge stemmed from a strongly held assumption made by Harvard faculty about the type and number of classrooms they needed. The team’s critical-thinking skills kicked in, and we put those assumptions to the test.
FAS firmly believed it faced a deficit of 50-seat classrooms; we needed to test to see if that was truly the case. After some questioning, Jones realized that we had a two-part challenge, first: the deficit of 50-seat classrooms was a faulty perception, second, the challenge was not building-based, and thus not in our direct sphere of influence.
Fortunately, we were able to work with the Harvard team to initiate a more global analysis. Only by looking at the school’s whole portfolio of learning spaces (450+) could we ascertain why this perception existed. Jones worked closely with the registrar and the building committee to study this cohort and compare it to the 1200 classes scheduled in the course of a typical semester. We learned that 75% of the scheduled classes are for fewer than 20 students, while only 30% of the classrooms have 20 seats or less.
This results in a "trickle-up" effect where smaller classes are scheduled in larger rooms, ultimately putting pressure on the 50-seat classroom inventory. We chose to relieve that pressure by providing smaller classrooms of (2)-12 seat seminar rooms, and (2)-24 seat classrooms in addition to the 100-seat auditorium and (2)-60-seat, team-based learning rooms.
Analysis revealed a “trickle-up” effect, wherein the lack of small classrooms led to pressure on larger ones.
The pilot classroom in Harvard Hall Room 202 challenged yet another assumption, this one about what best supports new modes of learning and teaching. Initial discussions started with active learning supported by intensive technology. But the final design zeroes in on “high touch” features instead of high-tech tools. A simple projector and screen arrangement and document camera are complemented by distance learning and lecture capture tools. Mobile whiteboards and flexible tables and chairs ensure that the “squeak and hum” of markers and conversation drown out any clatter of keyboards and solitary work. Collaboration is key and for Harvard FAS that means face-to-face interaction. This “high-touch” approach is reinforced with the full renovation that followed the pilot project.
The first attested use of chalk on blackboard in the United States dates to September 21, 1801, in a lecture course in mathematics given by George Baron at the US Military Academy at West Point (Wikipedia). Interestingly, this is some 40 years after Harvard Hall was built.
Reducing a building’s embodied energy is one of the greenest strategies of all; renovating a 1700's-era building is about as far as we can go in this country on that score.
Principal in Charge: Rick Jones
Project Director: Sam Clement
Exterior Envelope Restoration:
Bruner/Cott & Associates
Simpson Gumpertz & Heger
Code Red Consultants, LLC
Communications Design Associates
Robbie McCabe Consulting