It seems obvious once you think about it. But if STEAM (which adds art and design to the usual science, technology, engineering and math mix) is really going to take hold in the education system, classrooms themselves need an overhaul. The current setup, with desks facing a teacher and whiteboard, doesn’t allow the mind to roam or hands-on experimentation to take place.
Those within the Arts and Humanities Department at Columbia University’s Teachers College are already thinking about this issue with a prototype learning environment known as ThingSpace, located deep in the basement of Macy Hall.
It’s all part of a new approach for next-gen educators at the venerable Manhattan institution. A new crop of students have signed up for Advanced Certificate: Creative Technologies to learn how to preside over these new spaces, and they’ve all just arrived for the fall semester.
PCMag went to the ThingSpace to meet Angela Allmond, a doctoral candidate at Teachers College specializing in art classroom design strategies, as she put up and painted the last shelves (Federated Blue HGSW1322, Sherwin Williams and a custom mix of what was left from last semester).
“I’m actually writing my dissertation on studio spaces and how they meet the needs of students and teachers,” Allmond told PCMag. “My interest in this emerging discipline is also why I was hired to renovate this phased project as we re-imagine this whole venture.”
The first thing that strikes you as you enter the ThingSpace is the lighting. It’s bright but there are no buzzing fluorescents overhead. “We switched out traditional strips for daylight sustainable energy bulbs,” confirmed Allmond.
Though it previously served as a traditional sculpture studio, ThingSpace doesn’t look anything like a single purpose workshop. Remember those? Instead, everything is on display at ThingSpace. You can pick up Arduinos and fiddle with old electrical casings from vintage TVs. Maybe you paint or sculpt, but it’s all there, in a wide open airy space, carefully marked and on open shelves, from Makey Makeys to an assortment of steampunk and Maker Movement hand-craft tools.
There’s a flexible work area for computer stations (loaded up with SketchUp for 3D modeling), a Poulan industrial size chain saw, DeWALT table saw, drill press, laser cutter and 3D printers; a CNC router is on its way. There are digital sewing machines for textile creation (cue the conductive thread possibilities) alongside very traditional tools (such as chisels) if students want them.
“It’s all about creating a space that invites students to try new materials,” Allmond said. “Or that compels them to explore the range of possibility that exists across media choices, often tempting them to bridge the gap between ‘tried and true’ traditional materials and the many new and emerging possibilities brought about by the ever-changing and advancing digital technologies that permeate the 21st century.
“As an educator in the classroom, I’ve often delighted in watching a student start an art class with no real idea of what to do, but eventually be drawn in by the ‘stuff’ of artmaking, from clay to pastels, found objects to 3D printing, and an vast array of compelling materials.”
It’s not always easy to think out of the box when it comes to education spaces. As part of her PhD study, Allmond spent time at the Amesbury School in England as it embarked on a multi-million dollar building program.
“I’d already started working on defining my research interests and shaping the proposal for my dissertation project, on how students flourish in well-designed creative spaces,” said Allmond. “And it was so useful to be at Amesbury. What I learned there is that if you don’t create these spaces with careful consideration of nuanced use patterns and organize it in a way that invites curiosity and exploration, you’ll get a fabulous building, but will still be cramming in all the same stuff into an area that’s not fit for purpose.
“You have to grow into a space, especially a space you’re trying to change to become something else,” Allmond continued. “You have to understand the use of the space and how students are going to move around, generate desire to try new things and work on projects.”
The ThingSpace is an imaginative way to inspire a whole new generation of educators and their students. Considering Teachers College is where Georgia O’Keeffe studied from 1914 to 1915, it’s great to know it is still forging individual minds and creative spirits within a future-ready learning environment.