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Field Notes: Science and Engineering Quad

Author: Hsiaolin Hsieh

Event: Site visit to SEQ, Stanford University

Time and Date of event: 13:15-15:50, Tuesday, April 16th, 2013

Date of Record: Wednesday, April 17th, 2013

Tour guide: Luke Thivierge, Associate Director, Building Operations, Facilities Planning & Management

Related articles:

Huang Engineering Building- self guided tour

New science and engineering building quad planned for campus core

A brief intro to Y2E2

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1. The physical layout of the space(s)

Connection” is the design principle of the Science and Engineering Quad. It is represented in the layout, the location, the interior design and the decoration of the buildings, as well as in the overall appearance of the Quad.

  • Layout:  the Quad is surrounded by 4 buildings, the Huang EngineeringCenter, the Hewlett and Packard Buildings, the Y2E2 Building, and the James and Anna Marie Spilker building, which are linked underground “by an 18-foot-deep basement of shared laboratory space that is sure to be in high demand because of its state-of-the-art equipment and controlled environment free of outside light, noise and vibrations” (Stanford News). The link between buildings presents a vision of interdisciplinary collaboration in science and engineering.
  • Location:  the Quad is built along an east-west axis which coincides with that of the Main Quad, and which bridges the central campus and the west side of the campus (School of Medicine). This orientation follows the original campus plan designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, and the overall appearance of the arcades and the quad, and the limestone tile façades and red tile roof, present a historical connection with the school as a whole.
  • Interior design and decoration:  inside the buildings of the Quad, there are exhibitions of the stories of individual people (prominent faculty and donors) and inventions that are associated with the schools connected with the Quad. These exhibitions highlight the intellectual heritage that connects current students and faculty with those of the past and contemporaries in industry today.

2. People who typically come to the space

Students, faculty and staff are the typical users in this space. In comparison with the other buildings dedicated to specialist graduate research, the Huang Engineering Building has been designed specifically for students activities. Its main entrance is on the second floor, and functions as a dining hall for students and faculty. It’s interesting to see that both the GSB and the SEQ put their “kitchens” in the most convenient and obvious places, and use them as the incentives to recruit students to learning — a powerful example of human-centered design!

Apart from the necessary human conveniences, there are also lots of conference rooms and informal social areas (the resting areas outside the labs, around the atria, and big, wide staircases).  Almost all of the conference rooms (as well as the classrooms) are built with glass rather than concrete walls, and the informal social areas are open, public, and equipped with write-on glass walls, whiteboards, and comfortable furniture.  They not only foreground the idea of  “together alone“, but also instantiate “transparency“, a liberation from enclosed property (of knowledge), and suggest an ideology of sharing.

3. Activities that happen in the space

In addition to formal classroom teaching and learning, a number of extra-curricular activities regularly take place in and around the Quad. Eating, experiments, and out-of-class discussion were all in evidence in these spaces, though we didn’t really get to see the classrooms where formal learning actually takes place.

According to my impression of the tour, and the emphasis placed on it by Luke, our guide, learning and research in the SEQ is centered around the sophisticated laboratory devices and equipment.  A great deal of informal learning (discussion and collaboration between peers and teachers), by contrast, is supported by an open, comfy space where there is furniture with an appropriate degree of comfort, and lots of write-on whiteboards/glass, and projectors. Much of the formal learning here seems to be technical in nature, and concentrated on lab technique, while informal learning is focused on communicating and engaging with ideas. It seems to me that this contrast is fostered and reinforced, perhaps quite consciously, by the conspicuously low-tech facilities in the informal spaces (no fancy interactive whiteboards here!) which foreground human and intellectual interaction.  A more prosaic explanation might be fear of theft, which, apparently has accounted for a lot of their relatively comfortable furniture!

Communication is an important motif in the SEQ. I found the background noise from group discussion and also from classrooms/conference rooms actually warmed up a space which might otherwise be a little harsh and impersonal. Human sounds soften and invigorate coldness of steel and uncarpeted concrete floors, and bring a natural cadence to a science and engineering environment.

My last reflection on our visit concerns Luke’s comment on sleeping. He mentioned more than once the importance of having appropriate furniture that increases productivity and discourages sleeping. However, sleeping is an important factor in effective learning. I am not sure if excluding it from learning space is necessarily the best solution for productivity. I certainly think this should be up for discussion, anyway.

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