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Vantage Point


STEM Needs Spur Space Assessment

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In the spring of 2015, the chairs from several of Macalester College’s academic departments asked for a meeting with the president, the provost, and the chief financial officer. The chairs wanted to discuss increasingly serious overcrowding in the Olin-Rice Science Center, which houses the physical sciences plus psychology. 

The building had been renovated in 1997, when 18 percent of students had a major based there. Thanks to a rapidly growing demand for STEM courses, however, 48 percent of students had a major based in the science center by 2016. 

That increase in STEM enrollments was impacting the quality of instruction, as well as the faculty’s ability to deliver courses, meet with students, and have appropriate office space. To accommodate the number of courses needed to meet student demand, for example, some classes were assigned to classrooms designed for enrollments and teaching methods that did not reflect current needs. Some adjunct faculty needed to share office space. In addition, meeting with students had become a challenge when a professor’s office hours attracted multiple students simultaneously—the science center did not have any shared space to accommodate a larger group.  

Given these concerns, the administrative leaders agreed to begin a process that would find ways to alleviate the building’s overcrowding. After preliminary discussions, we realized that limiting the space analysis to one building would be inadequate; solutions to address the rising enrollments in Olin-Rice could easily spill into nearby buildings. If, for example, we permanently relocated an entire department to another nearby building, then another round of analysis would be required for the affected building, and so on. 

The project quickly morphed into a review of space usage in all buildings that house major functions, mainly academic divisions. We then expanded the project’s scope to include non-instructional spaces—student support areas, such as athletics, campus center, library, and administrative offices. (We did not include residence halls because they are essentially single-purpose spaces.) The project was a first for Macalester, which has 2,100 students. Campus master plans had been created in 1968, 1995, and 2005, but those documents proposed where buildings would be located, not how their internal spaces would be used.

Objective and Subjective

It quickly became apparent that we needed outside assistance to capture and analyze both objective and subjective data related to the usage of 1.4 million square feet. The size of the data set required processing and analytical expertise that didn’t reside on campus. We also wanted to benefit from what a third party had seen in other institutions. After interviewing several potential partners, we chose Shepley Bulfinch, an architectural firm from Boston.

We began by gathering room assignment information for the previous five years from the campus systems that assigned classrooms (through the registrar) and other reservable public spaces (through the central scheduling system). That information was supplemented with interviews of major space users—functions having a regular need for multiple spaces, such as the registrar and special events planning staff. We also set up tables in high-traffic areas and asked students to share their views about space usage on campus.

The data-gathering phase was concentrated in the first month of the project (October). Most of the remaining time—about seven months—was spent analyzing the information, testing possible conclusions, proposing short- and medium-term solutions, and drafting a final report. The results of the space assessment study, which carried few surprises, showed that:

  • The amount of unused and underutilized space was relatively small, suggesting that growth in Macalester’s student body size and number of activities hadn’t been accompanied by growth in square footage. In other words, we didn’t discover a trove of places that could be easily transformed into solutions for either academic crowding or other programmatic needs.
  • Many classrooms had heavy usage, defined as being assigned more than 55 percent of the theoretically assignable hours from Monday through Friday. Of Macalester’s 52 classrooms, one-third carried a disproportionate share of the load. The remainder were either very specialized or undesirable because of design or location. 
  • In the evenings, the heaviest usage occurred in only three buildings—the campus center, library, and athletics complex. 
  • Many students reported studying in their residence halls.
  • Next to good furniture, the feature students desired most in any meeting or study space was a high number of electrical outlets. 
A space assessment study—Macalester’s first—helped the college rethink a building renovation and repurpose other areas for greater effectiveness.

New and Improved

Undertaking the space assessment project showed us that the data we needed wasn’t always as refined as we’d like. By far, the most precise data showed the assignment of classrooms. We knew where every class met, every semester, for the previous five years because of the systematic way the registrar’s staff assigned spaces, factoring in enrollment limits and the type of teaching pedagogy. 

For instance, certain science lectures require equipment installed in only a few spaces, and some classes require the use of a highly specialized space, such as the ceramics studio, or space with flexible furniture.  

We had much less precise information on the use of public spaces. Staff in Macalester’s campus center handle event scheduling for public spaces that range from a large ballroom to smaller meeting rooms that routinely host dinners, speakers, and receptions for 40 to 100 people, to traditional meeting rooms housing up to 20 people. While these spaces registered heavy usage, the scheduling system often showed only who reserved a space, not the event’s purpose. That realization underscored the challenge of attempting to use data that have one purpose—simply scheduling space—for another: carefully analyzing the varying demands of multiple users. 

In any case, the study clearly identified the need for more—or more functional—classrooms. Rooms designed 50 years ago often don’t support current teaching methods and pedagogies. Their ceiling heights, for example, usually aren’t high enough to allow students in the back to see projected images; many rooms, designed for traditional lecture formats, are difficult to rearrange to accommodate more interactive teaching styles. 

To address this need, we adapted plans already being drawn up for the college’s 53-year-old theater and dance facilities, which needed a complete renovation. The original idea was to add new classroom spaces to the original configuration of the theater and dance building—which was located next to the science center. Instead, we demolished the original building and constructed a new one, along with nine state-of-the-art classrooms that feature flexible furniture, improved sight lines, and enough space to allow for small-group work. 

A simple second-story skyway runs between the two buildings, creating a physical and metaphorical connection between the arts and the sciences. The addition of the classrooms allows for valuable repurposing of usable space within the science building’s footprint and possibly some selected repurposing in other academic buildings. For instance, we have reset storage rooms as teaching spaces, turned one underutilized space into an area for two staff members who provide career counseling, and created additional faculty offices. 

In the end, solutions to the most pressing issues came from targeted reuse rather than the addition of space to the most affected building.  

SUBMITTED BY David Wheaton, vice president of administration and finance, Macalester College, St. Paul, Minn.


Related Topics

Solutions came from targeted reuse rather than the addition of space.