Blending the Lines: New Views on Indoor and Outdoor Learning Spaces

Traditionally, higher education has focused on a lecture format, with the professor standing in front of a class of students. While the lecture hall format still exists, the higher education model is evolving into a more dynamic, interactive experience as colleges reimagine their approach to classroom learning amid evolving student needs and changing communication technology.

Studies have shown that learning achievements improve if students are engaged in a more self-directed, problem-based learning process paired with lecture. As such, colleges are transforming the passive teacher-directed lecture format into a more interactive student-directed format focused on the student experience, encouraging collaborative peer learning with the teacher as a facilitator.

New and remodeled academic buildings are promoting this interactive experience, often taking the learning outside the traditional classroom and into the in-between spaces — the corridors, atriums, quads and campus lawns — to encourage informal gathering and dialogue.

In this more open learning environment, the classroom is flexibly defined and can transform from lecture-based to problem-based learning during the same class. The classroom is still an enclosed room with a lectern, but it can also be an outdoor lab under a photovoltaic array where students study energy production, or a tiered amphitheater where students and teacher hold a seminar under the warm sun, or an inviting alcove where students gather after class to discuss the lab experiment they just completed.

The classroom, in fact, can be almost any space where students, teachers and peers meet and talk — thus making learning more fluid and promoting collaboration between students themselves and between students and faculty before and after classes.

Several new academic buildings are redefining the traditional classroom with interactive spaces that enhance the curriculum and engage students in hands-on learning.

The Los Angeles Harbor College Science Complex, which opened in fall 2013, offers several flexible learning environments that blur the line between indoor and outdoor. The building, in fact, is designed as a living lab that puts science on display, a concept that is finding its way into many newer academic buildings nationally. The aforementioned outdoor solar lab complements an indoor solar lab that includes monitors for students to track building energy production from photovoltaic panels, as well as track building energy usage. An outdoor classroom with seating tucked into a berm offers flexible learning configurations, enhanced with plug-in options for laptops. Single-loaded, open-air corridors direct sunlight and cross ventilation into the building core and classrooms, while corridor alcoves, lounges and open-air Science Court encourage interaction between students, faculty and staff to extend learning experiences beyond the classroom. By blending indoor and outdoor spaces, the Science Complex visually reaches out to the wider campus, drawing students in with its activity.

The Applied Science Complex at the College of the Desert-Palm Desert Campus includes several outdoor learning spaces that enhance the job-focused curriculum in the agriculture, construction science, natural resources, heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) and horticulture departments. For instance, the new Applied Sciences Building includes an indoor HVAC lab where students learn mechanical technology and a complementary outdoor HVAC construction technology lab, where students gain real-world construction skills in mechanical -systems repair, maintenance and installation. The Applied Science Complex also includes a recently renovated Agricultural Sciences Building with a new greenhouse and lath house, where horticulture students grow, maintain and study different varieties of agricultural plants. In each case, the outdoor labs prepare students to go directly from the classroom to jobs.

While Southern California’s mild climate may lend itself to outdoor learning environments, northern regions also offer opportunities for outdoor learning — especially with environmental, agricultural, energy or climate curricula — that focus on seasonal or regional variations. In such instances, nature is a living lab, whether that lab is an old-growth forest where students measure the impact of temperature extremes on tree species, an experimental plot where students monitor new crop hybrids, or a row of wind turbines where students measure energy production feeding into the utility grid.

In all cases, indoor-outdoor learning spaces are planned as active learning environments that encourage student engagement — and perhaps entice students to continue the learning process after the formal class ends. In some ways, the renewed emphasis on outdoor learning environments is a throwback to the ancient Greek Lyceum, in which students gathered in a grove of trees as the lecturer encouraged dialogue. The fresh air, sunshine and relaxed setting proved ideal for students to think great thoughts.

Today, students may be more career focused as they balance school with jobs, but the concept of getting students to slow down, meet with each other, exchange ideas informally and be inspired by nature remains the same. By thinking creatively about planning alternative classrooms, colleges can foster academic and social development that engages students in interactive learning.

James Matson, AIA, is vice president and principal with HGA Architects and Engineers in Los Angeles, where he specializes in higher educational master planning and design.