Science, the final frontier

Published: Wednesday 16 March 2016

It seems that the focus in learning has returned to science. With the federal governments innovation strategy, the concerns about the recent PISA results, and the increased interest in STE[A]M, the spaces in which science is taught are being discussed more often. Over recent months the Association for Learning Environments has held a number of events that have contributed to this discussion. At the Big Day Out in Sydney in November, members had the opportunity to visit the new Science and Graduate School of Health Building at the University of Technology, Sydney. Designed by Durbach Block Jaggers, in association with BVN Architecture, this is a project that explores many aspects of learning and addresses the needs and interests of all stakeholders - staff, students and University. After extensive briefing analysis in which students had the uncommon opportunity to contribute, the building provides for the social activities, the informal learnin g opportunities, and the shared learning that are expected of facilities. What was surprising for many, however, was the Super Lab, a highly controlled, extensively serviced lab in which around 200 first year science students can be taught at once.

Located in the basement this space challenged many of the principles of student centred, personalised learning spaces. At first glance it is a space in which students are asked to learn as they stand at one of the 200 work stations which lacks the opportunity to foster collaboration and creativity. Whilst this seems a depersonalising of space and return to the factory approach to learning, this lab provides an example of spaces that supports teaching and learning science. Science requires the knowledge and understanding of universal principles and rules. Often this knowledge is best explored through application, which can at times be dangerous as students are asked to perform specific tasks. (I remember the antics of certain students in my high school chemistry classes) Providing a safe and controlled environment in which these skills can be developed and the theories applied is critical, as mastery of these supports the experimentation and creativity that leads to innovation . The Superlab at UTS is such an environment, populated with the latest technology to ensure that all students have access to the material and instruction from the teachers.

Another facility that recognises this is the Science and HASS Centre, at Santa Maria College in Attadale. Designed by EIW Architects, this building also acknowledges the need for distinct and specialised spaces. It accommodates dedicated laboratories for chemistry, physics, and biology, as well as the more theory based studies such as geology, and geography. To ensure that core material is delivered consistently to all students in the lecture space. More like an amphitheatre this can also be used for presentation by students and guests. In addition to this is a central lab space, large enough for 2 or 3 classes to come together and literally work around the table to problem solve, experiment and innovate. Bounded by the different disciplines of science, if you will, this spaces enables students and teachers from across the curriculum to come together. It can accommodate many of the wet or dry, clean or messy learning experiences that take place. These faculties reflect the ne eds expressed by science teachers at a workshop run by A4LE at the STAWA conference at Curtin in December. When exploring the relationship between learning and spaces, the science teachers asked for the ability to apply learning in different ways, and to connect science with the ‘real’ everyday world is made possible in the shared spaces. Their need for dedicated spaces for subject areas such as biology and physics; maths and science, connected by IT spaces and workshops could be met by facilities like those designed by EIW and Durbach Block Jaggers / BVN.

Lara Mackintosh

WA Chapter