Collaboration between students, staff and designers leads to innovative modernisation of two lecture theatres at South Kensington Campus.
The lecture theatres, Blackett 113 and RSM 147, are being stripped out this summer and renovated as part of a longterm project to improve learning and teaching spaces across the College.
The first series of improved spaces opened at the start of the 2018/19 academic year, and attracted positive feedback from teachers and students alike. The College's significant investment is now being expanded with these lecture theatre renovations, with both spaces due to reopen in time for the beginning of the 2019/20 academic year.
Situated in buildings traditionally used by Physics and Engineering students, the converted lecture theatres will become attractive quiet study space for all students when not in use for teaching.
Vice-Dean (Education) for the Faculty of Engineering, Professor Omar Matar, said: "This comprehensive update to our learning and teaching spaces will lead to significant improvements in the student and staff experience.
"Moreover, by evaluating the impact of these renovations we'll get a sense of how the spaces are being used, and what our priorities should be for the future."
Professor Contaldi said: "We are very excited by the opportunities the new space will provide and it has been great to work with students and colleagues across College to make the vision a reality. In particular we'll be using it straight away this October to deliver new active learning sessions as part of the revamped Physics undergraduate curriculum."
Physics students had considerable involvement in influencing the design of Blackett 113. Through discussions on-campus and a visit to University of Leeds, a pioneer of conversions of lecture theatres to enable small group teaching at scale, students quickly gained a sense of what may be possible for their own teaching space in future.
4th year student and Academic Representative for the Department of Physics, Tim Marley said: “Physics is no different from many other Departments - all students have experienced long lecture presentations filled with densely packed information. Creating teaching spaces that allow for interactive teaching to become the norm will improve that experience.
“Blackett is well-known for having poor AV and lighting, and few plug sockets. Once the renovation is complete it'll be a space far better suited for a variety of learning opportunities.
“The new layout will be formed into ‘pods' that encourage group working. This will be a very different approach to what we’re used to at the College."
PhD student and RCSU Vice President, Michaela Flegrova, said: “These renovations will help future Physics students see the importance of the Department to the College.
“Students have justifiably high expectations, especially around digital technology. We hope that digital screens will be introduced that can be annotated by lecturers as they teach, with the content uploaded online afterwards. This will make for a much more natural learning experience and means what currently gets written on (and scrubbed off) a whiteboard will be able to be referenced at a later date."
Accessible by design
The renovated lecture theatres will have a number of features that follow 'accessibility by design' principles. For example: multiple wheelchair places in lecture theatres, front and back; entry ramps; wall partitions; AV solutions to help lip reading and sign language interpretation software; and power and data points at all seats.
Mary Bown, Head of the Disability Advisory Service, said: "With all new developments on our campuses we're aiming to consider and build in accessibility from the very beginning.
"It's vital that as an organisation we anticipate that we will have students and staff with a very wide variety of needs, some simple and some complex. We know prospective students visiting us on open days do give careful consideration to the facilities on offer."
Striking a balance
Neil Alford, Associate Provost (Academic Planning), has been closely following the project and its impact on students. Neil said: "As a College we have a number of important objectives we're trying to achieve. Planning ahead and trying to predict what the needs and expectations of students and staff will be in 10 or 20 years time is challenging.
"If you want colleagues and students to embrace and feel ownership over a redesign process it's important to respect their input and in effect treat them like clients commissioning a piece of work - what do they need and why do they need it?
"The Blackett and RSM lecture theatres are now going to have the potential to be used for a far wider variety of learning and teaching - from lectures, to group work, to quiet study. This is not a prescriptive approach, it's simply unlocking the varied teaching approaches that exist in each part of the College."
Following the evidence
All those involved in the project are keen to emphasise the importance of the College comprehensively evaluating the impact of providing learning and teaching spaces that better fulfil the needs of students and staff.
Luke McCrone, a PhD student attached to the Centre for Higher Education Research & Scholarship, has been looking into this: "I've devised a thesis that reflects on the way students use physical spaces to facilitate their learning. I'm particularly interested in 'transitional' spaces - areas surrounding lecture theatres that are often characterised as underutilised corridors.
"Through a month's worth of observations in various locations across campus it's clear that students are inventive in their use of space, using both traditional and non-traditional areas in ways that we may not have expected.
"I'll be keeping a close eye on the developments with the Blackett lecture theatre and adjoining spaces, with a view to publish my research in the coming years."
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