Design is a process for solving problems: define the problem; solve the problem. Through collaborations with over 50 educational institutions on 21st Century Learning spaces HED noticed that, time and again, STEM instructors needed teaching labs that had more flexibility, better visibility and a floorplan that encouraged collaboration.

Teaching laboratories have always emphasized a hands-on experience, and the modern pedagogical style of collaborative learning demands that the physical environment be open and lines of vision between users be clear. Yet the traditional designs for these spaces often have poor lines-of-sight with fixed rectangular benches that don’t provide for easy movement in the lab, hindering collaboration and limiting flexibility in pedagogical style or format.

Stepping back to reassess program goals for these spaces, HED’s Mark Hartmann and John Varley worked together to brainstorm systems to improve these spaces to best accommodate learning, interacting, and experimenting in multiple types of teaching labs (from A&P to Bio to Chemistry). They concluded that fluid movement was necessary, and that the traditional, fixed, rectangular shaped lab bench inevitably prevented movement and hindered engagement—with some students either facing away from the instructor or forced onto the “outside edge” of the workgroup.

Through workshopping, the team arrived at the design for an oval workstation—a reimagining of conventional work space configurations that eliminates corners and enhances movement and collaboration. By spreading students across the rounded edge, the oval workstation enables the collaborative learning process to flourish—all students can see, remain engaged, are equally involved with the experiment and can move more freely.

Improved sight-lines of Oval Station configuration.

The figure above demonstrates how, because of the station’s unique configuration, each of the different Oval Stations can be slightly angled as necessary so that each station is ideally orientated to the best viewing angle toward the teaching wall without interfering with circulation. The student stations are no longer bound to the rigor of the traditional orthogonal layouts. The Oval Station, with its freedom of orientation, responds to the need for impromptu lectures—students and faculty can move freely through the lab, sight lines are open, and the feeling of movement and action are encoded into the fixed elements in a way that rectangular casework could never provide. 

With the growing interest in a new Oval Station by several institutions designing Science Teaching Labs, we received another design challenge as part of the programming of the entire building: how do we make the incoming freshman take notice that college was going to be something different from their high school labs? How can we express a more advanced atmosphere?

The Oval Stations are clearly something different than the traditional rectangular bench layout, but the challenge was, was there something more? If the Oval Station is right and works as well as it does in a traditional rectangular “box” is there a shape the better serves the teaching environment? The answer we came up with was a space that was also circular in nature. A circle was an idealized answer, but not easy to build or a truly conclusive answer: the idea of a faceted circle made more sense. Easier to construct, easier to assemble into a series of similar spaces, and the flat walls accommodate more pragmatic considerations such as projection screens, monitors, white boards other casework to maximize support space. The faceted walls inside the lab created a different sort of atmosphere that gives the clear message that this is going to be something different. The faceted walls wrap around the students, and the presentation surfaces are aimed at everyone, not just those front and center. The Oval Stations provide for freer movement throughout the lab and the overall feeling is of being gathered together with everyone occupying a part of the same space; no here and there, no front and back, no corners. The combination of the octagonal lab and the Oval Station destroys the view and feeling of the traditional science lab and creates a space of exploration, collaboration and movement.

Oval Station example. Note that the students are all spread across the rounded edge with each station oriented for optimal line-of-sight.

Initially, there was a concern that this design was inefficient, wasting space with all the angled corners, but once a series of these shapes were arrayed it became clear that this configuration solved another planning issue associated with educational facilities: the need for small informal learning spaces distributed throughout the building. The octagonal shape allowed these sorts of spaces to be carved out without having to granulate the exterior wall. This solution presents a much simpler way to carve out these spaces, with the octagonal labs using the same amount of area as a traditional rectangular lab.

Interaction alcoves created by row of oval labs with no loss of area.

After implementing the Oval Station several times in learning labs for institutions like the University of Illinois and the University of Michigan, HED’s team concluded that the concept could be pushed further. In one instance, the client mused that one-day teaching in the round would be a more common pedagogical style. Their belief being that wireless technology may soon allow them to untether their work from the traditional “teaching wall” such that they could be located right in the middle of the labs, equally available to every student and yet still be able to disseminate their knowledge at strategic points in a lab. In this location they become much more a facilitator than just a lecturer. They were not willing to commit unequivocally to this idea, but they wanted the option to experiment pedagogically with their lab space. Since the only utility they needed at each Oval Station was power, we put their Oval Station on wheels and designed it with a utility tether, an extension cord that plugs into recessed floor boxes that we strategically placed throughout the lab.

“Teaching in the round" configuration.

By reimagining the conventional rectangular workbench, teaching laboratories can be arranged for greater collaboration, better visibility, and increased interaction between faculty and students. Whether through the application of the Oval Station in a traditional rectangular space, or in an oval-shaped classroom, the flexibility offered by this simple change in casework can completely reimagine an existing or planned space to match today’s (and possibly tomorrow’s) modern pedagogical methods and needs.

Oval Station in traditional lab layout.
Built Oval Station in oval lab.
Oval Station in Oval lab layout.

John Varley PE, LEED AP BD+C, HBDP, is an Associate and Mechanical Engineering Leader in Harley Ellis Devereaux’s (HED’s) Chicago office. An alumnus of Cleveland State University and The University of Akron, John has over 30 years of diverse experience specializing in the development of environmental control and mechanical systems for research and laboratory facilities.

Mark Hartmann, AIA, LEED AP, is an alumnus of The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Southern Illinois University. After over 30 years of client service and design innovation as a Laboratory Planner, he retired in early 2018 from Harley Ellis Devereaux’s (HED’s) Chicago office.