May 19, 2014
THEME: Learning

The Art of Innovation: Designing Learning Spaces for a Creative, Collaborative Future

 “Most leaders agree on one thing…that the long-term health of our economy and full economic recovery are dependent upon creating far more innovation.”
                                                                               – Tony Wagner, Creating Innovators

In recent years, numerous researchers, business and civic leaders, and educators have highlighted the primacy of creativity and the ability to innovate as skills that feed our economic engine. At the same time, many of these same leaders and reports on innovation lament the deficit of these same skills in today’s students. Some point a finger at our education system, suggesting that we’ve legislated out creativity through a misplaced focus on standardized testing and No Child Left Behind.

Despite this recent criticism, the United States enjoys a rich history and tradition of innovation. The question is, in an increasingly competitive global landscape can the US sustain this legacy? If one accepts the notion that an educational system has an important role to play in the development of the skills that lead to jobs that help feed innovation, then perhaps it is time to reboot and retool these systems as well as the facilities that house them, both of which rely on designs from a time and an economy that no longer exist.

While there is certainly a laundry list of issues that need careful consideration in the design of any educational facility, I would like to shine a spotlight specifically on creativity and innovation and how we might design spaces that inspire those attributes in our students. A review of recent literature on innovation and how and where it occurs uncovers many similar themes – least of which is the importance of collaboration among networks of diverse thinkers. Steven Johnson’s recent book, Where Good Ideas Come From chronicles the history of innovation and posits that while some breakthroughs do occur in a “eureka” moment – that brilliant stroke of individual genius – the majority are more likely to occur in settings analogous to an 18th century English coffeehouse where poets, architects, engineers, philosophers, artists, laborers, etc. all met to discuss the issues and problems of the day. In that setting, the free flow of ideas and the serendipitous collisions between these diverse perspectives provided fertile ground for the birth of breakthrough ideas.

Interestingly, the physical environment of companies known for innovation often share similarities with these English coffeehouses. Think of Bell Labs, MIT Building 20, Xerox PARC, and more recently Microsoft Building 99, Pixar, Google, Apple and IDEO to name a few. Common to these are multidisciplinary, integrated teams working in close proximity, all focusing on solutions to a particular problem. The work in these spaces is energized by this adjacency. One can often find it intentionally “messy,” with many prototypes and failures that pave the road to successful solutions hanging around. If these companies offer a signpost for how space and work might be organized to promote creative thinking and innovation, perhaps educational institutions might consider tearing a page from that playbook.

The Center for Advanced Professional Studies (CAPS)  in Blue Valley School District (Overland Park, KS) did just that. Started in 2009, CAPS is a profession-based program of study available to all junior and senior level students in the Blue Valley district. It weaves together an educational system and regional industry into a rich tapestry of opportunities for students to deeply explore areas of interest. Importantly, learning is student-driven and personalized. Students work in business, bioscience, engineering and human services-related professions on multidisciplinary student teams and with industry partners/mentors on real projects for real clients with real deadlines. Curriculum is continuously updated to keep pace with real world progress and keeps the innovation engine fueled. Coursework is replete not only with the technical know-how of those professions (taught frequently by industry professionals) but also with emphasis on “soft” interpersonal skills (collaboration, communication, presenting a compelling idea or business plan, etc.) that are often lacking in traditional education.

Among the many important attributes of the LEED Gold building for CAPS was the necessity to provide meaningful and numerous spaces in which students could collaborate. The new building and its decidedly “professional” atmosphere organizes the various profession-based “strands” around a three story atrium – itself the main collaboration zone in the building. This daylighted atrium and its wood amphitheater staircase allows all strands to gather and watch a student or industry presentation, attend or conduct workshops and seminars, spread out large projects, or just hang out and contemplate big problems. Flanking the atrium and within arm’s reach of teaching labs, broad “innovation zones” allow multidisciplinary teams to meet to do project work. More acoustically private collaboration spaces with varying types of furniture also are available throughout the building.

The results? This CAPS “coffeehouse” has produced an astounding array of student projects that often take on challenging and technically complex real-world problems. For instance, one group of students invented a drinking straw that purifies water through series of filters as one sucks on the straw. Think of the implications for third world countries where access to healthy water is difficult. This potentially life-saving straw – the Maji Straw – has received a full patent and to date eleven provisional patents have been bestowed on other products designed in the CAPS program. How do you spell innovation? C-A-P-S.

Perhaps it is time our educational system asked itself if we are truly equipping students with the tools they will need in the future.  Are the students coming out of their current educational programs creative, agile and thoughtful?  Do they truly understand that the world is getting smaller every day?  Using similar methods as the most innovative business around the world, CAPS demonstrates that space does in fact affect and inspire inhabitants.  By creating educational facilities that promote the same types of collaboration and knowledge sharing as an 18th century English coffeehouse once did, the United States can ensure that it will continue to be at the forefront of innovation.

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