Thinking about space, part eleventy-thousand

I’ve posted here in the past about my obsession concern with spaces and what they signal: who’s welcome here, what kind of work is done here, etc. I’ve been thinking about space again recently—specifically, research space and recruitment to the field and how the two intersect.

A bit of background: Last year Carleton started a new computer science summer program for high school students. The program lasts 3 weeks, and consists of classes in the mornings and guided research in the afternoons. I teach an HCI (human-computer interaction) module in this program, and my guided research group works on HCI projects related to my actual research.

Last year, when I taught in the program, I had pretty much the perfect lab space for my guided research group. It was one of our CS labs. Only half the room has computers, and these are pretty nicely spaced out. The room also features windows/natural light, lots of whiteboard space, and a sitting/collaboration/conversation area. The space allowed people to move around freely, sketch out ideas, and step away from the computer from time to time.

lab space sketch

Figure 1: A sketch of last year’s lab space.










Due to room availability and other issues, I won’t have this lab space again this year. Instead, my research group will be housed in our new teaching lab. While this space is great as a teaching space, it’s not so great as a collaborative space. Here’s what the layout looks like, roughly:

lab space sketch

Figure 2: The lab space I’ll be in this year. Much different from last year’s space!









The computers are in rigid rows on immovable tables. There’s a fair amount of whiteboard space, but it’s all in the front of the room. It’s harder to move around, and there’s no space to step away from the computers.

The worst part for me? No windows! (The horror!)

My challenge is to find a way to turn this space into a more collaborative, welcoming space. Not only do I want to make it more workable for the type of research work my students will be doing, but I also want to make it less clinical/sterile and more warm—because this will be the primary working space for high school students whom we’d like to become computer scientists someday, and there’s not much about this space that says that computer science is fun or welcoming or collaborative.

So how do I plan to pull this off?

  • Removing some of the computers and half of the chairs from the room. This will free up some table space for sketching, conversations, and planning away from the computer, and improve the walking flow around the room.
  • Large sticky note pads and markers, to make up for the lack of whiteboards around the room. I’d love for the walls of the room to be covered with sketches, lists, mockups, user stories, etc. by the end of the program!
  • Designating the front of the room as our large group meeting space. Sometimes we’ll need to discuss things without the distraction of the computers, and it turns out there’s enough room in the front to pull up chairs and chat as a group. (It will be a little tight, but it will work.)
  • Pictures on the walls, to make up for the lack of windows. I’m thinking nature pictures, so that maybe we’ll forget about the lack of windows!

I haven’t been able to do any of this yet since there’s some construction going on in the room, but I’ll be curious to see how things work out next week when I’m able to get in there and start rearranging things, and see if I can make my vision a reality. It will also be interesting to see if these few cosmetic changes will really change the feel and environment of the room, or if the signals in the room will be too strong to overcome. Regardless, it’s an interesting experience and challenge, and I can’t wait to see how it turns out in the end.