An LSC Guide Essay: Georgia Institute of Technology

Problem-driven learning spaces at the U.A. Whitaker Biomedical Engineering Building

The Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering was founded in 1997 as a joint department between the College of Engineering at Georgia Tech and the School of Medicine at Emory University. Two years later, the young department, with no students, a handful of faculty members and no building, applied for and were successful in winning a Leadership-Development grant from the Whitaker Foundation. Two forms of visionary leadership were required to receive these substantial grants — leadership in the field of biomedical engineering and leadership in educational innovation.
The Coulter department, in collaboration with cognitive and learning scientists on campus, proposed developing undergraduate and graduate programs that embraced a problem-based learning (PBL) approach to education. Borrowed from medical education, PBL was designed to be an apprenticeship model of learning in which small groups worked closely with an expert facilitator in solving real-world, complex problems. This approach is well suited to the cognitive and learning challenges associated with the field of biomedical engineering. Such engineers need to be able to analyze biosystems using physical laws and properties, understand pathophysiologies of the human body, and design healthcare solutions that address disease and disability. They need to be systems thinkers and accomplished communicators who can work in teams translating across disciplinary boundaries. In a constantly changing field, they need to feel empowered to direct and evaluate their own learning. Most significantly, as identified by the early team of faculty members, BME graduates need to become integrative thinkers and problem solvers, using the cognitive strategy of model-based reasoning to traverse the gap between the life sciences and engineering. These considerations both anchored and imbued the design of the building and the classrooms. 
In those early planning discussions, another concept took shape in design discussions — community of learners. This concept celebrated the idea that everyone inhabiting the building would be a learner, but at different scales ranging from undergraduates, to lab directors (PIs) exploring the frontiers of science. If done right, the building could support a vertical integration whereby learners at all levels could be made to feel at home, to be visible and accessible to each other, thereby kindling a sense of community and a commitment to mentoring at all levels. This model of learning as changing forms of participation and membership in a community had significant implications for the design of the research and educational space. 
In adopting the PBL approach, particularized spaces were essential to ensuring the success of the curriculum. Since the predominant reasoning strategy of engineers is to create diagrammatic and mathematical models, the classrooms needed to support this practice among undergraduates. Thus, a suite of five small PBL rooms, with writable white walls to the ceiling became the educational anchor for the building. The surround white boards serve as an external memory, a site for articulating, hypothesizing and negotiating. More technically, they support a distributed cognitive system, a collective of minds that is necessary to reach a solution to the complex problems given to the PBL classes. When not in use for classes, the PBL rooms are sought after meeting spaces for student groups, for solitary studying, and for design teams. 
These classrooms spill out onto the BME student lounge area that invites students to rest, to refresh, to congregate and to study. Commonly, the comfortable chairs are populated by student teams waiting to use the PBL rooms, or study groups working out problems or sleep deprived students grabbing catnaps from early morning until late at night.. This space was meant as a gathering space for BME students, a place that in its very existence announced that they are members of the community. 
The design studio in the basement of the building is generally a mess because it is a studio in the true sense of the word. This is where students take their first steps as designing engineers, learning to draw build paper prototypes and navigate a design from start to finish. The space is truly reconfigurable and responsive to the changing pedagogical needs. Significantly, a great deal of attention was given to the acoustics and the damping down of sound because the ceilings are low and as many as eighty student teams could be working as the same time. Carpet, acoustic ceiling tiles and pushpin fabric wallboards keep the sound at a very manageable level even when the design teams are busy communicating or building prototypes. The ambiance is relaxed and inviting signaling that students have access to this space whenever not in use for classes. 
The other three levels of the building house the research laboratories and offices where significant numbers of undergraduate and graduate students mingle and work. Open lab spaces are the norm where resources are pooled and equipment is shared. Conference rooms are found on every floor where a faculty committee meeting might follow a student meeting. Anyone can reserve these rooms for gatherings, fostering a co-mingling of faculty and students on all floors. 
Taken together, the PBL classrooms, the design studio, the research labs, the mechanics shop and the instructional labs have been to designed to support and nurture a community of learners, where students are empowered to be agents of their own learning who are fearless in the face of a complex problem.