Bridging the Social Distancing Gap

Taking technology outside to maximize the potential of outdoor campus spaces

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CoorsTek Center for Applied Science and Engineering © Nic Lehoux

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we live, work, and learn — and five months in, Americans are still finding their footing in this new environment. As summer turns to fall, colleges and universities are grappling with difficult decisions about the 2020–2021 academic year, balancing their promises to provide exemplary teaching and learning environments with the new reality of social distancing.

As architects, we are inherently problem solvers. And while none of us have all the answers in these unprecedented times, we wanted to use our collective energy, training, and creativity to offer a range of possible solutions to the challenges facing higher education institutions today.

To that end, the Bohlin Cywinski Jackson team — along with partners from Ground Reconsidered, The Sextant Group/NV5, Vanderweil Engineers, and the Siebel Center for Design at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign — led a virtual design charrette focused on extending the life of outdoor campus spaces.

We considered four scenarios in various climates and outdoor contexts to better understand the spectrum of possibility. Together, we brainstormed, sketched, and discussed how our college and university clients might assess their outdoor campus spaces, rethink their potential, and adapt them for outdoor learning, studying, and meeting — both immediately, and, in the future. Our time together yielded a number of possible solutions, but something rose to the top as an immediate action: how to best leverage technology in a hybrid/outdoor learning environment.

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Sketches from design charrette © Bohlin Cywinski Jackson

Rethink the Classroom Model

When we think of 21st-century learning, we think of smart classrooms — and it’s true that we have optimized teaching in technologically advanced spaces. Andrew J. Milne, Ph.D., principal audio-visual consultant at The Sextant Group/NV5, suggests that it is time we dial that back.

Lecture style teaching can and should occur virtually for now, and professors should get comfortable recording their lectures for both live streaming and on-demand access. Platforms like Zoom — while certainly not ideal — have allowed us to connect with each other virtually, and should continue to be used as teaching and collaboration tools. Large classroom settings — even outdoors — just aren’t practical in our socially distanced world.

While most (if not all for some schools) of this year’s learning will be virtual, there are huge psychological benefits in being together when it’s safe and possible to do so. Milne encourages professors teaching small, in-person classes to “set the tone of the classroom without tech.” What can be done with rolling, external displays, whiteboards, or projection screens when gathering in small groups? What can students read or study before class online, so that in-person time is focused on talking more with one another instead of following a lecture or presentation? Milne encourages institutions to think about why we want to be in person — and save only the most appropriate, small group activities for in-person learning.

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An Open Air Class on Day Camp Rutherford, New York (Manhattan Island) across river, 1911 © Library of Congress

Maximize Outdoor Spaces

Current research suggests that being outside with others is safer than being inside when it comes to reducing the spread of COVID-19. And because college campuses are often known for their outdoor spaces, teaching and learning outside seems like an obvious choice. That is until you start to consider the realities of a socially distant outdoor classroom subject to the whims of mother nature.

Challenges to mitigate:

  • Weather
  • Distance
  • Speech intelligibility
  • Display readability
  • Ambient light
  • Electrical power
  • Accessibility
  • Personal comfort

Derek Steketee, PE, LEED AP, Engineering Principal at R.G. Vanderweil Engineers explained that while the great lawns of traditional college campuses are probably top-of-mind for outdoor classroom use, a variety of smaller spaces — located on different parts of campus — are actually more desirable.

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Marquez Hall, Colorado School of Mines © Nic Lehoux

Different areas will be warmer or cooler depending on the time of day, level of cover, and wind conditions, providing more options in terms of viable space planning. Derek suggests thinking of the passive things an institution can do to optimize the “micro-climates” in different areas of campus:

  • Maximize the use of shaded areas in warmer weather and spaces warmed by the sun in cooler weather
  • Meet on grass instead of dark surfaces like asphalt or concrete
  • Consider sourcing fabric partitions or shades to manipulate the angle of the sun

Though it won’t be a perfect solution, having a variety of different spaces around campus increases the likelihood that outdoor learning can occur on any given day.

Take Tech Outside

Even small groups of 10 or 15 students, with an instructor, seated six feet apart, can occupy upwards of twenty feet of space. The bigger the group, the bigger the footprint becomes. How can we bring technology outside and use it to help us learn together in-person, even when we are at least six feet apart?

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Proposed outdoor classroom layouts from design charrette. © Bohlin Cywinski Jackson

Milne encourages us to think about the devices that many students will already have with them — headphones, laptops, tablets, cell phones — and how they might be used to share screens, hear audio, take notes, and connect digitally even when together physically.

Here’s one scenario:

  • A class of 15, with one professor, gathers six feet apart from one another on a grassy part of campus (maybe seated in camp chairs, which each individual has and brings from class to class)
  • Everyone has a tablet or laptop, connected to WiFi and wired headphones (which conserve power over Bluetooth headphones), and logs into a Zoom classroom
  • Using screen sharing and a headset, the professor defines the goals and learning objectives for the class and introduces a small group activity
  • Students are listening on their own headphones and watching on their laptops/tablets
  • The class breaks up into five groups of three to do group work, as instructed
  • If weather conditions allow it, small groups can communicate face-to-face at a distance
  • If not, they can continue to share screens and work on their devices in smaller Zoom “breakout rooms”
  • Towards the end of class, the teacher can put everyone back in the main Zoom classroom, and each group can report back on their work

Another consideration is that not everyone will return to campus, even when campuses are open to students, faculty, and staff. So institutions that are holding in-person activities should consider leveraging distance communication tools to record and stream in-person sessions. Even if a student isn’t physically present on campus, they would likely be heartened to see their classmates and professors “together” in a familiar campus setting, even virtually.

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18- Person classroom layout sketch from design charrette © Bohlin Cywinski Jackson

Access and Equity

Reliance on personal tech raises issues of equity, as not every student has access to the same tech devices. Now, more than ever, it’s important for colleges and universities to think about providing their students — on-campus and off-campus — with laptops and/or tablets, wired headsets, and other technology that could make their hybrid learning experience more effective. Similarly, institutions must consider the accessibility of their outdoor learning spaces, as not all outdoor areas will be ADA compliant.

When it comes to infrastructure, campuses need to test (and likely enhance) their WiFi networks, as strong, high-capacity WiFi will be absolutely crucial. When so much learning is taking place online, ensuring that everyone can connect and stay connected — from all parts of campus — is vital. Power is also a chief consideration. Students could be equipped with personal portable charge packs, and campuses could consider installing outdoor charging stations in heavily trafficked areas of campus.

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Lauder College House, University of Pennsylvania © Jeffery Totaro

Remain Flexible

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s to be more adaptable to change. Our world is continuously changing and evolving and we’re all reckoning with it in our own ways. Even though each person’s — or institution’s — situation is different, we are connected by a shared new reality that has brought forth a host of challenges.

The ideas we share today aren’t ideal solutions — because this isn’t an ideal situation. But we hope they might spark ideas, help you solve even one problem, and make your return to campus — virtual, in-person, or both — a little bit easier.

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Designing buildings that inspire connection and wonder in every person who experiences them.

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