Five convergence strategies to increase innovation in Science Education

Scientific learning and research are undergoing transformational changes and a new paradigm is emerging. 

By Charles Smith January 17, 2022
Courtesy: CannonDesign

Scientific learning and research are undergoing transformational changes. As academic institutions are looking for innovative ways to attract the new generation of STEM students while continually increasing their research capabilities, a new paradigm is emerging.

Science learning has become more complex, research is happening at a break-neck pace and ever-advancing technologies are driving new teaching models. To meet these demands, highly integrated teams across multiple fields and industries—that have been historically distinct disciplines—are coming together in new and exciting ways.

What is the Convergence Model?

Many have defined this shift as the “Convergence Revolution [1]”—an integration of knowledge and ways of thinking to tackle complex challenges and achieve new and innovative solutions that could not otherwise be obtained.

Higher education institutions should take note of the myriad opportunities for convergence. Many initiatives have been undertaken to expand awareness and encourage more scientists to adopt the convergence model of research. The National Science Foundation (NSF) has identified convergence research as one of its “10 Big Ideas” for the agency and is creating a solicitation process to encourage convergence in a subset of its research and center awards [2].

Assembling a Design Team to Promote Convergence

Convergence is the future of science learning and research. It is not easy to bring together the strengths of many disciplines; however, it is necessary to help solve the incredibly complex challenges of today. To begin a convergence project, it is necessary to carefully consider the capabilities of a design team. A design team that has convergence concepts in mind will generate new and unique ways of fostering convergence in a way that increases meaningful collaboration, optimizes flexibility and respects the wellbeing of students and faculty.

Additionally, a design team should reflect the convergence model itself—many experts from different backgrounds and specialties coming together to create the best scientific environment. A design team for a medical college could include a designer who knows the latest technologies used in hospitals, an education expert who understands the latest student collaboration methods, a laboratory designer who can optimize productivity and a behavioral health specialist who can advise on health and wellbeing strategies. A convergent team will provide the best opportunity for a successful convergence project.

5 Convergence Strategies to Increase Innovation

Bring often disparate departments together to encourage collisions of ideas

Convergence relies on previously disparate departments coming together to collaborate and ideate on challenges. To foster strong ties between departments, buildings should make it easier for people to interact and provide places where students and faculty are comfortable talking about topics other than work. One tactic is to create social spaces at intersections where people are likely to bump into acquaintances with whom they may not regularly work. To enhance the impact of central social spaces, these informal collaboration areas should be highly visible, located along central circulation paths, and within reasonable walking distances of key collaborators. In addition, these spaces should have amenities such as coffee, snacks, seating and comfortable standing gathering areas.

Courtesy: CannonDesign

Purdue University Northwest’s Nils K. Nelson Bioscience Innovations Building (BIB) facilitates unlikely connections, converging its College of Nursing and Department of Biology into a dynamic environment for interdisciplinary study and social engagement. The building features a three-story lobby, a grand staircase and glass walls that give real-time sight into academic and research programs. To encourage social interaction between students and staff, the building design offers open workstations, micro-offices and adjacent enclave rooms—offering right-sized settings for every type of work modality. By incorporating cross-disciplinary skills labs adjacent to social spaces, all students can experience the innovative culture.

Design spaces for industry partnerships

Converging university research with private industry is a major factor for institutions when considering funding opportunities. Industries rely on higher education institutions to deliver a pipeline of skilled workers and scientists, and as funding and resources tighten, universities are looking to industries to partner with them to help prepare students to seize their jobs. Thriving university/industry partnerships like this can generate massive opportunities for success: it can drive economic growth for a region, stabilize an entire generation of skilled workers, and fuel innovative breakthroughs and foster a spirit of entrepreneurship.

Courtesy: CannonDesign

The Emerging Technology and Entrepreneurship Complex (ETEC) at SUNY Albany is a testament to how design can play an influential role in this mission. Housing several academic programs with a focus on issues related to weather, climate, resilience, emergencies and disasters, ETEC is designed to be flexible and offer opportunities for industry collaborations. This nimble space in the building is attractive to industry partners looking to co-locate aspects of their operations in a STEM learning environment. By bridging the academic and the business sectors, the facility offers students exposure to real-world challenges and industry teams benefit from inquisitive and eager student minds.

Be visible and integrated into the surrounding community

Convergence strategies should extend beyond the physical building. The team should consider the site and surrounding community as part of the building’s sphere of impact. Convergence between overall science programming with the needs of the surrounding community can create a mutually beneficial relationship that will pay dividends extending far into the future.

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D’Youville College’s Health Professions Hub is a first-of-its-kind health center creating residual impact for the campus and the underserved community on the west side of Buffalo, NY. Opened in spring 2021, the 50,000 facility features innovative learning spaces, a workforce center, extensive virtual training resources, and a public clinic offering primary care, rehabilitation medicine, a pharmacy and more to the surrounding community. All at once, the building improves community access to healthcare services, introduces educational opportunities focused on breaking the cycle of chronic illness, prepares a new workforce to seize in-demand healthcare jobs, and supports a living-wage ecosystem for Buffalo’s West Side residents.

Create neighborhoods to foster unique interactions and spur research

Proximity fosters collaboration. A study at the University of Michigan supports co-locating team members, finding that “researchers who occupy the same building are 33 percent more likely to form new collaborations than researchers who occupy different buildings, and scientists who occupy the same floor are 57 percent more likely to form new collaborations than investigators who occupy different buildings.”[3]

Creating clearly defined “neighborhoods” in science buildings will help foster truly multidisciplinary arrangements within a learning space. Neighborhoods that bring together roughly 25 to 50 people (the prototypical “band” size in anthropological research) in one area will foster repeated, manageable interactions. In a laboratory workplace, this can be easily accomplished by providing right-sized open laboratories, with adjacent collaboration spaces and workspace.

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This concept of departmental zoning is a foundational design element of Towson University’s Science Facility. With the goals of maximizing the integration between teaching and research and fostering collaboration between multidisciplinary programs, the 320,000 sf facility houses all teaching, research and administrative functions for biology, PAGs (Physics, Astronomy, and Geosciences), chemistry, science education and environmental sciences. The building design knits the individual departments into shared spaces and “collaborative neighborhoods” that are adaptable to emerging academic needs and programmatic evolution. This layout makes the spaces both highly functional for teaching and spurring interactions that drive innovation forward.

Provide the latest and most relevant technologies to increase preparedness in high-demand fields

Without the convergence of relevant, cutting-edge technologies within these science buildings, learning and research quickly becomes obsolete and affect the readiness of the talent pipeline to high-demand jobs. Specialized imaging, genomics facilities and prototyping facilities are just a few examples of scientific core facilities. These “attracting” core facilities can provide cost-effective means to access state-of-the-art instrumentation and services while enabling students and faculty to more easily shift their research and consider convergence strategies.

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Advanced simulation is the cutting-edge training tool being used in the University of Illinois Chicago’s College of Medicine Surgical and Innovation Training Lab (SITL). The 17,000-sf lab takes simulation and surgical education to the next level by creating a space for “out of the box” thinking, experimentation, research, collaboration and discoveries. Students are prompted to explore the radical possibilities of surgical innovation, as the space allows them to test surgical procedures in untested environments such as outer space, the desert or a life raft. Designed with the inspiration of theater stages, the centerpiece of the SITL is the Innovation Lab, which connects a traditional surgical space and an experimentation research garage known as the Surgical Innovation Garage. The convergence of advanced technology and medical science within the learning environment creates the backdrop for students, faculty and researchers to develop surgical rooms of the future.


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