Hugelearninglabplanned at Queen’s

Queen’s Engineering Building
The future for sustainabilityseemed a littlebrighter last weekafter I visited James McCowan and James Mason to learn about a new engineering building planned for Queen’sUniversity in Kingston.
As nearly as I canmake out from plans, the building willincorporate the mostadvancedenvironmental technologies available. But, far more important, itwillbeakeystone in a new approach to teaching.

 

It willbecome the site of a radical shift thatwill move the primaryemphasisfromteaching about things (formulas, chemical composition of materials, stress factors) to teaching about process (how to search out solutions, how to accessknowledgefromotherfields, how to workwith people in teams, and how to find a paththroughcomplexities).

 

It will train students in multidisciplinaryapproaches, and itwillprizeflexibility and innovation.

 

In short, the building and the teaching program willtry to incorporate the sameholisticapproach to decisionmakingthatisso essential to sustainability, wherethereis no single right answer, and where the bewilderingarray of rippleeffectsisso extensive that the onlyway of coping is to seek expertise from a wide range of disciplines.

 

McCowanisassociatedean of the Integrated Learning Centre in the Faculty of Applied Science, and Masonisassociatedean of the faculty’s first year program.

 

The problem, as theyseeit, isthat the exponentialgrowth in knowledge has meantincreasingspecialization, and the increasing isolation of specialists. So, saysMcCowan, « The challenge is to giveengineers a broadeducation at a time when the technicalmaterialisbecomingnarrower and narrower.’’

 

The solution, theysay, is « projectbasedlearning’’ — learning by doing — « and thisisquitedifferentfromwhatwe do now,’’ saysMcCowan. The tenexisting engineering buildings are equippedwith lecture halls and laboratories. The new building will have 42 meeting rooms and several studios witha total of 68 workbenches, all of whichwillbedesignedsostudentscanwork in small teams.

 

Instead of lecturing on subjects, professors and teaching assistants willassignprojects and team willbeasked to design ways of implementingthem.

 

All ten of the faculty’sdepartmentswill use the new building simultaneously, whichmeansthatstudentsfromdepartments as diverse as chemical engineering and geological or mathematical engineering willbeworkingside by side.

 

« But whatwouldthey have in common,’’ I ask?

 

« Lots,’’ was the answer. There’s a large overlap. All studentsneed to betrained in thermodynamics, for instance, and fluiddynamics, control systems, and soliddynamics. McCowan and Mason are expecting to see a lot of cross fertilization.

 

« This building, and thisteaching style, are going to free students to learn on theirown,’’ saysMcCowan. It’s a verypowerfulway of learning, headds, and it sticks withstudents, setting the stage for life-long learningwhichthey’llneed in order to stay on top of « all the specializedstuff’’ thatthey’ll have to know.

 

The building, itself, willbe a hugelearninglaboratory. McCowan and Mason call it a « live building’’ becauseitwillbeequippedwith monitoring devicesrecordingeverythingtheycanthink of. « A building changes all the time, depending on occupancy, weather, time of day, and materials,’’ McCowansays. So sensorswillconstantlychecksuchthings as energyefficiency, air quality, air flows, heatloss, the bend in structures cause by the weight of people or snowloads.

 

To date, $20 million of the $24 million needed for construction has been raised, and the building isscheduled to open in the spring of 2004.

 

« Wehopeitwillbe the best building available for teachingenvironmental technologies,’’ McCowansays. Theywillbetrying, he and Masonsay, to make a holisticapproach « an integral part of a student’s existence’’ — and that’swhat I findsoexciting: the prospect thatgenerations of engineering studentswillemergefromQueen’s more sympathetic to the mosaic in whichwe live.

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