McGill University: undergraduate experience

The ergonomics of education

A novel layout transforms undergraduate chemistry at McGill

Innovation isn’t always about technology. When it came time to replace and update almost 900 square metres of undergraduate chemistry lab space at McGill University, a new floor plan and design transformed both the space and the introductory chemistry experience. The resulting split-level facility maximizes efficiency, reduces equipment costs and, above all, promotes an interactive, engaged learning model.

Dr. Bruce Lennox, who worked on the redesign project, explains that, with more than 1,200 students coming through the labs every term, reinvention was long overdue.

“Our former lab was built to teach the chemistry of 1965,” he says. “We had capacity issues, but more than anything, it was unmanageable in bringing innovation into our teaching. One of the labs had no chemical handling capacity at all, no fume hoods. You could do more things at home with your stove and your fan.”

Dr. Lennox says McGill’s goal was to provide students with facilities that were not just equipped for today, but that would serve undergraduates 40 years from now.

Creating a group dynamic

The former chem labs consisted of long benches where students would work individually.

“It was a little like going to a boardroom meeting with everyone facing the wall, instead of around a table,” Dr. Lennox describes. “Now we have pods that can accommodate up to six students, allowing them to talk to each other, to interact.”

The innovative new layout encourages teamwork, group support and peer-to-peer teaching, according to teaching assistant Amani Hariri.

“Instead of intervening with one student at a time, I can explain a concept to a whole table,” Ms. Hariri says. “They help each other, and I monitor the process rather than just telling them what to do.”

She finds the process a great deal more efficient. “Last year, I had 16 students, and I used to be exhausted because I had to monitor each student individually. This semester, I have up to 30 students and I’m finding it much easier.”

The new layout also allows for a variety of experiments to take place simultaneously, with students moving from station to station. Previously, all students did the same experiment at once, requiring a significant number of set-ups.

“A single hot plate costs $600, so if you had to replace 180 hot plates, you’d practically need a grant,” says Dr. Lennox, quantifying the inefficiency of the former arrangement. As it is now possible to rotate through a set of four or more simultaneously, the new layout requires only 25 per cent of the equipment, helping keep costs low.

Rapid results

Though the new lab has been open only since October, Dr. Lennox calls the response from students “fantastic,” especially among those who had taken an introductory course in the old lab last year. Not only are they excited, but they’re also learning better.

“We’ve seen in real time, real life, the way that students work together and the way they can share results has improved,” says Dr. Lennox.

Since the layout is easily replicable, he hopes to see the lab design innovation repeated across the country.

“The innovation originates entirely in the design – much to the credit of the architects responsible for this project There’s fine-tuning to be done, but if you’re making a new lab, I see no reason why this can’t be replicated inch by inch.”

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