Learning at the Crossroads
“The medical school must continue to provide a rich learning environment that reflects the continual evolution of the biomedical field.”
LARRY J. SHAPIRO, MD
These spaces will give us a place to have the kind of interactions that really do build a sense of community.
ALISON WHELAN, MD
WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF MEDICINE is known for providing a collaborative, collegial atmosphere for learning. Beginning this summer, the school will further enhance this atmosphere with the addition of a new centralized, dedicated teaching facility. Called the Farrell Learning and Teaching Center, the building will, for the first time, create a “hearth” for learning that both students and teachers can call home.
Located at the heart of the medical center, the striking six-story structure will serve as the main venue for teaching and events at the school. Official groundbreaking is slated for fall 2003, with completion by the end of summer 2005.
“The medical school must continue to provide a rich learning environment that reflects the continual evolution of the biomedical field. When this project is completed, our students will have a truly exceptional environment in which to prepare for new challenges in science and medicine,” says Larry J. Shapiro, executive vice chancellor for medical affairs and dean of the School of Medicine.
The facility, which will serve medical and graduate students, will be built at the corner of Scott and Euclid avenues, abutting the North Building. Nearly every level will house teaching spaces, as well as hearth areas for social gathering. For after-hours learning, the building also will include computer rooms and study carrels. Level six initially will be shell space; adding a seventh floor will be possible in the future.
The need for such a facility is widely recognized, says Philip Stahl, PhD, professor and head of the Department of Cell Biology and Physiology. Current teaching spaces are inconveniently scattered throughout several buildings; many are sized inappropriately and have inconvenient or limited access to audiovisual and computer technology, he says.
There have been sporadic efforts in the past to create a teaching facility, but the idea truly took flight in January 1998 when former executive vice chancellor for medical affairs and dean William A. Peck, MD, requested the formation of a steering committee to spearhead the project, says Stahl, who chairs that committee. Other lead steering committee members include Alison Whelan, MD, associate dean for medical student education; John Russell, PhD, associate dean of graduate education and professor of molecular biology and pharmacology; and from the Office of Design and Construction, director Rick Schaefer and project manager Roy Van Hee.
Stahl and others credit Peck’s commitment as being key to the project’s fruition. The executive faculty endorsed the building’s preliminary design in 1999. St. Louis architectural firm Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum (HOK) Inc. was hired in 2001.
Design of the building was driven by extensive input from faculty, students and administrators. The result is a building designed to accommodate a wide array of teaching methods and tools.
Level one houses two lecture halls. The larger of the two accommodates more than 140 students. The smaller lecture hall, designated primarily for the Division of Biology and Biomedical Sciences (DBBS), is built for 80 students. Level two includes 16 small-group discussion rooms, six designated for the DBBS. These spaces are critical for supporting the lasting trend toward more small-group interaction in medical education, says Whelan. Levels three and four feature a total of eight teaching laboratories. Level five simulates a realistic outpatient clinic for honing physical examination skills.
Several features were built in to meet two key requirements: flexibility and convenience. All furniture and audiovisuals in the teaching labs and small group rooms are mobile to easily meet the needs of any given class. Motorized partitions are included to adjust classroom size. As computer and audiovisual needs change, wiring can easily be replaced. “The flexible design of the building reflects the fact that we expect to have a dynamic, evolving curriculum. I think that is an important statement about our approach to medical education,” says Whelan, associate professor of medicine and pediatrics.
Electronic technology also was identified as key. “More and more, the critical information we need to communicate to students is available electronically. So one of our main goals was to make access to these types of tools as contemporary, effective and universal as possible,” says steering committee member Erika Crouch, MD, PhD, professor of pathology and immunology and coursemaster of the second-year pathology course.
Every workstation in every teaching space will have data connections. Teaching labs will feature electronic marker boards that allow electronic downloading of information written on the display. Students will be able to access computer-based course materials from their study carrels, plug into the instructor’s electronic materials during lectures, and check e-mail in the hearth areas.
To support after-hours learning, levels three and four of the Farrell Learning and Teaching Center will house study carrels for each first- and second-year student, equipped with network access, marker boards and personal desk space. For group study, students will gather in the empty teaching rooms nearby. “It’s important for students to have a place to study and a space they can call their own. The carrels will provide that,” says Jason Stephenson, fourth-year class president and steering committee member.
Hearth space on nearly every level will offer a “living room” atmosphere for students and faculty to meet and relax. Hearth space on level one will include a cafeteria. Level two’s hearth will be the building’s largest, anchored by a comfortable, quiet seating area and fireplace.
“These spaces will give us a place to have the kind of interactions that really do build a sense of community,” says Whelan. For example, students will have an easier time maintaining relationships with classmates as the later years of training take them in different directions, says Stephenson.
The facility is intended to draw faculty and students together from all corners of campus, says Stahl. For that reason, planners chose a site squarely at the crossroads of the medical center’s clinical and basic science domains— an easy walk for either a faculty member coming from the hospital or a graduate student coming from a basic science laboratory. The location also offers close proximity to the administration and to the Bernard Becker Medical Library, and its technological resources that are key to supporting the medical curriculum.
In the same vein, the facility includes teaching space for DBBS students, with the goal of co-mingling the MD and PhD training programs under one roof, says Russell. “This will provide an important bridge between basic and clinical research that will foster communication and speed the translation of research breakthroughs to the diagnosis and treatment of human disease.”
The Farrell Learning and Teaching Center will serve several intangible purposes as well, planners say. For one, it will define the school’s entrance and provide a “front door.” As the school’s main teaching venue, it also will embody the school’s educational mission in a meaningful way, and play an important role in recruiting the best students and faculty, Crouch says.
“I think this project is exciting because it sends the message to both students and faculty that teaching matters here—that we care about them being in a comfortable, beautiful, highly effective learning environment,” says Whelan. “That’s an incredibly important message.”