Renovation lessons learned at GRCC

Grand Rapids Community College took the lessons learned in renovating part of Cook Hall and applied it a few blocks away at the former Davenport University campus.

GRCC spent about $2.5 million to renovate two floors in Sneden Hall, which is housing students in social sciences and criminal justice classes as well as faculty offices. It was scheduled to open today with the start of the fall semester. GRCC purchased the 415 E. Fulton St. building last year from Davenport, which moved its main campus to Caledonia Township.

GRCC revealed last week that it is renaming the former Davenport University to GRCC DeVos Campus.

The new name reflects gifts from the DeVos and VanderWeide families for a total investment of $34 million including renovations at Warren Hall for faculty offices.

The college presented tours last week of classroom renovations completed this year at Sneden Hall.

GRCC purchased the seven-acre site in 2009.

Victoria Janowiak, executive director of operational planning, presented GRCC’s experience at a recent Continuous Quality Improvement Network conference in Fort Collins, Colo., primarily aimed at community colleges. The CQIN is part of a quality initiative conducted through the North Central Association, which provides higher education accreditation, Janowiak explained.

“They always ask for presentations on how they brought learning from previous summer institutes back to their campus,” said Janowiak.

More than $1 million in work took place at the Cook building in 2008, said Janowiak. That one-floor renovation took long hallways and classroom boxes and opened them up via natural light, transparent walls, and chairs, tables, couches and desks that could be used not only in classrooms but also in spaces flexible enough to accommodate informal meetings and studying, and to encourage connections between students and faculty as well as access to technology and tutoring.

Progressive AE, Steelcase Inc. and IDEO, a California design and innovation firm closely associated with Steelcase, worked with GRCC on the Cook project, Janowiak said. The college incorporated inspiration from Steelcase University, the office furniture’s location on 44th Street that showcases innovations in learning space design.

“They were talking about wanting to create learning spaces that inspired people to do their best work, that inspired people to come and learn and work and teach. We kind of looked at each other and went ‘They know more about spaces impact learning than we do, and we’re learning experts,'” Janowiak said.

“We thought about how we might take that experience and the brainstorming that we had done with part of IDEO to look at a renovation project very differently. Historically, up until then when we did a renovation, it was within the existing walls and within the same kind of four-wall hallway-classroom structure.”

She said GRCC conducted a research project to examine how the Cook renovations impacted teaching techniques, then poured what it learned into the newly acquired buildings as they underwent renovation this year.

Faculty members participated in a one-year research effort in which they described the impact the space had on their teaching. Instructors’ fears about glass classroom walls leading to distracted students never materialized, Janowiak said.

“We lost some classroom space on the floor, and sacrificed classroom space for wider hallway passageways that allow for staging and student gathering right outside classrooms, which was risky also. To faculty, that was a concern about noise.”

In fact, it turned out that the new approach to learning space design encouraged instructors to try new techniques and methods of pedagogy, she said.

“Behavior changed in this space,” Janowiak added. “You walk through that space on the busiest classroom schedule day of the week … and what you see are students engaged in studying activities, being respectful of other activities that are going on in the space, using it in very appropriate ways, teamwork, individual work.”

Now some of what was learned is being applied to the 23-classroom project at the new campus extension, which is being renamed. For example, instructors found they had to prepare more than one lesson plan: one that took advantage of technology and other innovations in the new space, and another for use in the older, low-tech, low-touch classrooms. At Sneden Hall on the former DU campus, all classrooms will be equipped with similar technology to eliminate that snag.

Teachers also noted that students had to squirm around in their seats to see the whiteboards on all the classroom’s walls.

“So in Sneden Hall, all the classroom seating — every single chair — is a swivel chair,” Janowiak said.

Two rooms, one on each floor, have been modeled after Steelcase University’s learn-lab concept, and will be the subject of additional research, she said. Those rooms will have even more technology, including three projectors and no obvious front to the classroom. The idea is to eliminate the back of the room.

The next research study will look at student response to the new space. Criminal justice, social science and psychology students and faculty are tagged to use Sneden.

“Environment matters,” Janowiak said. “It was so unbelievably evident at Cook. It’s why people behave differently in a cathedral than they do a bowling alley.”

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