The Spark of innovation: flexible learning spaces at Southampton Solent University

From the exterior, the Spark looks almost like any other modern university teaching building. However, inside you find yourself dwarfed in a 60-metre long, five-storey atrium, with what looks like a Martian from HG Wells’ War of the Worlds towering over you!

Designed by architectural partnership Scott Brownrigg and costing £33 million, the Spark is a truly extraordinary teaching and learning space. It contains 35 classrooms and five lecture rooms, which can accommodate up to 1,500 students in total. It’s intended to encourage more flexible, active approaches to teaching and learning, including the flipped classroom and BYOD. In the words of the designers, it ‘promotes interdisciplinary activity and collaboration; enabling staff and students to see and share their learning and teaching experiences, knowledge and research.’

The Spark was the venue for UCISA’s recent Spotlight on Digital Capabilities, and naturally our hosts were keen to show it off to participants. So I seized my smartphone and joined a tour…

 The Pod

The Pod is nothing if not imaginative: views from below and above. On top is an area for discussion and collaboration – although perhaps not an ideal venue for vertigo sufferers.

The ‘front’ wall (which is actually flat) is taken up from floor to ceiling by a huge screen.

Furniture

Some classrooms offer a number of seating options. The room above actually has four different types of furniture (the fourth, in the window alcoves, is shown more clearly in ‘Collaborative and breakout spaces’ below). Desks are height-adjustable for wheelchair users; in fact, the entire building is designed with accessibility to the fore. For example, two classrooms near the lifts can accommodate up to 30 students in wheelchairs.

A triangle or trapezium configuration makes it easier for students to work together on a shared artefact. Note the castors on the feet of tables and chairs for ease of movement.

Technology

Each classroom has a 75″ touch screen (left), the larger rooms having additional ‘repeater’ screens at intervals along the walls. All rooms are fully equipped for lecture capture, with recordings uploaded to the VLE. Visualisers (right) enable the teacher to project images from texts and other artefacts on the desk. These images can also be included in the lecture recordings.

The ceilings are fitted with baffles to optimise the acoustics.

Collaborative and ‘break-out’ spaces

The cubes jutting out from the right-hand wall in the photos of the Pod above are spaces for informal collaboration and socialisation (left photo). Teaching rooms also have break-out spaces (right): in this case, for working in pairs.

Lecture theatres

Of course, since lectures can still be a valid, and valuable, element in a teacher’s repertoire, there is space in the Spark for traditional lecture theatres, including Palmerston (left) and Jane Austen (right). Or are they so traditional? The Palmerston lecture theatre has an unusually spacious floor plan, allowing the teacher to move around among the students and present from anywhere in the theatre. And the writing surfaces in both theatres have power sockets.


Notes

Some of the information in the post was obtained from a news item on Southampton Solent University’s website: A new building to ‘Spark’ the imagination.

The quotation in the second paragraph is taken from an item on the Scott Brownrigg website: Southampton Solent’s Spark Building completes.

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