Free space to free minds

March 23, 2007

How do you motivate students today? Melanie Newman reports on a new joint initiative.

A futuristic workspace illuminated by more than 3,000 multi-coloured lights and draped with theatrical curtains is expected to unleash the creative potential of students at Sussex University.

With floor tiles shaped like puzzle pieces, blinking plasma screens on the walls and Meccano-like light rigs suspended from the ceiling, the space resembles a sophisticated playroom - which is precisely what its creator had in mind.

"I call it a creativity playpen," Peter Childs, professor of engineering design at the university, said of the space, which opened last week.

Professor Childs was a driving force behind a joint bid with Brighton University for £4.1 million from the Higher Education Funding Council for England to fund a centre for excellence in teaching and learning. Both universities built "creativity zones" in an attempt to free tutors and students from the constraints of the classroom and the lecture hall.

"We rejected lots of ideas for the space as they were too traditional - they looked too much like seminar rooms or design studios," Professor Childs said.

"Lots of people contributed to the final design, which uses the white space of galleries and the black space of theatre."

One of the principles behind the design, learning through observation, draws from operating theatres of the past, which allowed people to learn by watching doctors operate. Most sessions on the Sussex space are filmed, and the recordings are used to share best practice on promoting creativity.

The curtains and sliding screens allow the room to be divided and subdivided for use by individuals as well as groups, and as an exhibition space.

Professor Childs wants the space to be a focus for interaction between disciplines. His plans include using "guided fantasy" techniques - usually used to inspire creative writing - on product designers.

Geraldine Fitzpatrick, senior lecturer in informatics, has already used the zone with students on her MSc course on human-computer interaction. They used it to present the results of their "Tangible Interactive Experiences"

project, which included a floor mat featuring a map of the world that played different music depending on where visitors stood.

"There just wouldn't have been the room for that in a normal classroom," she said. The informality of the space encouraged interaction, she added.

Sue Roe, a lecturer in creative writing at Sussex University, foresees using the zone to "explore the connections between words and images, to encourage artists to write and writers to create images".

Brighton's creativity zone, which is built in the university's creative engineering and design technology centre and networked to the Sussex site, goes one step further. It boasts olfactory units capable of pumping out more than 200 smells, as well as a vast curved screen and facilities for 3-D viewing.

Alice Fox, a senior lecturer in art at Brighton, runs the Access to Art project, in which students with learning disabilities work alongside undergraduate arts and architecture students. She envisages art projects projected on to the walls and whiteboard, while the disabled students will interact with the design using pens.

The comedian and writer Simon Fanshawe, chair-designate of Sussex University council, said the creativity zones would address a problem in higher education: students' expectations of being spoon-fed.

"Higher education is not about passive consumerism," he said. "These zones are a way of awakening students' curiosity."

New views for medical eyes

A pilot study looking at whether the diagnostic skills of medical students could be improved through taking and analysing photographs is one of 20 projects at Brighton and Sussex universities supported by the Higher Education Funding Council for England's Creative Development Fund.

In partnership with the Brighton Photo Biennial festival, Helen Smith, professor of primary care at Brighton and Sussex Medical School, appointed a photographer to set up and pilot a course for medical students.

The project was so successful that the medical school set up a student-selected third-year elective last September aimed at developing visual awareness and critical thinking through photography.

Professor Smith said: "We are committed to developing a curriculum that will enable our students to study the arts and humanities in addition to core biomedical sciences and clinical medicine. We believe that these broader studies will contribute to their development as good doctors."

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