Build It Cheap

A few summers ago, a professor emeritus came to the Library to ask if we had space for a class he wanted to teach with several other faculty. The class was called “Your Idea, Your Invention,” and his hope was to launch a multidisciplinary core undergraduate class that would teach basic principles of invention (or design, or ideation, or whatever word you might want to use to describe the very simple and incredibly complex process of identifying problems and making things to solve those problems).

It was an experiment — professors emeritus are always good for experiments because they truly couldn’t care less what other folks think — and a nice meta joke on us that we had to figure out how to make a space for the class about making things.

These days, I have a romantic attachment to low-tech, lo-fi, and low-cost solutions to modern problems — to put it simply, I’d rather put up a whiteboard than a touchscreen — but I have learned that you have to really explore those modern problems to articulate them well enough to then find the simple technologies that actually solve the problem. For instance, when the problem is how to host a multi-disciplinary design education class in the library, you can’t just throw them in a library classroom and say “You’ll work it out; you’re welcome!”

Like every other library classroom I’ve ever seen, our library classroom had four walls, tables, chairs, computers locked to those tables, and a projection screen at the front of the room. You’re probably familiar with the somewhat dismissive phrase “sage on the stage” that describes the style of teaching involving a single teacher standing in front of a group of students and delivering information to them in an almost unbroken stream; whether that style is good, bad, or both, library classrooms are set up perfectly for it.

Here are some things for which library classrooms are not set up perfectly: project-based learning; student-centered class activities with multiple instructors; building stuff and then breaking it; practice-based arts eduction; secondary uses as collaborative work areas outside of class time; and pizza parties, all of which are essential to a semester of quality multi-disciplinary design education.

We had to accommodate all those activities and not lose too much space or too many seats in the Library, so we spent a few months working with the faculty planning to teach the class to discover what was important (and what was not) for their classroom. It was a short list: movable tables that were more like work tables than desks, chairs for the tables, whiteboards, display boards (i.e. something like cork board that could take a thumbtack), a projection screen (can’t get away from that these days, I guess), and some lockable storage. And we said, “If that’s all you need, we can make it happen.”

Studio classroom and wood-topped, steel-frame work tables.

The almost-surplussed studio tables.

We repurposed a portion of one of our information commons to be the classroom (no walls necessary!), grabbed ten soon-to-be-surplussed drafting tables from the College of Architecture (which was lucky. If you think you’re going to do something like this in the future, establish a relationship with the equipment supervisor for Architecture now), bought forty work stools, and built eleven Z-Racks.

What’s a Z-Rack? It’s a garment rack that holds some homasote and some shower board to make a rolling whiteboard and display board. Check it out:

Studio classroom, with work-tables and Z-Racks arranged together.

Z-Racks assembled, showing their shower board side.

Close-up of homasote display-board in Z-Rack frame.

The display-board side of a Z-Rack.

You can find out more about Z-Racks and other design-studio-style learning spaces and strategies in the delightful book Make Space.

All of this to create a studio that could be used like a lecture classroom, a workshop, a collaborative space, and a presentation space.

And how about that? I got my whiteboards without a touchscreen in sight.

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Author:Charlie Bennett

Charlie Bennett is a librarian, a podcaster, and a radio host. He was born in New York and raised in Virginia before moving to Atlanta to study at the Georgia Institute of Technology. After earning degrees in Science, Technology, and Culture (STAC) and Economics, he stayed with the school and became an academic librarian at the Georgia Tech Library. He co-hosts the “one-and-only research-library rock’n'roll radio show” called “Lost in the Stacks” on WREK in Atlanta, and produces the irreverent podcast “Consilience With Pete and Charlie” about the intersection of science and the humanities.

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