Sticky Space: The Glue that Holds Your Academic Building Together

Up to 66% of learning for today’s college students takes place outside the classroom, according to a recent study from the University of Central Florida. “Sticky” spaces, places which attract students and encourage them to stay and collaborate and/or work individually, provide the venue for much of this learning. Recent GFF Education Blog posts have addressed flexibility in the classroom and quality vs. quantity in learning spaces, but non-classroom spaces for informal or unstructured learning are increasingly important in school and university buildings today. With the gradual shift towards active and integrative pedagogies like project-based learning and STEAM, students need space outside the classroom to collaborate as well as places to work independently. These “soft” or “sticky” spaces facilitate informal meetings and provide opportunities for interdisciplinary connections, ideally offering both places for quiet individual study and flexible spaces for groups. As students shift from study to teamwork to relaxing between tasks, these spaces are places to see and be seen as well as places to work. In today’s university buildings, spaces for informal learning often represent 10-15% of the total net area…but that may not be enough.

Futurist David Thornburg writes about three archetypal learning spaces, each of which serves a different need. All three are sticky to some degree, and all of them might be incorporated into high-performing educational facilities: the campfire, the cave, and the watering hole. The campfire, where people gather to learn from “storytelling” by an expert, is most analogous to a classroom setting or presentation space. As schools at all levels seek to better train students for the working world, technology-enabled spaces for students to practice and refine their presentation skills are becoming more common. The cave is a place where students reflect and process information individually: “thinkspace” which is just as integral to the learning process as workspace. Depending on the needs of the student, a cave might be a womb chair or quiet alcove, a seat with a view which allows the student to tune out distractions, or a set of earbuds and a table in the middle of a busy study space. The watering hole is a place where we meet informally to discuss and dissect information, to share and compare perspectives and learn from each other. In this context, watering holes can be conference rooms, shared study spaces, lounge and dining spaces, or digital forums. A well-placed pair of chairs with a window and a white board, in an alcove off the corridor which allows participants to get out of the flow of traffic, can provide a place for an impromptu discussion between peers or with a passing faculty member.

What makes a successful sticky space? Needs vary with the individual and the tasks to be approached, but typical student priorities are convenience, comfort and proximity to friends.

  • Like any real estate decision, location is the key. Successful sticky spaces should be the “glue” connecting classrooms and labs, and the availability of food or drink will significantly increase retention (think coffee house.) Proximity to circulation paths is important, but successful spaces have a sense of identifiable place beyond simply a wide spot in the corridor.
  • The best sticky spaces are open and casual, with furnishings that invite intervention but remain work-focused, emphasizing tables and a mix of task-oriented seating rather than sofas or lounge chairs. Table spacing and proximity to others is critical: too loose feels empty and “dead”, while too tight will crowd students’ sense of personal space.
  • Good sticky spaces provide a mix of public and more private places, supporting informal collaboration or individual focus alongside others engaged in similar tasks.
  • Natural light is a critical requirement, preferably with views to the outside.
  • Every student has a mobile device or two, so convenient access to power for charging without cables stretched across the floor is a must, along with wireless access and enough bandwidth for all the occupants of the space.
  • Flat panel displays are useful if provided with screen sharing or casting for student access, and plentiful white boards or writable walls are an effective and cost-effective tool to make thinking visual for brainstorming and collaboration.

The amount of sticky space needed in any given facility depends on academic discipline, age level and pedagogy, and has been trending upwards as changing teaching and learning modes have encouraged more and more activities outside the classroom. Effective sticky spaces offer the right combination of environment, amenities and location to attract students and encourage them to stay to collaborate and/or work individually. Effective sticky spaces offer social benefits as well, building students’ sense of connection and community on campus. Research on students from elementary grades through university level indicates that an ecosystem which keeps students on campus talking with other students and faculty contributes directly to student engagement and student success.

Jonathan Rollins is a Principal at GFF Architects