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Indiana Tech Law School incorporates real-world learning

Wednesday, October 3, 2012 - 5:52 am

Driving downtown on Washington Boulevard, the last building on the left of Indiana Tech's campus is just beginning to take shape. The university has big plans for this three-story, 70,000-square-foot building, which will house the campus' new law school, set to open in fall 2013.

The building is ahead of schedule and will open sometime this summer. It will use several 21st-century classroom concepts, from the placement of electrical outlets in tables to foster movement for collaboration to interactive whiteboards in all classrooms.

The $16 million project, with another $2 million allotted to stock the law library, is the vision of local architectural firm SchenkelShultz. The firm also partnered with another in Detroit for the project.

Indiana Tech Law School Dean Peter Alexander said the local firm and the school have a long-standing relationship. But Alexander was unaware of this relationship when he helped choose the final design during the request-for-proposal process, he said. “We were impressed with their initiative to collaborate (with the Detroit firm),” he said of SchenkelShultz.

Opportunities for learning everywhere

Collaboration seems to be an ongoing theme for the project, particularly in the building's learning spaces. “The idea is to encourage learning everywhere, not just in classrooms or offices,” Alexander said. “Sometimes the best occasions of learning occur in conversations during passing in the hallways,” said SchenkelShultz architect Cory Miller.

Movable, soft furniture will replace desks and desk chairs in areas of the building available for a variety of uses, including gathering, socializing and studying for individuals or groups. Classrooms will be open to all students and faculty at any time through electronic key entry. Gone are the days of students being tethered to walls when their laptops require a power source. Outlets will be in the tables or desks, so students can easily move the furniture without losing proximity to an outlet. Projectors and interactive whiteboards will be in all classrooms, as well as large white, dry-erase boards spanning entire walls to provide large surfaces for writing. Furniture will also be movable to accommodate different learning and teaching styles.

“Professors and students will be able to reconfigure the rooms all day long,” Alexander said. “Learning spaces will be different in subtle ways, but make a big difference for us.”

Miller said the point was to allow a classroom to be set up like a City Council meeting or for small-group discussion, whatever the need is at the time.

He said the school's goal of preparing law students to function in the real world requires flexible spaces that could potentially resemble real-world situations. Students could spend time arguing with each other about the application of law one day, listen to a lecture by a professor another day and conduct research in the library on another.

The modernity of the setup could benefit the law school as it competes with others in the region. “Very few law schools and few university classrooms in general will be as flexible as ours will be,” he said.

An outdoor terrace where classes can be held during nice weather will continue the concept of learning everywhere, Alexander said. The area where faculty offices will be located will also have comfortable furniture and social gathering space, to encourage more informal interaction between faculty and students.

“We want to break down those barriers students have to talk to faculty,” Alexander said. “We wanted space that fosters that interaction.”

Modern elements in traditional spaces

Alexander said based on the renderings provided by SchenkelShultz, he has been impressed with the modernity of the building design and the natural light incorporated into the space. Windows will also allow those inside to get a sense of where they are.

“We want the space to be friendly. You won't need a map to get around. It's intentional that it's not complicated,” Alexander said.

The multi-floor, circular trial courtroom will be surrounded by glass and a reading room on the second floor with audio speakers, allowing students to hear the goings on without interrupting proceedings by coming in and out.

The law library will house a combination of traditional books and electronic materials. Miller said library shelves will have space for 70,000 volumes of law books, a requirement for accreditation purposes, but as the use of the written volumes goes away, the space can be opened up for other uses. Alexander said the purpose of a library space is one where students can learn and study rather than a place where they just check out books.

The law school's library will have an abundance of space for collaborative learning and small-group studying.

“I think that's the direction libraries are headed, but we still have to have books,” Alexander said.