Image showing a seminar in the Isaac Newton Institute

The Isaac Newton Institute

The Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences

Opened in July 1992, the Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences is not only established as the UK’s national research institute for Mathematics, it is also unique in it’s selection of scientific programmes that are interdisciplinary, bringing together academics and researchers with diverse knowledge and expertise. The institute was designed, nearly three decades ago, to be inherently collaborative making it several steps ahead of the pedagogical curve.

An image of a blackboard located at the Isaac newton institute

Deputy Director of the Institute, Dr Christie Marr, when asked what her ideal collaborative space for mathematics would look like, answered simply: “this is it”.

Drawing leading mathematicians from all over the world, the institute runs several programmes per year ranging from just a few days to six months. During each programme ideas and expertise are shared, knowledge transferred and collaborations shared.

The Isaac Newton Institute contains 130 square metres of chalkboard, with the building designed so that a writing surface is never more than a few steps away. From the offices and informal work spaces through to the lift interior and even the toilets, there is evidence of ad hoc thinking and collaboration in every corner of the building.

The wall boards throughout are a stunning silk-like textured glass and the Isaac Newton Institute came to TeacherBoards in search of a column board surface that would be sufficiently high quality for their mathematicians. Dr Marr said that while nothing matched the experience of writing on their unique glass surfaces, the Vitreous Enameled Steel chalk column board surface provided by TeacherBoards was a class above anything else they had explored.

The seminars and lectures given throughout the year are recorded and streamed live as well as being available in the seminar archive. The Institute’s seminars have been used as the basis of entire masters degree courses in Brazil and are viewed all around the world.

There is a startling lack of obvious technology throughout the Institute with digital being used intelligently and discreetly to enhance the space, from the movement responsive projection in the Seminar rooms to the digital timetabling screen in the ground floor circulation space.

Indeed, the mathematicians, from Abel Prize winners to Nobel Laureates, are actively resistant to advanced technologies such as interactive touch screens and projectors. When the institute did a large scale survey of their researchers with a view to offering more diverse writing surfaces and screens, the results returned unanimously opposed to anything that would replace or reduce the availability of chalk surfaces, a subject we explore further in our perspective section.

The Isaac Newton Institute is a space built for thinking and sharing and every inch of it is designed to encourage exactly that. It is a space that, even at nearly three decades old, epitomises what physical space design that listens and adapts to it’s ‘thinkers’ can achieve.

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This Image shows the AV and technology on show at the Dundee Dalhousie University within the learning spaces.

Dundee Dalhousie University

Interactive Learning Suite - Dalhousie Building, University of Dundee

The Dalhousie Building at the University of Dundee was designed to stimulate creativity and innovation. The Interactive Learning Suite combined two existing rooms to create a space that houses 156 PCs in a single room.

While at first glance the room looks like it’s primary design goal was for it to be a collaborative learning suite, Douglas Mcleod (Learning Spaces Product Engineer at the University of Dundee) explained that the cluster organisation of the room was not designed specifically to allow for collaboration but instead was intended to allow for a more active style of lecture while providing perfect lines of sight, via monitors positioned around the room, for every student to access the teaching material.

Unique in it’s ‘accessibility first’ design, the Learning Suite also provides pastel coloured glass writing surfaces around the room in specific RAL shades. These were described as ‘space to share ideas’ and to ‘give people a chance to think with a pen’ aiming to encourage ad hoc thinking/explaining between students.

Technology is at the core of this cutting edge space. Driven by WolfVision’s vSolution MATRIX active learning classroom collaboration solution, the technology allos for classroom content to be shared easily between the monitors on the work tables via the university network. One of the primary objectives was that students would be able to switch between their own work and to collaborate with the other students around the table.

The learning suite contains 13 of TeamMate’s WorkZone Collaboration tables, arranged around the room with custom designed numbered screens. Four further WorkZone tables (without screens) are installed in the middle of the space, one of which features a height adjustable feature in line with the equalities act.

Cabling for the tables feeds through the surface to the 19″ rack below, with each table providing enough space for a WolkVision Cynap Core.

The lecturer is able to override personal content on the monitors around the room from the TeamMate Educator Single Lectern that acts as the central teaching desk, as well as being able to override all sound from the work stations.

The space was designed to move away from ‘teaching in rows’ and create a hybrid blend of lecture and seminar. When not timetables, the rooms can be used for group work or independent learning, with students being able to use the room as a ‘drop in’ space.

The suite was a brave move for the University, reducing the teaching capacity in the building to embrace a more interactive and accessible style of teaching but the result has been a truly innovative and impressive teaching and learning space.

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This Image shows a writing wall VES whiteboard solution at the Beecroft building, Oxford University within their learning spaces.

Beecroft Building Oxford University

Beecroft Building Oxford University

Everyone in architecture or space design is aware of the stunning 8,950sqm Beecroft Physics building at Oxford University, named for Adrian Beecroft, the venture capitalist, one of the major donors for the project.

The Beecroft building is unquestionably a masterpiece of architectural design but, as recognised in the 2019 RIBA awards, it is also a building that goes “beyond architecture” to become a living, breathing, ecosystem of thinking and collaboration.

Professor John Wheater spoke of his vision for the building, explaining that there was a need for a building that allowed “space for people to work in a modern way”. He goes on to explain that “One of the basic criteria for this very interactive building was for researchers to be able to see when there were groups of people sitting around talking about science.”

With an aim to provide spaces that promoted spontaneous collaboration and sharing between physicists, the Beecroft building incorporates large curved chalkboards on collaborative mezzanine discussion areas between floors, constructed from Sundeala VES Chalkboard surface laminated directly to the substrate to ensure the boards are able to sustain a lifetime of daily use.

Professor Wheater does note that while the collaboration spaces were immediately popular with younger scientists, it took the older scientists longer to utilise the areas. Nevertheless, groups of all ages are now using the space enthusiastically, demonstrating that ‘modern’ space design has omnigenerational benefits.

Image Credit: Jack Hobhouse

Due to the building height restrictions of central Oxford which dictate a building may not be more than 18m in height, the Beecroft building reaches 16m underground with four floors of experimental physics laboratory space balanced perfectly on a system of hydraulics to dampen vibrations to ‘the width of a few atoms’ (i). The laboratories are temperature controlled to within a tenth of a degree and are intended to house extremely sensitive atomic-level experimentation.

While theoretical physicists are renowned for their love of chalk surfaces to write and explore ideas, dust particles from chalk preclude this in experimental physics spaces. It is, however, interesting to note that, even in this most cutting edge technological environment, the humble writing surface was still specified into the core design of the building.

Sundeala vitreous enameled steel whiteboards are fitted throughout the four floors of experimental physics laboratories, not only due to their market-leading quality but also for their lifetime surface guarantee. Once the laboratories were in use, the avoidance of any construction or maintenance that could disrupt the sensitive experiments is key.

Writing surfaces inherently foster collaboration. Displaying ideas, thoughts and data in a way that anyone can add their thoughts and extend the ideas at a second’s notice without having to connect digital technologies means that collaborations can evolve over days and weeks, between dozens of individuals.

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