by Leslie Ashor, Director of Lab Design, Woods Bagot
Universities worldwide are facing challenges of limited laboratory space, funding, and trained staff, with increasing student counts and demand for science classes. The response on many campuses has been extended hours including evening and weekend laboratory sections, which does not solve the staffing issues. New laboratory models support the emerging trend of high capacity lab sections which can be managed with fewer staff members and teaching assistants, as compared to several individual laboratories adding up to the same student count. The primary goal of teaching laboratories, regardless of size, remains supporting hands-on, problem solving, team based experiential learning.
The term “Superlab” has been used in the academic world to describe any lab significantly larger than the typical 24-48 student laboratory, now reaching as high as 280 stations. The reasons for creating Superlabs are as varied as the design solutions. It is a natural progression for instructional labs to join the evolution of the well-established model of “open” research labs, promoting collaboration, sharing of costly equipment and support spaces, and flexibility in assigning bench space.
There are several distinct models of Superlabs which have been successfully implemented in campuses around the globe, but only the X-Lab at the University of Sydney has been used specifically as a research experiment in learning environments and outcomes.
The Superlab concept reflects an evolving pedagogy which aligns with the way the current generation of students learn and retain what they have learned, and the innovative faculty involved in the X-Lab have embraced change and technological advances which support that change.
The name indicates the unknown “X” factor which describes the multidisciplinary activities occurring in the molecular biology based lab, which is designed to look and feel like a research lab, relying on advanced technology to allow each groups’ instructor to address only their group via directional speakers, and to control the computer monitors at each station.