What is it?
The Central Teaching Hub (CTH) houses eight specialist laboratories and consolidates much of the undergraduate teaching within the Faculty of Science & Engineering.
The 7860m² space is a new build opened in 2012.
The key objective was the ability to make better quality resources available to all disciplines by sharing space, equipment and technical staff.
Bringing different science disciplines under the same roof has also enhanced teaching practice through interdisciplinary collaboration and demonstrates to students the benefits of learning from other related scientific subject areas.
The University of Liverpool is using the new facility to introduce more problem-based learning in some areas.
In this approach students are able to put their laboratory sessions into a much broader context as a working scientist would. They will need to understand the problem they are trying to solve and think about what kind of observations in the laboratory would provide answers to that question.
They then need to create the conditions for making those observations and decide how to evaluate what happens under experimental conditions. This is very different to traditional laboratory teaching where the teacher has already made most of these decisions and thus provided the 'recipe' to be followed.
In developing this space the university has met a range of pedagogic objectives:
- Facilitating learning design that promotes deep and active learning eg a problem-based approach rather than simply requiring students to follow instructions to achieve a predefined result
- Curriculum and learning design that makes best use of expensive laboratory time ie delivering core skills modules to multidisciplinary groups and using the laboratory sessions to teach skills that cannot be learned by other means
- Ensuring that students are well prepared to make the most of the sessions eg by providing online resources to help them develop basic laboratory skills
- Recognition of the importance of a multidisciplinary approach in developing the researchers of the future
- Giving students experience of group working, problem solving, working with students from other disciplines and communicating scientific findings to others. All of these are transferable skills that can be applied in the world of work
CTH is an effective example of cross functional working between estates/facilities staff, technical staff and academics from the project stage through to the day-to-day use of the building.
There is an academic lead on the building management team and university created three new academic lead posts in the main discipline areas. These roles have been instrumental in supporting effective use of the space.
The academic leads have a pedagogic role in terms of helping to develop learning and teaching practice and help to manage each floor in terms of liaising with module coordinators about room bookings. They also have a role in supporting the university's outreach activities.
Timetabling can be one of the biggest barriers to flexibility and the three academic leads work together to coordinate the timetable across the different disciplines.
The building is also well supported by a team of technical staff.
In chemistry and physics postgraduate students act as demonstrators employed on staff contracts for 3-6 hours per week. Environmental science has graduate teaching assistants who have a contract to spend 50 of their time teaching and 50% working on a PhD. They are trained in pedagogy and good teaching practice so they can become the teachers and researchers of the future.
Stakeholder engagement during the project management phase was an important factor in the success of this building. Users were heavily involved in the specification and design and supported by a strong academic champion.
It was originally envisaged that, once the initial specification phase was completed, the project would be handed over to an implementation team, consisting of staff from the estates department. Academics, however, lobbied to remain part of the team and their ongoing involvement was an important factor in avoiding errors at the detailed design stage.
The university wanted a design based on looking towards the future not simply a newer version of what existed already.
The building is designed around a central atrium. Extensive use of glass supports the multidisciplinary ethos as the activities going on in each of the different laboratories are highly visible.
The flexible teaching area was not explicitly designed as such. This was initially an area left 'fallow' for potential future expansion but it quickly became one of the most popular areas on campus at a cost of providing only tables and chairs. It has since been enhanced to become the GFlex teaching space.
The physics department moved from having small group tutorials (six students with one tutor) to using this space with 150 students at a time working in groups to solve problems.
Social learning space available on the ground floor of the building helps ensure a seamless transition between formal and informal learning.
Top tipThe CTH is an excellent example of a fully accessible building that exceeds current legislative requirements. The design includes features such as adjustable benches and fume cupboards in every lab. The accessibility features are fully documented so that visitors know what to expect. You can find details on the DisabledGo website.
The building was designed with a concern for environmental impact and it has achieved an 'Excellent' rating against the international BREEAM standard for sustainable building design. It is extremely difficult for laboratory buildings to achieve this due to the large amounts of energy consumed and the difficulty in minimising losses.
The entire building is highly energy efficient and an advanced heat recovery system filters and reuses warmth rising from lower floors. The building also employs rainwater harvesting and solar panels.
Visit the CTH website to see more.
The sharing of equipment means that the university can supply more and better technical equipment for its students. Some items that were unaffordable for use by small groups of students can be viewed as a sound investment when they are used by large numbers.
The range of facilities on offer also means that the curriculum in a number of disciplines can be designed in order to make use of equipment that was not previously available.
The types of equipment that are now shared include equipment for gas chromatography, x-ray systems and microscopes.
- The STM (Scanning Tunnelling Microscope) based in the physics lab is regularly used by chemistry students
- Having access to fume cupboards enables geologists to undertake types of analysis that were not previously possible
- The existence of x-ray equipment, previously only used in physics, is having an impact on the development of the curriculum in chemistry with new experiments being developed to take advantage of the availability of this technology
The CTL won the 2012 S-Lab New Laboratory Building Award and the 2103 Guardian University Best Facilities Award.
Student and staff satisfaction with the new premises is very high and there is evidence that students are spending more time in the laboratories.
Space utilisation is more efficient. The university has a laboratory space utilisation rate of around 48% compared to a sector average of around 20%. Maintenance and staffing costs per square metre are lower than for the previous dispersed laboratories even though the new facilities are of much better quality.
Cost savings and reduction in environmental impact are perhaps the most obvious outcomes of the new premises but the developments in learning and teaching practice have been significant.
- The department of physics used the move to the new building to review its entire undergraduate curriculum. Sharing common skills modules with other disciplines has allowed for the scheduling of more laboratory time. First and second year physics students now have 30 to 50% more practical work than previously. The department has also taken a more problem-based approach to designing the laboratory sessions
- The geography department has introduced a new strand into its degree programmes
- Students are beginning to work on interdisciplinary projects eg physics students involved in a project studying archaeological samples
- Regular interaction between academic staff from different disciplines is creating a sense of community and enabling the sharing of expertise and good practice
- An increase in problem-based learning means students are learning skills that may be absent from more traditional laboratory teaching and which improve their employability eg in group working, problem solving and communicating their findings
- The new facility is having an impact in encouraging prospective students to study science subjects at the University of Liverpool. The building is used to host outreach events every week of the year for up to 120 school pupils per day as well as being a focal point for 'open day' activities
Change management and transition
The university ensured successful use of the building by giving careful consideration to the types of pedagogic and technical support needed and providing staff development to ensure that all existing staff could fulfil the new roles.
Academics were offered support and facilities to make changes to their teaching but there was no compulsion.
Academics were used to having dedicated resources in their own department and had to adapt to working with shared resources in terms of the space, technicians and equipment. Loss of ownership was expected to cause some initial resentment but it is now clear that the shared pool gives access to a much better range of facilities and resources.
Most of the building technicians were previously employed in a single department and have had to adapt to new working practices and supporting a wider range of disciplines. The technical staff have found that the changes have improved team working and motivation as well as opportunities for personal development.
Despite a 35% increase in relevant student numbers, the CTH requires no additional technical support due to more multiskilling and adoption of a two shift pattern with slightly longer hours in term-time compensated by additional annual leave during vacations.
For more on each of the topics mentioned in this case study see the UK Higher Education Learning Space Toolkit.