Back in the day when I went to a college with A computer room with A computer it was cool enough that there was a computer there and that it was available to students. Today that’s not the case – having a computer (or bunch of them) does not automatically make for a cool place.  For many students computer labs are down right boring.

Some of the requests I get are for posters to decorate a computer lab. Unfortunately I don’t often have any posters and when I do have them they tend to be more geeky than interesting. It occurs to me that maybe we decorate computer labs wrong though. I think that to some extent the way a computer lab is decorated, organized and in general the environment that is created determines who is attracted to the classes in the lab and how the students in the lab think. How they think about themselves and how they think about problems they are working on.

I visited a really cool computer lab the other day. The picture below is from the programming and web development program at Assabet Valley Regional Technical High School. I was there to judge some senior projects (saw an outstanding XNA/Xbox 360 game and some very professional looking web sites) and to see the facility.

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This picture was taken from the front where there are 25-30 computers facing front. In there front of the room there are two large screens with ceiling mounted projectors. For the demos the PowerPoint presentations were on one screen and software demos (from the Xbox) or web pages were displayed on the second. The students presenting stood on a low platform in front. OK so far nice but not that special. The rest of the large room and some attached smaller rooms make it special though.

Oh! first off the walls are painted in interesting ways. Not computer geek ways but creative eye catching ways. The room in the back of this picture (behind the hanging white Christmas lights) is called the e-tank and the theme of the outside wall is fish. Cartoon fish – very colorful. The inside of the room has a green screen, stores robots and is generally set up for quiet work and audio/video work. The sort of thing that would distract in the main room. The colors are bright and fun – totally anti-institutional school wall painting styles. One of the more artsy shops in the school created the art work there and around the room. One wall has a painting of a window looking out over a beach scene.

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Could this all be distracting? Of course it could but it is also stimulating and the sort of thing I believe helps people think more creatively.

Under the lights in the back of the first picture there is a couch and some comfortable furniture. A couch in a classroom? Yep! The whole area is ideal for collaborative work. A table in the middle and an area apart where a small group can work together on a project and hammer things out. Seems to work well from what I hear.

The large space is divided in to several informal areas with their own names. The teachers, whose one time office is not the e-tank, have their desks in the center of the room. Right in the middle of everything where they can be involved and when need be out of the way.

Honestly the whole place reminded me more of the offices of a high tech start up than a traditional classroom. There might even have been a fossball table but don’t tell anyone.

I had a chance to observe some of the students in this program in this space. They were comfortable. They were at home. They seemed to like being there. There were both boys and girls in the program and not all your stereotype white or Asian males either. It wasn’t a set from “The Big bang Theory” but a wildly creative space appealing to many types of people.

Seeing the senior projects and hearing the students talk about their processes and what they were learning I have to believe this space is working well. I’m told they had more students apply for the program next year than in previous years (this is the first year with this new set up) and I have to wonder if the environment contributed. 

I’m not saying this is the end all and be all by any means. It is one example that is working well for one set of teachers. But it did make me really start to think about what the environment of our computer science labs and classrooms says to students. Are they environments that attract diverse students or do they attract a narrow subset of the populations? Does the environment stimulate creativity and out of the box thinking or does it encourage the same old same old idea of one right way to do things? What sorts of messages does the physical environment of your computer lab say about what goes on there? Fun and creative or dull and mechanical?