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Transforming Departmental Culture with Inspirational Space

Institutional Culture

Transforming Departmental Culture with Inspirational Space

The field of computer science is ripe for a cultural change, says John Paxton, professor and department head of the computer science department at Montana State University. According to a recent Taulbee Survey on computer science and computer engineering education and employment, just 14 percent of the BS degrees awarded in 2012-13 were earned by women. Additionally, just 20 percent of those degrees went to nonwhites or non-Asians. Clearly, the field lacks diversity.

This lack of diversity is a problem for both the individual and the field. Paxton explains that diverse environments tend to be more creative and characterized by hard work and diligence. In addition, “there are many opportunities unfilled” in the field that could be very attractive to women or the nonmajority populations, he says.

To address this problem, Montana State set out to make the field of computer science more appealing to a wider range of students by changing the space in which it operates. The university offered some funding, and the computer science department elected to use that to conceptualize a physical space and send the message to students that the field offers opportunities for collaboration and challenge.

No longer your average lab

The project began with a computer lab space that, other than the computers, would have been familiar to those who studied in the 1980s or 1990s. Nearly bare walls painted an institutional neutral contained a space with individual desks holding computers, each desk positioned so that it faced the wall and discouraged interaction. It was a space designed for students to visit, complete assignments, and leave. “In today’s world, outside of lab time people weren’t using the lab at all,” Paxton says. Room scheduling contributed to this, as the lab “was only available 50 minutes at a time for classes,” Paxton notes.

To transform the space, the department asked a team of contributors what attributes the lab needed to have to be accessible and usable. This team included computer science students, faculty, and staff; staff from the information technology center; members of the advisory board; an art history professor; and representation from the university design team and from campus planning and design.

Students contributed valuable suggestions to the discussion. One student wanted dimmable lights in lieu of the standard overhead lighting. Others wanted the space to be more informal. The department wanted to support the principles of technology-enhanced active learning (TEAL), so they constructed spaces that foster active collaboration, such as circular tables.

Another aspect of the field the department wanted to emphasize was the connection to other cultures. “[Some] 70 percent of [students’] careers will [involve] travel and work with other cultures,” Paxton says. To emphasize this, the department took the innovative step of involving an art history professor on their team.

“Involving an art history professor took the room from good to great,” Paxton says. “The art historian picked wood block prints to have the art help reinforce [the departmental values].” The wood block prints were of works by Japanese artists like Kunichika, Kunisada, and Kuniyoshi. The prints featured both men and women demonstrating values and practices also relevant to computer science careers. For example, “the artists learned via master-apprentice relationships,” Paxton noted in a presentation on the subject. The subjects of the paintings relate to student life, and “the artwork allows the room to double as an art gallery, fostering interdisciplinary connections and thinking. . . . We don’t want just any future created, we want it to be beautiful,” Paxton says.

Of course, the room also features a number of high-tech touches appropriate to a computer science space. The room includes glass whiteboards and wall-mounted monitors, along with a strong wireless signal to allow students to work anywhere. The room has 15 computers, and it has seen better usage than when the number of computers was greater. “This is now where we ask tutors and graduate assistants to hold their office hours,” Paxton says. The tutoring center offers 50 hours a week of tutoring in the room by TAs and undergrads.


The cost to redo the room according to the new standards was about $125,000. The university’s Strategic Investment Proposal program provided the first $75,000, and the college of engineering and the computer science department provided $25,000 each. Although the room could have been completed for less money, Paxton urges others to consider spending up slightly for the added impact.

“It’s nicer than it needs to be,” he says, adding that, “it costs five to 10 percent more to make it super nice.” He explains that students have choices of work environment, and the department wanted to create a space that students and others would gravitate to. Paxton suggests others attempting creation of a similar space ask themselves, “Would the faculty hang out here?”

Along the way, the department learned some lessons about the creation of a unique workspace. The redesign of the room was more expensive, more time-consuming, and more complex than the department expected, although Paxton notes it was more rewarding, too. Cost could have been partially controlled by omitting installation of a raised floor, which turned out to be unnecessary. However, Paxton notes that student input, vision, and, of course, artwork are all important to the success of the project.

And successful the project has been. “The president says this should be the model for the campus,” Paxton says, adding that a special space like this has become a “way to differentiate” the program from its competitors.

Jennifer Patterson Lorenzetti is managing editor of Academic Leader.

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