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Higher ed experiencing a boom in huddle rooms

Ideas for taking advantage of academic breakout room spaces
University Business, June 2018
  • TEAMING UP—Breakout rooms at Bryant University are equipped with their own thermostat and dimmable lighting. Most have 55-inch mounted displays for wireless projection, and a few feature a height-adjustable whiteboard table.
  • Features frequently seen in huddle rooms.
  • HUDDLE AT HOWARD—Six to eight students can tackle projects privately in the huddle rooms at Howard Community College’s Science Engineering and Technology Building. Each room has a collaboration table equipped with a micro PC, headphone ports and other equipment.
  • GETTING TO KNOW YOU—Online MBA program students at the Fox School at Temple University kick off studies with a weeklong residency. One team-building exercise involves small groups racing cars constructed out of K’Nex pieces. Private huddles prevent other groups from driving off with innovative ideas.

Whether you call them huddle rooms, breakout rooms or collaboration rooms, small group spaces cropping up in various campus buildings are changing the way academic facilities are used.

The trend has extended beyond the campus library, where these spaces were traditionally located. Now small breakout rooms for student collaboration are becoming a mainstay in engineering labs, business schools, medical schools and other facilities where classrooms are prominent.

At many colleges, professors incorporate these spaces into teaching by assigning student teams to huddle during class time. While students often work on group projects in their classrooms at mobile clusters of desks, some professors prefer the quiet and privacy that these rooms offer students.


Online exclusive: Challenges in managing huddle rooms


“It allows them to be very focused,” says Lori Coakley, associate professor of management at Bryant University in Rhode Island, who uses the huddle rooms in her courses. “There’s something about physical proximity that reduces distractions, so it’s pretty hard to get off path.”

Students can also huddle to design prototypes of new products, practice presentation skills and provide peer feedback. These activities reflect current pedagogy that emphasizes active learning centered on using student teams.

“Teamwork has always been important, but I think it’s more important now,” says Tony Petrucci, academic director of leadership development at Fox School of Business at Temple University in Philadelphia.

As colleges and universities renovate or construct new academic buildings, huddle rooms are becoming the norm in interior design—as well as popular learning and meeting spaces for students, getting use both during and after class.

Trends in huddle room usage policies and etiquette

Reservations

  • Policies vary about needing to reserve or not
  • Reservations encouraged by some schools during peak times

Time limits

  • Some schools have no limits; others limit use, such as to three hours

Personal belongings

  • Depending on the college, students may or may not leave belongings in huddle rooms during quick breaks
  • Some rooms have key entry, making them more secure for users who must step out

Cleaning and care

  • Food and drink generally allowed • Students expected to clean up after using the rooms
  • Facilities staff also help with room clean-up and maintenance

Sources: Bryant University, Howard Community College and Wichita State University College of Engineering

Innovation stations

When Wichita State University opened the $25 million Experiential Engineering Building on its new Innovation Campus in 2017, it was clearly not a typical academic edifice. The 143,000-square-foot, three-story structure has a makerspace featuring digital and metalworking tools, an engineering entrepreneurship lab and six huddle rooms.

Designed to follow a “linear progression of thought,” the breakout spaces include single rooms for one student to develop an idea, rooms with tables for up to five people to brainstorm on the concept, and conference areas where the proposal can be presented to faculty or industry leaders.

Teams of students taking the Introduction to Technology and Innovation course in the College of Engineering, for example, meet in the huddle rooms to create prototypes that will solve a problem in the community.

Projects have included tracking software for cars that alerts drivers if their eyes veer off the road, and protective firefighting gear that can be put on in 60 seconds.

The instructor,  Samantha Corcoran, says the rooms give students “time together in a shared space that is conducive to concentrating and thinking through what they’re working on.”

Another university deploying huddle rooms to fuel innovation is Cornell Tech, which included 90 such spaces in its new Emma and Georgina Bloomberg Center, the primary academic building on the Roosevelt Island campus in New York.

With tables, chairs and flatscreen monitors on the wall, the rooms can be used during class time, but they were primarily developed for brainstorming meetings for faculty and students.

Because the four-story, 160,000-square-foot educational hub has no private offices, each faculty member has an assigned huddle room for impromptu research as well as when privacy is needed.

“Research doesn’t happen on a schedule,” says Diana Allegretti, Cornell Tech’s director for design and construction. “The huddles are a great resource for spontaneous meetings and collaborations throughout the day.”

At Cornell Tech, huddle rooms can be booked online through a portal calendar or used by anyone when open.

Other institutions use an open access approach for their breakout spaces. The spaces at Wichita State “are pretty popular and filled up most of the time,” Corcoran says. While students need to book larger conference rooms, she adds, they do not have to reserve any of the huddle rooms in the engineering college.

Corporate influence

Breakout rooms have become a standard fixture in the corporate world. Accordingly, the Fox School conducts huddles in online courses and in person. Petrucci, an assistant professor of human resource management, assigns brick-and-mortar students to work in breakout teams and also arranges virtual huddles in his online classes.

He visits the physical and virtual rooms to provide guidance. “When it’s online, I just hit a button and pop in their room and they ask me questions and I ask them questions, and they’ll have ongoing coaching,” he says.

He encourages students to offer “real-time feedback,” which is increasingly used by corporations as an alternative to traditional annual performance reviews. The process involves evaluating one another’s solution to a business challenge and inputting observations in an app called DevelapMe.

Creating a true team dynamic is the goal, Petrucci says. “We try to create a very realistic setting, with even some of the stress that is felt in the business world.”

At Bryant, faculty in the Academic Innovation Center often assign students to work in the 23 huddle rooms scattered throughout the 48,000-square-foot building, which was constructed in 2016.

In The Design Thinking Process course, for example, student groups collaborate in the rooms on a design project they will pitch to a corporate sponsor that works with the school. The class meets for 2 hours and 40 minutes once a week, and students huddle for about 30 minutes mid-way through.

“It certainly gives them an instant burst of energy because they have to get up and move to the rooms outside of class,” says Coakley, who co-teaches the course.

Students have several choices of huddle rooms: some have standard tables with four to six chairs, some have high-top tables and some have comfortable couches. They can also use the glass walls and white boards that separate the rooms to write on.

In advance, students can hone the pitches they will make to executives who visit from the companies the class is working with. “It’s a competitive class—the students work all semester and the corporate sponsors will pick one design,” says Allison Butler, associate professor of applied psychology, who also co-teaches the class.

Beyond the active learning classroom

Having huddle rooms doesn’t take away the need for active classroom spaces. Colleges that have invested in moveable desks that can be brought together for collaboration in their classrooms are at the same time building huddle rooms to facilitate learning before or after class.

“The difference between the space we have set up within the classroom and the space we have set up outside the classroom is minimal on purpose,” says Brandon Yerrid, director of audiovisual services and design at Howard Community College in Columbia, Maryland. “We want our training to be as unified as possible.”

The college’s new Science, Engineering and Technology Building has six huddle rooms that are available without reservation from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. Each room has a table and chairs for up to eight students, a monitor on the wall, and a computer for students who may not own a laptop.

Half an hour south, the University of Maryland just added its first huddle rooms in the $120 million Edward St. John Learning and Teaching Center, which opened in 2017. The 187,000-square-foot facility includes several new high-tech classrooms designed for active learning.

Students can meet up on their own in seven glass-enclosed huddle rooms for group project work. The breakout rooms, which vary in size, are the first in an academic building on campus.

“The future of education involves a lot of peer collaboration,” says Scott Roberts, director of instructional excellence and innovation at the university. “If we’re creating a building, that building has to be designed to facilitate collaborative work.” 


Sherrie Negrea, an Ithaca, New York-based writer, is a frequent contributor to UB.