CoRaL proposes new approach to collaborative learning

Swarthmore, like many liberal arts colleges, aims for a collaborative environment. The entire campus is multi-functional; many buildings house multiple departments, and plenty of academic classrooms convert into social spaces on weekends. The result is a more connected college community designed to encourage students across campus to find inspiration in each other, and with the emergence of CoRaL, Swarthmore may even take it one step further.

CoRaL (Creative Research Lab, Organisms and Artifacts) is Professor of Studio Art Logan Grider’s proposal for our community to consider for the future. It is centered on the idea of a non-disciplinary space aimed at inspiring creativity and collaboration with three main components: a hub that brings people of all disciplines together to work in close proximity, a visual resource collection that brings artifacts together to stimulate new learning and communal workshops designed to inspire experimentation without risk of failure.

In 1942, during the time of World War II, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Radiation Lab brought in hundreds of hired scientists to develop radar technologies for the military. In order to accommodate the immediate increase in people, MIT once again built Building 20, a 250,000-square-foot structure with no particular architectural merit. Although the building itself was lacking in many ways, it quickly became a space for many military research breakthroughs. After the war, MIT found itself pressed for space, so it used Building 20 as a temporary eclectic space for a variety of different groups and departments. Despite being more disorganized than ever, its temporary nature allowed many researchers to escape from restrictions and use the building for their creative needs, such as bolting things to the ceiling.  Over the span of 40 years, Building 20 saw more inspiration and creative breakthroughs than any other space on campus. By placing people of all different disciplines in one place and forcing them to interact, as well as giving them a space that was flexible to their needs, ideas were able to collide freely.

CoRaL seeks to follow the same idea; keep people close, and let them think and work freely. However, while Building 20 forced people to get together, CoRal seeks to invite them by offering tasks inspired by the world, not by a specific major, in a space that can also implement the freedom and collaboration of Building 20. The visual resources of CoRaL would act as an open library, without the limitations of each discipline; it could hold anything from biological organisms to modern art, and the best part is, it could simply highlight existing collections that we already have at Swarthmore.

Professor Logan Grider explains, “CoRaL would either directly house resources or act as a center to point users towards resources they might not realize are available and relevant to their interests”. The Scott Arboretum, for example, could see more potential in its use by the college; a physics student could interact with an art student to illustrate the movement of the falling leaves and how that relates to the leaves’ concavity or weight. As a studio art professor, Grider can see many ways the Arboretum could be used for art-related projects, but the purpose of CoRaL is to go even beyond that, and see exactly how multiple disciplines could interact with existing resources.

Communal workshops would then bring students and professors together to experiment freely, without any risk of failure. As CoRaL would predominantly be an extracurricular space, it would have few restrictions, allowing students to explore questions that their coursework may not be able to answer.

“With a program like CoRaL, connections between disciplines and experts in relatively disparate fields could generate projects that seem abstract but potentially viable and stimulating,” said Grider. One workshop he envisions would focus on the creation and application of synthetic pigments that could attract both chemistry and art students. Other workshops might address topics like the mechanics of a whale vertebrae to influence the design of a more responsive train car connection. As a space designed more for learning and less for product management, CoRaL would become a place for innovation, where potential future course material could be tested, or new questions could be answered using the resources available at CoRaL.

At its heart, CoRaL seeks to be the center of collaborative learning in the liberal arts. Currently, CoRaL has no plan to open, but it does pose an interesting perspective to the future of Swarthmore as it expands over the years.


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