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I'm looking for resources on design space for academic departments, particularly, We've been asked to provide ideas on designing a "dream math department". I'd like to gather some ideas for doing this. What ideal characteristics should the space/architecture/furniture in a good math department have?

I'd like innovative ideas for:

Classrooms, offices, student lounges, lighting, furniture, bookshelves, artwork. Any suggestions should be mindful of improvement of creative output and innovative instruction and ideally be accompanied by rationale.

I'm sure (although having resources allocated for this is rare) I'm not the only faculty member faced with this. Any links to, or thoughts about, math department design ideas would be helpful.

As strange as this question is, it may indirectly help departments flourish and may indirectly benefit mathematics in the long run.

(As I'm writing this question all I can think of is a window I saw in a classroom in the math department at MIT once that was stuffed with newspaper...but I nevertheless ask.)

EDIT: In light of Mariano's very accurate assessment of this question as off-topic, I'd like to apologize to the moderators and the forum for the question. Also, though, I'd like to clarify my rationale for asking: this site is more or less for anything about mathematics (even...gulp...for homework problems), so I thought the question may not be too much of a stretch because good answers to it may affect the allocation of resources to mathematics departments. We aren't individually inclined to think about questions like these, although not doing so may lead to our being put in substandard space because administrators and/or other departments with more time to put value on these things actually put in their two cents. A site like this can be used to "crowdsource" such a problem without too much loss to any individual and yet with great gain to the group. Certainly this question is not mathematics, but is directly related to the health of mathematics in mathematics departments...and hence I asked the question.

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Nothing beats a few large, sturdy hardwood tables. –  Derek Allums Jun 26 '12 at 14:03
Chalkboards and large windows are a must. –  user02138 Jun 26 '12 at 14:11
I'm a fan of large exercise balls as possibilities for seating in classrooms, where the balls can be kept on the side of the room or something. I'm someone who works much better while sitting down when I can move a little bit. –  John Engbers Jun 26 '12 at 15:00
I wish I had multiple up-vote capability for the chalkboard comment. –  Jon Bannon Jun 26 '12 at 15:26
I do not think this question, which is surely interesting, is on topic here... –  Mariano Suárez-Alvarez Jun 26 '12 at 21:02
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5 Answers

What I particularly like about the university I am at right now is that there is a so called supervision area at literally every corner. They are intended for tutorials for small groups of students supervised by postgrads, but in fact many of them are vacant most of the time. So If you meet somebody in the hallway and want to discuss some math you don't have to look for a seminar room, or someones office but can just start wherever you are. Also if you get cabin fever in your office you can just go outside and work on some blackboard there. Then chances are high that somebody comes along and stops just to be dragged into a discussion. When I first got my position here I thought that it was pretty weird but I have learned that this is really favourable over fewer but bigger work areas.

Edit (Concerning the comment) Nothing special, really. In the end it's just a blackboard (not a whiteboard, since whiteboard markers are always empty), a small table and a couple of chairs. I guess kind of important is that they don't block the hallway directly so that it doesn't come to complications with people who are just passing by. Also every single one has it's own trash bin; that might not sound too important, but it definitely helps keeping them clean.

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cool! What do these look like precisely? –  Jon Bannon Jun 26 '12 at 14:46
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I visited Kansas State University, Manhattan, recently, and the staff common room had tables which you could write on, as well as putting coffee cups on!

To be more futuristic (and see some recent James Bond films) how about tables incorporating tablet computers?

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I like the futuristic twist...stretches the imagination a bit. –  Jon Bannon Jun 26 '12 at 18:09
Tablet-tables --and wall hangings-- as a common fixture could encourage coordination with the CompSci department to develop apps and frameworks that facilitate mathematical doodling and exploration. (Think touch-based Geometer's Sketchpad and Geogebra and beyond ... or just a finger-tip note-taker that allows saving an insightful doodle made while sipping coffee with colleagues.) If a faculty or student is putting together lots of fancy figures and whatnot for a paper or project or coursework, then turn those into screensavers or interactive diagrams. Show-off the dynamic nature of math. –  Blue Jun 27 '12 at 9:34
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We just moved the department into a new suite. One of the requirements we had in the design of our space was an area that could be used for social gathering and for student work. We have a large room, with one large and two small worktables and some sofas, that is surrounded by the faculty offices. We wanted a place where students could work with easy access to the faculty. So far, it seems to be working well. There is more student-faculty interaction now than before. The space is also ideal for our department meetings, and socializing before and after talks, etc. We're happy, and so are the students.

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I’m reminded a bit of the 9th floor lounge of Van Vleck Hall at Madison. For those who don’t know it: it occupies almost the entire top floor of the math building and has couches, easy chairs, tables, straight chairs, and blackboards. It was a wonderful place to talk mathematics, socialize, etc., and a great deal of productive mathematical discussion went on there. –  Brian M. Scott Jun 26 '12 at 17:02
This is a lot like our current department layout. We like it a lot and plan to stick with a variant of it. –  Jon Bannon Jun 26 '12 at 18:08
While we are nowhere near Wisconsin's league, we, too occupy space on the top floor of our building (one end, not the whole floor). We have a wonderful view of the south part of campus and the hills beyond. It is a spectacular view in the fall when the leaves change. Our space was all part of a plan to develop a culture of mathematical activity (we're a small "u" university). It seems to be working so far, and hope it continues to develop in the future. –  Chris Leary Jun 26 '12 at 18:27
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There are multiple things that a modern university must have. Here are some examples that are especially important from my perspective (in random order):

  • good cafeteria:
    • food needs to be tasty,
    • healthy enough so that students who can't prepare meal themselves (or are too lazy to do it) could eat there on a daily basis,
    • menu should vary a lot so you don't get bored,
    • there should be an option for (tasty!) fancy food, so that the events that include catering will be easier to organize (local conferences, thesis defenses, workshops, high-school Olympiads, etc.),
    • it might be partly funded by the university for the quality/price ratio to be very high,
    • if there are other departments nearby, it may have a non-trivial impact on math-promotion in the university population;
  • large windows (that isolate the sounds from outside of the building when closed),
  • meeting/video-conference rooms,
  • bathroom with showers,
  • leisure area for students (including some board-games, books, cafeteria, indoor garden, etc., best to spread across several levels),
  • separate area for teachers including small but fully equipped kitchen,
  • an open working area for students, this should have a fairly easy access for a faculty to be happy to join it when appropriate,
  • things you can write on: walls covered by paint that turn them into whiteboards, glass tables, etc., this applies not only for rooms or labs, but also to corridors, eating area, and all the places in which you could wait,
  • a summer roof place,
  • extensive library with hard, heavy wooden tables with a "silent zone" and "talking zone" (and those have to be separate),
  • an auditorium with a grand piano that could host some concerts once in a while,
  • depending on the community, a nap room could be useful,
  • a gym and a swimming pool nearby is a must (but not the same building),
  • furniture is a individual case, so I would split the building into at least two parts, a "modern" (bright interiors with clean feel, walls can be made of mate glass) and a more "cushy" (a bit darker, heavy wooden tables, plants, sofas, etc.),
  • it is definitely nice for a building to have a domain's feel, but that is sometimes hard to achieve, you could start with room numbers being prime only, but e.g. making the floor plan an approximation of the Mandelbrot set is too much to ask for,
  • as for art, Escher might be a cliché for some, but would do fine I think (along with fractals, projections of some high-dimensional geometrical objects, circle-packing themes, pictures of attractors, examples of weird topological spaces, or even manifestations of math in nature),
  • an help-desk near the entrance with kind, nice-looking, well-informed, young lady/gentleman that could help (i.e. redirect them into proper place) visitors and staff should there be any problems,
  • also, nearby department with high girls-to-boys ratio is a nice thing since math faculties are usually below the average (even more if it is the math department that has a nice cafeteria).

I hope it's not too pragmatic for you ;-)

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There must be a low faculty to coffee machine ratio.

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When I was an undergrad at Georgia Tech, the math club once decided to count the number of coffee machines on one floor of the math building. We stopped at 20, I believe. One could say that it was impossible to be more than 4 meters away from a chalkboard, or 10 meters away fro a coffee machine. –  mixedmath Jul 8 '12 at 4:15
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