Special Report Our Place
A sense of our place
True to its roots, Columbus campus evolves with learning at its core.
In the reading room on the 11th floor of the Thompson Library tower, freshman Victoria Murphy pauses from her studies and casts her eyes on the wide lawn below.
Students cross the Oval on their way to class, walking the same paths cut into the earth more than a century ago — by students on their way to class.
To the north are some of the most breathtakingly modern laboratory spaces a college campus can offer. They are planted among grand buildings where generations of makers, teachers, mathematicians, philosophers, scientists and entrepreneurs pursued their educations. To the east, construction is under way for a new entrance to our campus that will celebrate the arts. To the west is a 261-acre farm for education and research, and two 24-story residence halls break the horizon.
Those halls, Morrill and Lincoln Towers, and even this reading room in which Murphy toils, are evidence of eras during which the demand to educate America’s sons and daughters was so high that it spurred the building of still higher towers. They are a manifestation of the soaring and audacious foresight of the land grant act that created The Ohio State University.
Likewise, a bold vision for the university of the future underpins Ohio State’s latest update to plans for the Columbus campus. Like campus plans before it, the Framework 2.0 plan announced in January will guide development will help guide development in a way that accounts for the educational and instructional needs of future students while honoring iconic landmarks and spaces special to alumni who came before.
“It’s very important that you think of the university as the work of many generations, and the buildings represent the work of those generations, the ideas that came forward,” says Raimund Goerler, who served as the university’s archivist for 32 years. “I think the physical side of the university is very important, not only for a functional reason, but also to stimulate curiosity, expand one’s intellectual horizons and create great memories.”
City within a city
Bernie Costantino has visited dozens of university campuses across the United States. He has studied their architecture and the color of their bricks. And though he’s seen beautiful design elsewhere, his favorite college campus is in Columbus, Ohio.
The university’s architect for the past 16 years, Costantino says Ohio State’s oldest campus is unique and endearing because of its urban qualities: a university as big as a city but made smaller by a series of “neighborhoods” easy to visit on foot.
The academic core, for example, contains most of the university’s classroom and lab space in buildings grouped compactly on 14 acres. Its narrow streets and sidewalks teem with pedestrian traffic before opening to natural environments defined by tree canopies and soft grass. “Just like the city of Florence, where you’re going down a tight street and you open up to a plaza, well, the same thing happens there,” Costantino says. “You walk down 19th [Avenue], and you come upon Smith Green.”
Smith and other quadrangles have been greatly influenced by the Oval. Costantino calls this memorable space the “heart of the university,” where all paths cross. That inspiring landscape — home to graduation ceremonies, student involvement fairs, political rallies, romantic walks and the revelry of countless beautiful spring days — has been a critical component of the student experience since University Hall opened its doors in 1873.
“We have people from many different parts of the state, different countries, other states. We are divided by academic majors. But some things we have in common, and one is the knowledge and the experience of the Oval. Everybody knows what that is, regardless of what their major is and where they’ve come from,” Goerler says. “It’s the centerpiece, if you will, of one’s campus experience.”
If the Oval is Ohio State’s Central Park, then the residential districts on the south, north and west ends of campus are the busy boroughs. In these neighborhoods, residence halls are complemented by dining facilities, coffee shops and bookstores, recreational space and comfortable gathering spots for all seasons.
Each residential neighborhood is within easy walking distance of a world-class medical campus. While other universities have placed their hospitals far from the center of student and academic life, Costantino says Ohio State sees this cheek-by-jowl approach as enormously beneficial for students, researchers and patients. What is learned in a lab quickly makes its way to the hospital bedside.
For example, more than 300 cancer researchers in a dozen Ohio State colleges, from medicine to law, bring their expertise to bear in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute. These researchers and others find successful collaboration a few steps away from their labs, offices and classrooms at Ohio State.
“Our urban, walkable campus is unlike what you see at other Big Ten schools,” Costantino says. “We’re trying to extend that core-like neighborhood to other places on campus.”
A Ping-Pong ball zips back and forth, and the garlicky aroma of pizza fills a community room in Torres House. In this relaxed setting in their residence hall, undergraduates in engineering casually talk with John Clay about his career — at Battelle Memorial Institute and as a clinical professor of chemical engineering at Ohio State — and the challenges he faced along the way.
“My residents loved the experience,” explains Sushmitha Ravikumar, a fourth-year student and the resident advisor who planned the event. “For them, it’s just a way to see a professor in a different setting. With pizza, with Ping-Pong — it’s kind of fun. You also get to ask questions that maybe you wouldn’t ask in a chemistry lecture or a transport phenomenon class.”
Fostering that type of quality interaction between faculty and students is the result of careful planning years ago on the part of university officials who wanted to enhance the student experience and support on-time graduation rates.
“Ohio State had a robust First Year Experience program,” explains Molly Ranz Calhoun ’86, an associate vice president in the Office of Student Life, “and what we were finding was that we had what we called a ‘sophomore slump.’”
Studies were conducted, and one revealed sharp differences in retention and graduation rates between students who lived on campus their second year versus those who moved to an off-campus house or apartment. As university officials considered a second-year on-campus housing requirement, they conceptualized a program to go with it.
“One of the biggest predictors of success for second-year students is their involvement with faculty outside of the classroom,” Ranz Calhoun says. “So we knew that was an important component.”
They created the Second-year Transformational Experience Program (STEP), which helps students engage in activities catered to their individual interests and needs. The program provides interaction with faculty and $2,000 fellowships for students to pursue a signature project or experiential learning opportunity, such as studying abroad or taking leadership seminars.
As plans for the program developed, so did those for transforming the North Residential District to accommodate an additional 3,200 students. Indeed, STEP influenced the very design of residence halls and other facilities that opened there in 2015 and 2016.
Staff members engaged faculty and students to understand how to better facilitate interactions outside the classroom. Neither group was in favor of meeting in students’ personal living spaces, but both indicated they would be comfortable in common areas of residence halls or over a cup of coffee.
So dining options and cafes were located along Woodruff Avenue, directly across from the academic core and faculty members’ offices. Designs for residence halls included collaborative spaces with furniture to accommodate large or small groups and, of course, the requisite Ping-Pong table.
Torres House, where Ravikumar is an RA, is home to Green Engineering Scholars and Humanitarian Engineering Scholars as well as the Women in Engineering Learning Community. She has seen firsthand how students with similar interests are connecting with each other and mentors in their fields of study in ways that will support them throughout their education and, hopefully, their careers.
“The new expansion project has been extremely thoughtful,” Ravikumar says. “What’s nice about these buildings is that we have a lot of room for community development and building relationships.”
Connected by design
Academic and research facilities also are being designed to encourage relationship-building, as campus planners and architects put greater emphasis on creating spaces for their intended uses rather than for specific colleges or units.
Such was the case for CBEC, the Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and Chemistry building. The 225,000-square-foot structure opened in 2015 and addresses two departments’ needs for high-tech wet labs. Designed to encourage interdisciplinary work and research among scientists, engineers, postdoctoral fellows, and graduate and undergraduate students, it houses state-of-the-art equipment in flexible laboratory spaces.
QUICK FACT: Look closely for similarities
Students refer to it as their home away from home, where they can focus on the rigor of their studies in lounges that offer panoramic views of campus or find friends to join in a quick game of Euchre.
“It’s a big idea across all campuses now: How do you get collaboration to happen?” Costantino says. “Now, there are so many professions that are in between disciplines. So planning for how a building will be used leads to collaboration.”
The concept isn’t limited to new buildings — or even campus proper for that matter. The Research Commons on the third floor of the 18th Avenue Library is a special place for researchers to connect in rooms for project work, digital visualization, brainstorming and colloquia. Closer to downtown, the inviting, bohemian space of the STEAM Factory — short for science, technology, engineering, art and math — has hosted 2,000-plus hours of faculty interaction to facilitate interdisciplinary collaboration and build connections with industries and communities around Columbus.
At a fall 2014 event at the STEAM Factory, Kathy Malone, an assistant professor in the College of Education and Human Ecology, gave a one-minute presentation about influencing the way science and math are taught to middle and high school students. She talked about lesson plans involving a common household pest — the brown marmorated stink bug. That caught the attention of Zakee Sabree, an assistant professor in the Department of Evolution, Ecology and Organismal Biology, who investigates bacteria that insects, including stink bugs, need in order to thrive.
“After I heard Kathy talk about her work at the STEAM Exchange, I immediately thought, ‘I need you to help me figure out how to talk about this to kids,’” Sabree says. “She was happy to do so.”
By the following spring, Malone and Sabree were working with one another and area teachers to develop a modeling-based biology curriculum for students in grades 7–12. And that summer, 32 teachers were trained in how to implement the new teaching approach in classrooms across central Ohio.
“By the time they get to the eighth grade, kids are usually turned off a little bit by science and math,” Malone says. “We’re hoping to rebuild that fascination so we can actually start looking at how to get a pipeline moving for STEM from the K–12 arena all the way into college so that at some point in time, Zakee will actually have one of those kids in his classrooms here.”
Had it not been for a dedicated space intentionally designed to promote collaboration, the professors say it’s highly unlikely they would have encountered each other, because they work in two separate colleges.
“Not only have I met a colleague, I’ve also met a friend, too,” Malone says. Sabree smiles and adds, “True story.”
Pride of the Oval
It wasn’t long ago that university ambassadors giving campus tours to prospective students steered away from Thompson Library.
Its imposing tower and the stacks within it were infamous. Study carrels on the ground floor were vacant. In even the best reading room, the ceilings were low, and the air was stale. While other older buildings around the Oval flourished amid renovation movements of the 1980s and 1990s, the library languished.
It was a sad circumstance considering campus plans in the early 1900s called for the library to occupy one of the most precious spots on campus: It’s the only building located within the Oval.
Renovating Thompson Library became a university priority in the late 1990s. The project was massive, costing $109 million and taking three years to complete.
Technology was enhanced. The historic reading room was restored to its original 21/2 stories with floor-to-ceiling windows illuminating a quiet, majestic sanctuary for study. A new, more active reading room was added. A cafe and comfortable seating offered students spaces to work individually or in small groups. Atria of glass and skylights made the once-abominable stacks a sight to admire.
“We managed to save that great building, which had a bad reputation because of the way it was,” Costantino says, adding that usage of the library more than tripled after the renovations. “I would say it’s probably our best project.”
The undertaking challenged designers and university leaders to develop a space for scholars of the future while discerning which portions of the past to keep. Knowing how difficult it would be to address the horrific conditions in the tower, some involved with the project thought it should be demolished. Fortunately, Costantino and others understood its architectural and historic significance.
Constructed in 1951 to meet the needs of rapid enrollment increases after World War II, the tower is a focal point visible from every corner of campus — a north star embodying the university’s educational mission.
An appreciation for the university’s past and a vision for its future transformed what had been a mechanical room at the top of that tower into the reading room with stunning views that attracts freshman Victoria Murphy today.
As she returns to her books, the university city outside the window continues to hum. For her and the many students who will follow, it is a campus still building on determination and dreams, where tree-lined paths beckon us to persist on our journey of discovery.