George Thrush: This course has evolved into one that is about teaching students who might not be majoring in design, the benefits of design thinking and how that can help them solve problems. What I hope that we can talk about today are two issues that I know are very close to your heart, and I think you have employed some of these techniques implicitly or explicitly.
The first is innovating in higher education, which is a huge topic. And the other is your role as the client for the new Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex.
So you’ve been here 10 years now. In higher education, which has been such a changing playing field, what would you say has changed the most in the past 10 years?
President Aoun [Addressing the students]: What has changed the most in higher education is you. That’s the first and most important aspect of the change, because your expectations are different. You are the digital generation; you want things now and you want them anytime and anywhere. And higher education has yet to adapt. And that’s an aspect that we are now going to build: personalized education. You’re going to see an enormous shift from the teacher-centered environment to a learner-centered environment.
Personalization of higher education is not new to Northeastern. Co-op is the ultimate form of personalized education because you are there, you are looking in your co-op environment—whether it’s for-profit, whether it’s not-for-profit, whether it’s a startup, whether it’s in Shanghai, or Cape Town, or Singapore, or London—you are looking at the world and you are looking at yourself, trying to understand what you like, what you don’t like, what you’re good at, what you have to work on; and that is personalized education.
No one is driving co-op but you. When we started looking at personalization, we knew that we already had a great asset, which is co-op and experiential education. So now the next evolution is going to focus more and more on providing you with opportunities to have a personalized education not only when you are here, but also for life. You may ask, “Why do I need it? Why do I need to have access to learning for life?” And that’s something we’re going to discuss.
But to go back to professor Thrush’s question: You are different from your predecessors in your expectations, in what you do and how you do it, and how you learn. Yet, higher education is not talking about personalization. It is still talking about providing the classical, curriculum-based approach.
Thrush: Let’s switch gears and talk about the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex and your role as the client. The reason I want to talk about it is not just because I like cool architecture, which I do, but because it seems to me a very clear example of how different stakeholders would have defined the problem very differently.
If you had asked the treasurer, they would have said we have this much need and this much cost per researcher. If you’d asked Facilities, they would have come up with something else. If you’d asked the researchers themselves, they might have come up with something else. Can you tell us a little bit about what you talked about with the architects? Because you seem like the ideal client to me, someone who understands that architecture is not mere building. What were your ambitions for this thing from the start?
Aoun: We’re going to open this great new science and engineering complex. Already we have other universities coming here to visit it. Why? First, look at campuses at the macro level: You have campuses that are monotonic in their design, for instance all their buildings are Italian Romanesque. There’s nothing wrong with that, they tend to be in a bucolic environment. Northeastern is an urban environment. You have West Village, International Village, and East Village, so what we wanted is to reflect the fact that we are daring, to reflect that we are interested in new material, in new architecture.
We started working together [with Boston-based architecture firm Payette] to look at the science and engineering complex as a statement. You saw the architecture, we pushed to make it a statement—a statement about design, a statement about innovation, a statement about being part of Columbus Avenue and opening Columbus Avenue to the community, too.
Then, when we started looking at the inside, we wanted the users—the students, the faculty—to be bumping into each other as opposed being confined to their rooms. All the labs are on one side and all the offices are on the other side, so, when you walk from one to the other you have to interact with others. We made it completely open. The science and engineering complex is a magnificent symbol of who we are, and that’s essential.