A Digital “Experiment” in Online Collaboration Opens its Doors at Carnegie’s Broad Branch Road Campus

Led by Carnegie’s highly respected librarian, Shaun Hardy, the Broad Branch Road (BBR) campus opened the Abelson Collaboration Center (ACC), a new digital collaboration room, this year.  

When was the idea of the building the Abelson Collaboration Center (ACC) first initiated?

Discussion of creating a new multipurpose room on the second floor [of the Abelson Building] goes back at least to 2009.  Russell Hemley first suggested the idea to me and it went through many incarnations over the years. The changes were based on changing needs of the two departments and the library, my discussions with the Library Committee, and other construction projects (notably the building of the Electron Microscopy (EM) suite downstairs and plans for a new campus archives somewhere in the building).  Initial ideas ranged from a lunch/break room to a conference room, to a "commons" or lounge.  Ultimately, both departments recognized the need for an intermediate-sized meeting place somewhere on campus as highest priority. 

Two developments really got the planning process moving in earnest -- first, Lindy Elkin-Tanton’s arrival as DTM's new director in 2011, and the library's large-scale acquisition of digital journal back-files (archives) in 2012 using funding that she and Dr. Hemley had secured.   Acquiring online access to most of our core scientific journals enabled us to eliminate large numbers of print volumes and substantially reduce the footprint of our periodical stacks.  Room 208, which had formerly been filled with bookcases, could finally be repurposed.

Who was involved in imagining, designing and constructing the ACC?

In May 2013, I asked Merri Wolf, Janice Dunlap, Danielle Appleby, and Morgan Phillips-Hoople to serve on an ad hoc planning committee with me. Together we began meeting with a space-planning consultant (Workspace Design) to develop floor plans and select furniture for the new room.  Our design considerations included providing maximum flexibility for multiple uses, ease of reconfiguration, and a clean, uncluttered, contemporary look. 

The plans also needed to provide for boardroom style meetings, classroom setups (seating at tables facing the instructor), and seminars for up to 38 people.  Concurrently, our IT administrators Michael Acierno and Gefei Qian and I began identifying IT and audiovisual (AV) requirements for the new space.  We worked with an AV design and installation firm (Design and Integration) to design a system that would meet our anticipated needs, be intuitive to use, and that would incorporate the latest collaboration technologies.   Our building engineers Gary Bors and Roy Dingus oversaw all of the physical site modifications (new doors, painting, carpeting, wiring) that were needed to get the space ready for its new purposes. The directors accepted the plans and project budget in September 2013.  Construction commenced shortly thereafter and was completed in January 2014.

How will the ACC help our Broad Branch Road (BBR) campus do better science?

The name "Abelson Collaboration Center" was intentionally chosen to reflect the hope that it will foster communication in creative and innovative ways, perhaps some we haven't even thought of yet. 

As Michael [Acierno] put it, "We're trying to think outside the box with this design.  The ACC was not intended to duplicate meeting facilities already available elsewhere on campus, but to introduce state-of-the-art technology” and mobile furniture that can accommodate many different kinds of collaboration; from ad-hoc brainstorming sessions of three to four people, to formal seminars with up to 40 people.  Using the ClickShare presentation system, researchers can present right from their seats using their own laptops or smart phones, the wireless projector, and/or large video display. Or they can present in a traditional way, using the podium computer.  The simplicity of the control technology design makes it possible for multiple researchers to interact and present simultaneously without the need for intervention by IT staff.

As the curator of the ACC, what do you hope for it’s future?

I see the ACC as an "experiment" in itself - a way to showcase and test the capabilities of new collaboration technology and to see what works for our campus community and what doesn't.   It's already heavily booked in its first month of operation and I hope that as more staff members and postdoctoral associates become familiar with its capabilities they'll see themselves as stakeholders in this experiment and begin to find uses we haven't even anticipated yet.

Is there anything that this communication center has that sets it apart from ones on different academic campuses?

"Information Commons" or "Collaboration Laboratories" are becoming mainstream in university libraries; so incoming postdoctoral associates should feel at home with some of the technology available in the ACC.  Some universities offer more kinds of sophisticated technology - for example, touch-screen "visualization walls" - to enhance the collaboration experience. However,  they're serving enormous user communities and have huge operating budgets.  While we can't realistically compete with these, we can offer select capabilities for onsite and remote collaboration (via videoconferencing) that are appropriate to our user population.

After its first month of operation, how do you like the ACC?

The creation of the ACC has been a great team effort!  I've enjoyed working with such creative and visionary colleagues in developing this new resource for our whole campus community.  I think it's a great example of the "Carnegie way" of doing things - very hands-on and collegial.  And of course, I appreciate the support of our directors for embracing this vision and finding the resources to make it happen!

       

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