Transforming Education

Transforming Education

There’s an empty lot at 27 University Avenue, on the border of the Stanford University campus and neighboring Palo Alto, that has long been eyed by developers.

Last year, between September 2013 and January 2014, students from diverse backgrounds and disciplines came together as part of the elop* program to imagine a 21st century research park on that spot.

The site, which has a commuter train running through it, offers endless synergies between the tech hub of the City of Palo Alto and the renowned academic institution.

Who better to integrate and realize the potential than the students of elop*: 45 international master’s and advanced bachelor level participants organized into six teams consisting of architects, landscape architects, social scientists, environmental engineers, civil engineers, and construction managers?

elop* emphasizes transdisciplinary collaboration and a holistic view of the built and social environment.

“It’s like a metamorphosis,” remarked one student. “It’s painful, but I’m a different person now.”

elop* stands for environment-focused learning and operative platform. It is an alliance of nine universities in eight different countries, initiated and led by the Bern University of Applied Sciences in Switzerland. The Stanford project (elop*6) is the sixth international challenge and was co-organized with Stanford’s head of Architectural Design, John Barton.

At its core, elop* emphasizes transdisciplinary and transcultural collaboration with regard to the built and social environment. The idea is that learning in silos doesn’t get you very far in the real world.

The students, who in their normal studies aren’t confronted by other disciplines,

spent a semester meeting in-person and remotely preparing their final presentations—pitched live to the Palo Alto City Council in January 2014.

stanford presentation 92

Kathrin Merz and Key Portilla Kawamura

Architects Kathrin Merz and Key Portilla Kawamura coordinate and lead elop* from Bern, Switzerland. Credit Suisse recently honored the two with the 2013 Award for Best Teaching.

On January 24, in a focused summit organized by swissnex San Francisco, the pair joined other experts including two of their elop* alliance partners, an architecture professor from UC Berkeley, an urban planner from SPUR, a journalist, a professor of product design at Stanford, and a fellow at the American Institute of Architects to discuss the value and challenges of transdisciplinary teaching.

“A building is not judged only by its function and aesthetics but also by its ecological, environmental, and financial impact. It makes sense to get all those perspectives collaborate from the beginning,” says Kawamura, who admits to being an architect by training (he worked for Herzog & de Meuron in Switzerland) and a creative entrepreneur “by miseducation.”

Merz adds, “[The educational system] is still based on the way things were done 50 years ago. We want to train students for future challenges, those can only be tackled in a transdisciplinary way.”

At the Palo Alto City Council meeting, elop* student teams presented plans for an adaptable living center that could stand the test of time and a “Research Factree,” among other visions. The Factree would be an outdoor-oriented complex incorporating gardens, labs, a research exchange school for sharing knowledge, and a scientific promenade with public installations and exhibits.

But the elop* organizers point out that the projects are only the output. “What is really important and what makes [the program] different is the learning experience, which is deeply transformative.” Key says.

stanford kickoff