Infrastructure, Power and Opportunity: Reflections from the Biosphere 2

Building a Biosphere takes continuous experimentation and evaluation. So, too, does building learning experiences and infrastructure. Quote by Jess Knott on her recent experience designing inclusive curriculum and student experiences at Biosphere 2

by Jess Knott

This week I have had the incredible opportunity to camp at the beautiful Biosphere 2 in Oracle, Arizona with a small group of interdisciplinary professionals engaged at the intersections of science, design, pedagogy and social justice. I am not locked in, and I have not met Pauly Shore, but as part of an NSF grant entitled Principles for the Equitable Design of STEM Learning Environments, I have the opportunity to work with a group that is charged with assembling a set of principles for the design of inclusive STEM studio learning spaces and providing direction to the NSF in regard to future opportunities.

exterior of Biosphere 2 in ArizonaIn this human-created ecosystem, I’m struck by a number of things, but as we toured the Biosphere the thing I kept returning to was the infrastructure needs. It takes a LOT of purposeful, intentional, and carefully designed infrastructure to keep an ecosystem alive and thriving. It also takes regular interrogation and reflection to identify what works, what doesn’t, and what can or should be done to keep the symbiosis working and generative. Building a Biosphere takes continuous experimentation and evaluation. So, too, does building learning experiences and infrastructure.

Inspired by this group of collaborators and how the space we are working in physically is influencing and enhancing the work we are doing creatively, I see a lot of opportunity for design practices and measurements coupled with conversation and collaboration to serve as that infrastructure in learning innovation spaces. Because, while “studio-based learning” at this event is strictly defined as “environments organized to engage learners in authentic, open-ended, iterative problem-setting and solving,” I can’t help but see the world as our collective studio. What infrastructure is present in our world that must be present in our micro-environments to spur the kind of exploration and learning we hope will happen? And, perhaps more importantly, how is this infrastructure holding back the people who may need it most to instead help them along?

One of our charges as an outcome for this experience is to come out with some recommendations for funding opportunities for the NSF. Much of this work is interdisciplinary, with focus on emergent outcomes and inquiry, culture-building, and intersections and intersectionality. Historically, NSF funded grants focus more on empirical outcomes, tested hypotheses, and clearly defined outcomes and measurements. As we look toward a future that is increasingly messy and undefined, how might we seek drive conversations that not only accept, but embrace emergent outcomes and messy paths?

As I look at the immense opportunity before us as designers of experiences I find myself thinking about where we might find the resources to drive the chaos that may (or even must) happen. Is this work that will be funded by grant funding? In this affective space, how might we make the case for funding agencies to, if not embrace mess, to focus on outcomes? The path to any outcome is less of a straight line and more like a tangle of yarn. We need to get comfortable with that as practitioners, scholars, and funders. When we commit to a straight line, or expect one, we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment and misunderstanding. We are also likely losing sight of some of our best ideas due to artificial or perceived constraint.

In a conversation with some colleagues and collaborators in regard to a different idea, I started thinking about the collective catalytic power that institutions (and, more importantly, their people) can bring to bear in initiatives of inclusion, creativity, and experience. Rather than rely so much on grant funders, should institutions band together and fund initiatives to facilitate this culture building? Note that when I say institutions here, I see them defined as not only universities but also community, corporations, non-profits, etc.

This has been an incredibly rewarding, yet difficult week of design, creation, and reflection. While I usually carefully script my posts for the Hub blog, this time I tried to embrace the mess a little more. Most of my thoughts are half formed. I have thoughts but no proof, ideas but no direction, a million “how might we” questions but only 2.16 potential solutions. Beyond anything, while I’m here as an invited expert this week has taught me how very much I still have to learn. I hope to follow up with future writing about how all of the work we did this week shapes up, but for now I’m going to go outside in my snowy home state and think about how environments shape and define our work, our identities, and ourselves.

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