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Steelcase University: Research, Professional Development, and the Power of Furniture

Last week I had the pleasure to be hosted at "Steelcase University" in Grand Rapids, Michigan for a day of learning with their thought-leaders and researchers. The trip itself was with some of my lovely DLR Group coworkers to expose us to the front-lines of interior design research on the use of educational spaces. Steelcase is also a partner in the Innovative Learning Environments + Teacher Change study I’ll be working on next year. A productive trip indeed!


1. Professional development focused on the potential use of furniture is sorely needed if its integration into space is to have a real impact on the trajectory of education. This was discussed with almost every expert of the day and reflects why they are partners in the ILE+TC study.

2. ARC – Applied Research Consulting is one way Steelcase already accomplishes this development. Best nugget from this is the idea of doing work for free and then receiving payment over time if and only if, the design or service remains beneficial and functional. If it’s not, then see this as an opportunity to learn and improve.

3. Research integration into practice is difficult to achieve initially but once it is, it can be integral to the DNA of a company. It is so deep in the core of Steelcase in that they are unable to articulate specific returns on investment or how they measure its success. They simply know that it is the reason they are successful. It is why they say that the manufacturing of furniture is simply a byproduct of their desire to improve the world of work and education and their other burgeoning sectors.


Steelcase had our group transition every 50 minutes or so into a different learning environment. This is obviously to allow clients to experience a variety of their furniture but also provides a firsthand experience of the activities various learning environments are best at supporting.

Here's a run down of the types of learning spaces we were in and what activities they are most conducive to supporting.

1. Learn Labs are best apt for lessons with high-levels of interactive technology use.

2. Classrooms outfitted with node chairs are best for allowing ease of movement from independent work to small groups to large group.

3. The tiered tables allow for a more traditional setting without taking away the ability to change the space over time.

4. Small group independent desks are mobile and encourage collaboration while still supporting more traditional instruction.

5. Mobile tables connected to power provide balance between the analog and digital.This is set up initially for groups of four and is one of the more popular set-ups in existing K-12 facilities as group work is commonly seen as beneficial (but oh how much farther we can go!)

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