The 'heart of the building' is the second-floor makerspace, where students take their ideas from classes and meetings and turn them into reality.

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From the outside, the GIX building in Bellevue’s Spring District seems like it could be any other state-of-the-art higher education building. But inside, where traditional classrooms coexist with the kind of conference-style “huddle rooms” you might expect to see at a tech startup, and a giant makerspace complete with 3D printers, laser cutters and a woodshop, you might start to get the idea that this isn’t just any building of higher education.

The program this building holds, like the space itself, is brand new: University of Washington and Tsinghua University’s experimental venture into an international graduate program that works closely with business and technology companies to teach students who are interested in coming up with innovative solutions to the world’s big problems: the Global Innovation Exchange.

Amy Donohoe, a principal architect at Bora Architects, the Portland firm that designed the Global Innovation Exchange building, now called the Steve Ballmer building, says designing this space was different. “A lot of times you design a chemistry building or an architecture building and often the school has a pretty good sense of what they need, their pedagogy of what will happen in the space is pretty set — this was different.”

“When we initially started the design process, we were working with Vikram Jandhyala [vice president for innovation strategy at University of Washington], and he was clear that there was just no precedent for the program or a space to support it so we had to start by thinking broadly and expansively about what kind of spaces would really support such an open style of learning and design thinking,” says Donohoe.

With foundational support from Microsoft, the program, which welcomed its first cohort in September, offers two graduate tracks: a 15-month Master of Science in Technology Innovation degree from the University of Washington and a 21-month dual degree option, which combines the MSTI with a Master of Engineering in Data Science and Information Technology degree from Tsinghua University in China.

The cohort is intentionally diverse, made up of students with educational and professional backgrounds as varied as the 11 countries they come from. One of the students making the new GIX building his educational home is Maks Surguy, who has worked as a computer technician, software engineer and started several businesses on the side.

Surguy comes from a software and computer science background but his hobbies have always been hardware based, so the program appealed to him as a way to bring those interests together. The innovative design of the GIX building helps him do that seamlessly.

Donohoe calls the “heart of the building” the second-floor makerspace, where students are able to take their ideas from classes and meetings and turn them into reality.

“The machines here enable me to go from a sketch or an idea on a computer to something I can actually hold in a few hours that I can look at and do another phase of iterations on,” says Surguy.

(Bora Architects)
(Bora Architects)

The building hums around the makerspace by design. An open central staircase drops directly from the third-floor design studios down into the makerspace. “The idea is that the top floor is where the students can have their ideation and working together and quick prototyping and then move to the second floor to practice those ideas and really test them in a physical way,” says Donohoe. “Then the ground floor is more like a launch floor, with formal classrooms and another large open space where students can present their work in a critique or literally launch a project.”

All of this openness between sections of the building aims to build collaboration between the students.

Linzi Xu, who is working with her team on building an education application that incorporates supplemental textbook material via a Hololens to help students learn more interactively, finds she’s constantly learning from her own classmates.

“The building provides great facilitation to do discussions and brainstorming and make prototypes together. We can take a huddle room and sit there, use the whiteboards to brainstorm, anytime we have an idea we want to discuss,” she says.

“I find it very inspiring to talk to people with different backgrounds,” says Xu, whose main experience is in human-computer interaction. “There are people here from electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, from computer science, industrial design, but what I’ve noticed is the people who choose this program are all risk-takers, they’re creative and embrace new things and that’s awesome to be around.”

Surguy has noticed that just having so much open space encourages people to ask each other what they’re working on, which leads to collaboration. “Another student asked me today about the sensor we’re using in our project, [a smart dollhouse] to help them use it in their project. It happens on a daily basis, students working with other students, if we’re using the same components we can help each other.”

Xu and Surguy are both eagerly awaiting the arrival of the second cohort this fall, to give them a fresh crop of students to spur even more collaboration — and help fill out the 100,000-square-foot space. Surguy anticipates that the space will change with their arrival, as its changed even in the few months since they’ve started there.

“Because the building is so new, and we were the first cohort, we’ve been able to work with the program to make the space fit our needs,” he says. They even hosted a hackathon to figure out what resources they could add to make the building work better. “Now the program will be even better for the next cohort, and we have so many ideas and are able to come together and collaborate on making those happen.”

That kind of self-directed collaboration gets to the heart of what the Global Innovation Exchange program is all about. “This is a program that recruits students from around the world,” says Donohoe. “They all come to the table with a different understanding of what teamwork and innovation means so this space is a canvas for them to develop those skills.”

She says that “building as a canvas” idea is especially important for a program like this one. “For a space to be truly innovative, the building itself needs to have bold statements and a sense of identity but it also needs to feel like a space that can be messed up and used.”

And, so far it seems to be working. “I love the way students are owning the building,” says Donohoe. “They’re putting work up on the walls, they’re building things and making a mess. There’s a giant dinosaur in the makerspace now, you can see the product of the process of making all over and it’s so exciting to see it in action.”

The Global Innovation Exchange is a collaboration between universities and industry partners from around the world focused on developing leaders in innovation. The first two academic partners are the University of Washington and Tsinghua University, with foundational support from Microsoft.