Blackboards vs. White: The Choice Lies in a Grey Zone

Visual communication of educational content between the instructor and the students is essential to an education. Technology aside, two of the most common surfaces to accomplish written communication are chalkboards and marker boards (often referred to as blackboards and whiteboards). You might think the decision over which surface is better would be straight forward, but there is no simple answer. In fact, it’s a common source of debate between faculty and facilities staff on college campuses.

Causing Friction

Chalkboards have been used in educational settings for more than 200 years. Originally made from slate, they are now constructed of less expensive porcelain enameled steel. Many faculty members prefer them because they like the feel of the friction between the chalk and the board. It allows them the ability to draw better graphs and diagrams with multiple colors and lines that cross over one another without compromising the first line.

Some even say that writing with chalk forces them to write slower, therefore being more thoughtful and purposeful in their teaching. Chalk is often favored by faculty over dry-erase markers because it is inexpensive, non-toxic, reliable, and versatile. It can be used by mathematicians as well as artists.

When the Dust Settles

While cleaning chalkboards is easy to do with a cloth and water – no harsh chemicals needed – they actually carry a bad reputation with facilities staff because of the dust. Chalk dust is not only an irritant to humans (causing allergy and asthma problems), but it can be harmful to electronic devices such as computers and DVD players. Cooling fans located on the devices may draw chalk dust inside where dust builds up on heat-sensitive parts. This can significantly reduce the lifespan of the product and can cause frequent replacement.

White or black boards can pull double duty hiding classroom storage areas.

Facilities staff typically prefer whiteboards, citing that they are easier to clean and maintain. For a college campus or other heavy use areas, a glass or porcelain enameled whiteboard will offer excellent performance over less expensive whiteboards made of laminates, acrylic and polyester coatings. Glass whiteboards will not become stained over time like the others.

There are many options when it comes to whiteboards. They can be magnetized, come pre-printed with custom graphics, and even can come in colors other than white. What’s not to love? While some faculty believe that dry-erase markers are more user friendly than chalk (markers take less effort and pressure than writing on a chalkboard), others cite concerns with  the boards and their markers: dry-erase markers have a strong smell; the markers always dry out; the markers can leave ghosted lines behind.

A Better Student Experience

I would feel remiss if we didn’t talk about the student experience, and which surface they prefer. Several scientific studies have found that dark text on a light background can be read faster, retained better, and is better for comprehension. This research is why books and most online websites have a white background. Also, a white background with brightly colored text tends to be more attention grabbing and keep students’ interest.

Informal learning space
Engineering students collaborating inside the NDSU STEM Building.

By providing writeable surfaces on all walls of a classroom and throughout academic facilities, opportunities are created to encourage visible and social learning for all students. According to a Jisc report “Designing spaces for effective learning” (2006, p. 28), “well-designed social spaces are likely to increase students’ motivation” to learn. While in universities students must be able to think independently, “the range of skill that can be developed” in a social setting “exceeds what can be attained alone” (Falchicov, 2007, p. 129). It would stand to reason that campuses are on the right track in their use of multiple boards (black or white) in various locations.

How does a campus ultimately decide what to do? Most campuses, and certainly most large public institutions, prefer whiteboards. While they aren’t offered much choice in the matter, faculty certainly still have opinions on the subject. On some campuses, faculty are given input on the decisions. Some institutions outfit classrooms with either blackboards or whiteboards, depending on the department, which offers the faculty members and registrar choice in selection of rooms for courses.

Both blackboards and whiteboards deserve respect on campus. Each one has their own unique qualities that are admired by the users and facilities staff who maintain them. In either case, the trend is that writing surfaces should be large and installed on multiple walls for maximum access to writable surfaces.

It’s not you, board. It’s the instrument

For my next post, I am going to purchase and experiment with the use of various writing tools. There are several options on the market now for consideration. For chalk lovers, there is a product called dustless chalk. The name is a bit deceiving because there is still dust, but the dust particles are heavier and fall to the floor. While there is still a mess to clean, at least the dust is said to not float into the air bringing harm to humans and devices.

Another product to consider is a liquid chalk marker. These markers do not have a chemical odor like dry-erase markers, and colors can be overlapped similar to standard chalk. You often see these markers used for restaurant and café menu boards.

Another product being used more frequently for whiteboards are wet-erase markers. Previously used for overhead transparency films, these are made with a semi-permanent paste instead of an alcohol based ink. Because of this, the mark does not easily smear or rub off, have a strong smell, and requires only a damp cloth to clean. While a wet-erase marker can only be used on whiteboards, liquid chalk markers can be used on both whiteboards and chalkboards. I’m excited to try these and report back on their pros and cons.

BWBR’s Du Wins Prestigious Minnesota Design Award

Shida Du, AIA, a project architect at BWBR, received the 2018 Ralph Rapson Traveling Study Fellowship award Friday, winning the design competition with an affordable housing idea that would add living and urban farming on top of an existing transit center sitting at Minneapolis’ Lake and Hiawatha thoroughfares.

Du’s award-winning design, Lake/Hiawatha 2.0, takes an existing light rail station and evolves it from a transit platform to a daily hub for an entire neighborhood. Investigating the poetry of “ordinary living within an urban context,” Du introduces an indoor space for the Midtown Farmers Market as well as an in-house seasonal restaurant and food pop-up. A rooftop garden is created in tandem with the market as a place for the residents to be productive.

“While the lack of affordable housing is obviously an issue in Minnesota, the key question I asked is whether there is any fundamental difference between affordable housing and, simply, housing,” said Du, who earned a certificate in metropolitan design from the University of Minnesota. “If we think beyond the mere utility of affordable housing, the focus on human senses becomes universal in envisioning a place to live and be, whether it’s affordable housing or regular housing.”

In the design, the public/community programs are arranged parallel and permeable to the residential units that offers an intimate, human-scale respite. The series of multi-sensory experiences that highlights human conditions as well as urban context elevates and celebrates a sense of place, purpose, and belonging of the residents.

The Ralph Rapson Traveling Study Fellowship is an annual competition administered by the Minnesota Architecture Foundation to recognize design talent and advance their architectural education through foreign or domestic travel-study. Assigning designers a theme each year, this year designers were charged to create an affordable housing project for a focused, or mixed, residential needs on a site of their choosing. Designers were charged to keep the ideas at a high level.

Awarded since 1989, the traveling study fellowship honors Ralph Rapson, FAIA, who led the architecture program at the University of Minnesota from 1954 to 1984 and remained a practicing architect until his death in 2008 at the age of 93. Known for his Modernist styles and Bauhaus principles, his designs were known to orient towards the users of the designs rather than design principles. One of his most recognized projects includes the original Guthrie Theater and Riverside Plaza off of the West Bank in Minneapolis.

“It’s an incredible honor to just be a finalist, let alone winning,” Du said. “This project clarified for me that, at its best, architecture emboldens everyday life to be an enriching experience, and the beauty of it far exceeds any ceremony or monument. And I plan to continue that exploration with the fellowship.”

Du, a native of Chongqing, China, earned his Bachelor of Architecture Degree from Chongqing University and his Master of Architecture Degree from the University of Minnesota. Among his recent professional work includes the new Hennepin Healthcare Clinic and Specialty Center, Self Esteem Brands/Anytime Fitness corporate headquarters, and an exploratory study for Greater MSP of development potential for the old Ramsey County Government Center/West Publishing site in downtown Saint Paul.

Imagination, Memories, and Baseball

The start of baseball season for so many of us brings visions of grandeur and drama that we all imagined in childhood. Standing on that mound, we faced down the biggest of hitters – Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Ty Cobb, or Kirk Gibson. We threw the perfect strike, and, five minutes later, we hit the biggest grand slam.

For my brother and I growing up on the farm in northwest Minnesota, this was our inspiration and our imagination. However, for all the great plays the two of us made, our ad hoc baseball stadium always proved to be a logistical challenge. There were a lot of breaks in the action, with much time spent walking back and forth to retrieve yet another wild pitch, or subsequently retreating again to recover the ball naturally overthrown or bounced past the pitcher.

Despite our challenges, we boldly went all in. In our eyes, we had a ballpark to rival Fenway Park, even if the grass faded into gravel just behind second base. Baselines were mowed precisely straight, a nicely centered and perfectly round “pitcher’s mound,” and even some on-deck circles at each side of home plate. I could see this green masterpiece from my upstairs bedroom window, and I would often look down upon it and fill in the missing pieces: the bleachers, the upper decks, the scoreboard, and the roar of the crowd (made audible on many occasions with a raspy, hissing sound from deep down in my throat – a mostly inhuman sound for which my dad didn’t much care, but in my ears accurately replicated the sounds of a ballpark).

We had never actually been to Fenway, but this studiously designed part of the farm yard transported us there time and time again.

From where does the inspiration for design come? Does it materialize from thin air? Is it dependent upon our past memories and experiences?

While some combination of all of these is required, clearly imagination plays a key role, but what does that really mean? Some psychologists believe that there are two types of imagination: A passive imagination when our imagination resorts to past memories for inspiration, and an active imagination that applies reason, comparison and choice.

When you experience a place for the first time, you develop a memory based on sights, sounds, and even your feelings. As you get further from the reality of an experience, your imagination begins to fill in the gaps. All places promote memory, and as architects, we want to ensure a lasting memory. Truly great architecture should evoke all of the senses. The physicality of architecture is not the only consideration. The overall atmosphere created or the activities celebrated become equally important. I believe that when your mind is deeply stimulated, it remembers the experience in a more meaningful and lasting way.

In that stadium of dreams my brother and I visualized, we had to use our imaginations – and some well-placed props – to play in the big leagues. The ability to tap into this visionary view of baseball served us especially well the day our father’s new shop on the farm was completed, and thus we ushered in a new era of baseball on the farm. In a bold move for the farm, our dad oversaw the construction of a large, high, two-bay shop. What dad saw as the means to greater success of his vocation and livelihood in support of his family, my brother and I surveyed and quickly determined to clearly be a “domed stadium.”

Leaning heavily on our imaginations, our domed stadium became real: the crisply laid baselines (black electrical tape); the angular outfield fence (an amalgam of cardboard, taped together, replete with homemade advertising);, the Steel Monster (the overhead door serving as the right field wall, our version of Fenway’s Green Monster); and a scoreboard (a marker board providing an inning-by-inning tally). They all served to enhance our experience to the point that, not only were we staying cool and playing a sport we loved, we were doing it all in a place we created that was magically transporting us to the real thing – and, although we didn’t know it then, creating memories.

What if we always ignited our imaginations to see the design through the eyes of those one day experiencing it?

What if our imaginations could stimulate the imaginations of others through designs that made them think, delight, pause, innovate, heal, or remember? What if every design decision was viewed through a lens of “Am I creating a lasting memory?”

Whether imagination is sparking inspiration for great architecture, or experiencing a space is forming meaningful memories that will one day become enhanced by imagination, the end game is the same. Architecture that is thoughtful and evokes your senses will entice clarity, and creativity. In the layered richness and simple complexities of light, space, textures, materials, proportions, and rhythms, the architecture defines, frames, and affects the moment. If the design deeply touches the mind, body, and spirit, a memory is created. In that moment then, a shop on the farm becomes a major league ballpark. Design then becomes something special – and something memorable.