The college’s largest classroom: Its campus

Higher ed schools embrace their cultures and legacies through ambient learning

In a renewal of social consciousness in American higher ed, colleges are refining stories of their history told through statues, signage and installations on campus. Many are turning this into an aesthetic opportunity, with historically accurate, engaging content presented in ways that visually enhance and individualize the campus.

The concept is known as ambient learning.

At Chapman University in California, an array of busts, monuments and narrative plaques “acknowledge the heritage of the campus and the history of the community,” says Kris Eric Olsen, vice president of campus planning and operations.

For example, a monument to former industrial plant Anaconda Wire and Cable Company was constructed using bricks and glass panes from the demolished building; the monument stands on its original site, where the university’s film school is now located.

Colleges are also using ambient learning to explore the more complex aspects of their legacies. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s trustees recently decided to change the name of its Saunders Hall.

In 2015, student protest drew attention to the building’s moniker, as former North Carolina Secretary of State William Saunders was also an organizer with the Ku Klux Klan. Now Carolina Hall, the building hosts a wall dedicated to “telling the story of William Saunders and placing it into the context of a long struggle over race and democracy in North Carolina,” says Jim Leloudis, co-chair of the History Task Force on UNC-Chapel Hill History.

An accompanying website offers a deeper dive into the institution’s history.

In 2013, Chapman renovated the Cypress Street Schoolhouse into a research facility for its Early Human and Lifespan Development Research Program. An outdoor plaque details Cypress’ history, which was the last racially segregated school in Southern California.

The strategic use of ambient learning can enrich the campus experience for students and visitors; it can also demonstrate the resilience of the institution itself. “We use objects, our landscape, to very broadly teach the history of the university and the larger social political scene it has operated in,” says Leloudis.

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