Reaching Higher: Planning Learning Spaces for Allied Health Sciences

Pictured: The University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s combined Student Health Center and College of Nursing.

Nearly 20 percent of new jobs in the United States are in healthcare and allied health professions, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. As such, colleges and universities are stepping up their focus on science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM) and allied health sciences programs to meet growing market needs for trained healthcare professionals.

Learning spaces are evolving to accommodate these new programs, and several distinct developments are driving architectural planning for the allied health sciences.


As medical and nursing curricula evolve, so too are the allied health sciences, driving the need for a new integrated and interdisciplinary approach to health sciences education and research. Traditionally siloed with dedicated curriculum and accreditation/testing, STEM and allied health sciences are sharing facilities, equipment, disciplines and teaching models to both compete in the healthcare market and effectively navigate industry changes.


Technology has grown exponentially over the past 10 years and increasingly is driving teaching models. No longer led by the sage on the stage, today’s learning environments are simulating real-life patient scenarios and healthcare settings using virtual reality, visualization tools, robotics, high-fidelity mannequins and task trainers. Mannequins now replace cadavers to simulate actual medical conditions as electronic task trainers simulate different body parts. Robotics can simulate almost any medical condition today–training a new generation of tech-savvy students.

Simulation settings often include a briefing, followed by the simulation procedure controlled by an instructor, then followed by debriefing–often in the same space. Audio/visual technology records the skills-training simulation, allowing students and instructors to critique the session, and provide for remote participation.

Simulation technology has made inroads in all aspects of healthcare education, and even healthcare organizations are using simulation centers as a professional development tool for physicians, nurses, caregivers, and new hires.


Allied health sciences also are becoming more globally focused as students study computational medicine, demographics and data mining to develop skills in population health management and identify global health trends. Campuses are building partnerships with healthcare organizations nationally and internationally to give students real-world experiences working with doctors remotely using mobile technology to diagnosis patients. The goal is to develop evidence-based data skills to deliver predictive outcomes.


Today’s learning spaces have to accommodate multiple functions and encourage hands-on experiences, with nontraditional settings, technology-rich labs, distance learning opportunities and makerspaces that offer students flexibility, engagement, and interdisciplinary experiences. Such spaces build bridges between academic theories and real-word solutions and act as catalysts for innovation, entrepreneurial spirit, and collaboration.

A strategic planning response is to develop diverse and flexible learning environments that support the continued advancements in curricular models, technology, and the overall evolution of healthcare delivery and discovery.

This means having spaces that scale up or down for different class sizes–from 40 to 140, from large lectures to small-group seminars–to accommodate changes to instruction. Through flexibility, students and instructors become participants in a collaborative learning environment.

Programs of Tomorrow

Many programs across the country already are redefining healthcare and allied health sciences education.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, for instance, is launching a new medical school that combines clinical medicine with the campus’s renowned biosciences and engineering programs. The cross-disciplinary Carle Illinois College of Medicine (which is separate from the University of Illinois College of Medicine in Chicago) will train students to be “physician innovators” and entrepreneurs when it opens in coming years, inspiring graduates to develop new technologies, medical devices, procedures, and allied industries.

Similarly, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) is combining clinical health services and educational programming in a new health center to enhance cross-disciplinary opportunities. The 107,000-square-foot, three-story University Health Center, designed by HGA, will house medical, dental and physical therapy clinics alongside the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) College of Nursing-Lincoln Division when completed in mid-2018.

The College of Nursing includes simulation center (above), skills labs, active learning classrooms, education support space, administrative offices, and research labs. The planning supports shared learning between the nursing program and clinics, giving students hands-on experience. The building also will strengthen educational resources between UNL and UNMC in Omaha.

“This shared facility is a testament to campus collaborations, which enables us to better serve the healthcare needs of university students and raise the level of nursing education and research,” said UNMC Chancellor Jeffrey P. Gold, M.D.


Programs such as these are demonstrating the importance of educational cross-fertilization. As you plan learning spaces to support new curriculum, remember:

  • Be entrepreneurial in your learning model.
  • Think globally.
  • Plan flexible spaces for cross-disciplinary collaboration.
  • Provide maker and collaboration spaces to foster evolving protocol and product development.
  • Put science and technology on display.
  • Position your students as future healthcare leaders.