Virginia, USA: How project-based education & the Living Lab can shape the future professionals. An interview with Dorotea Ottaviani

Virginia, USA: How project-based education & the Living Lab can shape the future professionals. An interview with Dorotea Ottaviani

Virginia, USA: How project-based education & the Living Lab can shape the future professionals. An interview with Dorotea Ottaviani

Virginia Tech, USA.

Dr. Dorotea Ottaviani is a Senior Project Associate with the College of Architecture and Urban Studies (CAUS) at Virginia Tech (USA) and an architect, researcher, and educator who is currently participating in a range of special projects central to the implementation of innovative experiential and practice-based pedagogies. Her interests have always been nurtured through academic research and professional practice and vary from urban renewal and architectural adaptive reuse to the interior design. After completing her Master’s Degree, Dr. Ottaviani worked in several architectural offices in Italy, Germany, and Portugal. She also earned a Ph.D. at Sapienza University (Italy) with a dissertation focused on the transformation of public housing in the UK and Germany. She has taught Interior Design at the graduate level at University Guglielmo Marconi (Italy) and Adaptive Re-use and Heritage at the undergraduate level at the Mackintosh School of Architecture (UK). Since 2016, she has been fascinated by the learning and teaching process in the design and artistic fields. She investigated the role of the Tacit Knowledge in the Design Research for the Creative Practices, working as Experienced Researcher within the European Union funded project ADAPT-r ITN (  at the Glasgow School of Art (UK).

VG:  Dorotea, you are working as Senior Project Associate on the establishment of three major projects for innovative teaching and researching at the CAUS (College of Architecture and Urban Studies) at Virginia Tech, can you explain what the projects are?

DO: Virginia Tech is currently in a thrilling period of transformation since the release of the “Beyond Boundaries: A 2047 Vision”. This document encapsulates the challenges and the potential of growth that Virginia Tech will face in the near future to thrive and evolve.

In the College of Architecture and Urban Studies (CAUS), we are deploying the ideas and concept of this vision in three main strategic projects.

The first project is the establishment of a new stream of practice-based research at the Ph.D. level. This methodology of research enables practitioners to contribute to knowledge through their own practice, bridging back the gap that exists between the practice and the academia and allowing the knowledge that emerges from the practice to be fully employed in the academic system of research and teaching. The second project deals with the institution of a Living Lab Concept at VT.  The Living Lab will facilitate research and teaching transforming the whole built environment of Virginia Tech into a laboratory for faculty and students to actively engage in the design, the building and the assessment of the environment in which they live and study. The Living Lab aims to operate on two levels, on the one hand on the VT campus, addressing the specific conditions of an expanding and innovative university, on the other hand, it will develop a master plan for the Roanoke and New  River Valleys, home region of Virginia Tech, addressing the mission of VT of serving the community as public land-grant university.

The third project will be connected and will grow from the previous one.  We are developing a new bachelor degree that will overcome the current boundaries of the “siloed” disciplines to embrace a multidisciplinary approach. This degree will be project-based and will draw its projects from the development of the masterplan in the area. This will allow students to explore large-scale and complex problems in an immersive hands-on/minds-on fashion.

VG: It almost sounds as if it helps the university anticipate the future of the practice. What do you think is the challenge and the benefits of this anticipation? How do you think is relevant to teach design mindset and methodology to future professionals?

DO: A research presented by the World  Economic Forum states that 65% of kids currently entering the kindergarten will be employed in jobs that don’t exist right now due to changing conditions of the global economy and the rise of disruptive technologies. In this highly changing scenario, it seems pivotal to address the way in which we teach our students to retain their relevance both in term of future employability and for addressing global challenges. The aim is to develop in the future professionals both an analytical and projective mindset, teaching them a wide array of technical, social, and analytical skills that will sustain a flexible approach and facilitate the adaptation to a dynamic and uncertain world and job market.

What has been noted by several scholars is that the role of the “generalist” will gain back its relevance being able to understand the different connections and potentials of situations, creating projects that overcome the disciplines to embrace larger and more complex problems.

This new undergraduate degree will be housed in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies and will draw many of the facets of the design thinking but will be projected towards projects not exclusively related to the built environment. What we aim to develop is a program that helps students in cultivating a nimble and resilient mindset to address complex issues rather than providing them with a fixed set of skills for specific problems.

VG: Is this idea applied only at a Ph.D. level or are there also other areas where traditional teaching and research are transforming into something new with a view to the future?

DO: Practice and project-based have always been at the core of the education at VT, what we want to implement is the range of real projects, connected to industry partners, that can increase the exposure of the students to complex challenges. The Living Lab and the new degree will make room for the rise of encounters of the students with real projects with their large variety of stakeholders, different agendas, and predictable and unpredictable consequences. The way in which we are promoting this vision is: we have students of medicine working with real patients, in real hospitals, engaging with the reality of the practice in a controlled and safe space of learning, why can’t this approach be applied to the design disciplines?

VG: Can you tell us more about the living lab you are designing at Virginia Tech? What is it about?

DO: One definition of Living Lab is derived from the conjunction of research, teaching, and facilities.

Thus the Living Lab system that we are designing at Virginia Tech relies on the idea of isolating a small portion of a projected infrastructure and/or facility, and their related funds. Once the scope, the funds, and the agendas are set, we will have faculty directly researching on them. Imagine teachers and students designing and building together their own environment, the limitation of the reality of budget, deadlines, and clients needs will have to be met.

This incredible conjunction will lead to great improvements in both the research and the learning side of the academic realm.

Students will be more likely to be more invested in learning because of the familiar reality of the campus. This approach, known as place-based learning, enhances the value of elements of context and culture in function of the teaching activities. Moreover, using the campus as a living lab can bring to a “service learning” system, where students practice a combination of community service and academic learning as part of their educational experience. This system promotes civic engagement educating students about civic responsibilities, as they see the consequences of their actions directly on their built environment. On the research side, the possibility of developing relations with industry and to develop patents for the research will produce a virtuous circle for the funding and new and strong relations between students and the industry.

VG: How is it connected with the mindset of future professionals?

DO: I think that such a combined system of the living lab and project-based education will help to shape future professionals in an era of fast and unpredictable changes.  A pedagogy system that focuses on understanding potentialities of situations, that encourages an inquiry-based mindset and where creativity is conceived as idea-creation and project definition, rather than problem-solving mentality, will be pivotal in shaping professionals that respond to the ever-growing necessity of being nimble and adaptable.

VG: What about the role of technology in this educational system?

DO: Needless to say that technology will have a pivotal role, especially when used in interdisciplinary projects but I think that it is very important to bridge back a gap that has been growing in the past century between humanistic thinking and technological reasoning. I think that in the face of the likely event that biotech and infotech will eventually merge the role of the educated professional will be also to make sense of the ethical consequences of such disruptive technologies.

Valina Geropanta and Dorotea Ottaviani — 

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