BUILDING 21: AN INNOVATIVE SPACE FOR ACADEMIC PLAY
A Building 21 research project gets a test run. Photos by Alex Smith.
By Vanessa Bonneau
In the summer of 2018, at the end of his undergraduate degree at McGill, Jacob Errington, BSc’18, spent eight weeks making a role-playing videogame that takes place in New France.
He worked out of the bright first-floor space of McGill’s former Warden’s apartment on Sherbrooke Street, alongside other students pursuing research projects they’re passionate about.
The space, called Building 21 – or B21 – caters to these BLUE scholars (BLUE stands for Beautiful Limitless Unconstrained Exploration), who, armed with an idea, are given a short but intense summer fellowship. Students from any program at McGill are eligible, from both the undergraduate or graduate level of study.
B21 also serves as an informal meeting space open to scholars from around the university. The community includes students, staff, alumni and community members, who meet regularly for formal and informal discussions and daily programming. The space offers everything from multidisciplinary philosophy talks to morning yoga and Friday evening virtual reality parties.
“Tell us something you’re passionate about, and we’ll give you structure, mentorship, a cohort of like-minded people and the freedom of time to contemplate and really develop your idea,” says Anita Parmar, BSc’00, co-director of the space. Parmar has a PhD in physics and came to Building 21 from the office of Student Life and Learning.
She currently spends half of her time as an Innovation Advisor in the Faculty of Science. The rest of the time you’ll find her at B21, ready to discuss BLUE projects, the role of a space like B21, or another topic at hand, like biometric sensors.
Envisioned, founded and co-directed by French professor and former Deputy Provost Ollivier Dyens, Building 21 is inspired by MIT’s Building 20, where scientists and other luminaries gathered to work and exchange ideas, with notable outcomes ranging from Harold Edgerton’s early deep-sea cameras to Noam Chomsky’s modern school of linguistics.
After a trial run at B21 in 2017 with one project, in summer 2018, 18 students – including Errington – worked on 16 projects over two months, exploring topics like cyber-social spiritual communities and regenerative architecture design. Fellows each received a $3,000 research scholarship from the McGill Commitment program.
Although projects are disparate, a sharing of ideas between the scholars is integral to the experience of having a fellowship at B21.
“We’re bringing people in and they work intellectually, but they also play,” says David “Jhave” Johnston, a multimedia artist who helps Parmar run B21.
Errington worked on his videogame, Sixteen-Fifty, with fellow student Eric Mayhew, BEd’19. The goal of Sixteen-Fifty is to improve success rates on the Quebec history provincial exam, as well as to better represent the presence and importance of Indigenous peoples in New France.
The game is on hold while Errington focuses on his computer science master’s degree at McGill – “we learned that making a role-playing game is a huge task,” he says – but in the meantime he and Mayhew have evolved in their role at B21, where they now offer computer-programming workshops to students and others.
A student’s research experience
McGill student Sophie Strassmann was another fellow in the summer 2018 BLUE cohort. Her philosophical project looked at the true cost – economic, environmental and otherwise – of resources and their extraction, and at the notion of a carbon tax and how it is quantified.
She says her BLUE research project boosted her education, helping her see the academic direction she’d like to pursue.
The fellowship gave her confidence in her research skills, put her in contact with new professors and brought her to the Macdonald Campus for the first time. “I reframed my idea of what research was. Now I know what I want to do and have a more realistic idea of how to do it, and who to talk to, which is going to be extremely important when I apply to graduate school.”
Originally from Cambridge, MA, Strassmann studies economics, minoring in statistics and Urdu.
In addition to gaining solid research experience, at B21 Strassmann found people who wanted to have intellectual conversations, fulfilling her idea of what university would be like.
“It gave me a community of brilliant people who want to learn for the sake of learning,” she says.
The value of time
Parmar and Johnston explain that one of the things BLUE scholars report they most value about the eight-week fellowship is the freedom of time.
“To come up with a brilliant idea, to contemplate or figure out where you want to go with something, you need time,” says Parmar.
In an effort to offer scholars the gift of time during the busy school year, B21 piloted the Bridge 21 program in the winter 2019 term. In partnership with a supervising McGill faculty member, B21 offered mentor support for selected students who received academic credit for their independent projects.
Parmar sees B21 and its programs as helping to prepare students for the future. “The ability to achieve something great and to feel that mentally you conquered it yourself. I think that paves the way to not being scared of a challenge, but rising to it,” she says.
Research is at the core of what happens at B21, but community programming provides an important periphery, and includes gatherings, presentations and discussions sponsored by McGill’s T-Pulse Tomlinson Project, established by the late Canadian scientist, businessman and McGill benefactor Richard H. Tomlinson, PhD’48, DSc’01.
With the six-week computing workshops Errington and Mayhew teach, they are eager to bring in even more students to the Building 21 space. Topics they cover include machine learning, fundamentals of circuits, basic programming and web development.
This kind of learning and constructive mingling is exactly what Parmar, Johnston and others at B21 are seeking to foster. “It feels like time has a different quality here, and you’re going to be celebrated for you and what you’re excellent at,” says Parmar.