January 5, 2022

Carle Illinois College of Medicine Renovates Home to the World's First Engineering-Based Medical Program

The world’s first engineering-based college of medicine offers future “physician-innovators” the space and opportunity to rehearse each act before the curtain rises. 

At Carle Illinois College of Medicine in Urbana, Illinois, the teaching approach to medical education centers on the human condition. Using a first-of-its-kind model, the curriculum integrates clinical medicine and biosciences with engineering and the humanities. Carle Illinois was created in 2015 to educate physician innovators to deliver high-quality and compassionate health care through transformative solutions developed at the intersection of engineering, science and medicine.  

The college has reimagined medical education with its recently renovated facility that supports a non-traditional approach to pursuing engineering-based medical innovation and education.  

“This project is pivotal because design thinking is emerging as a discipline that can help physicians and researchers combat future pandemics and societal health issues. So, although the program today enrolls a small cohort of students each year, it’s vitally important and uniquely positions this college in the world of medical education,” said Charles Smith, co-director of our education practice and lead planner on the renovation. 

This project is the result of the successful convergence of our education and healthcare expertise through strategy, planning and thought leadership.  

Enhancing the learning environment through strategic planning 

Dr. King Li, dean of Carle Illinois College of Medicine, challenged our design team to transform a mid-century modern building on the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana campus into a highly collaborative state-of-the-art learning environment. Typically, a medical school floorplan designates distinct spaces for students, faculty and administrators, encouraging co-mingling only at necessary engagement points. School leadership wanted to change that dynamic while preserving student-only spaces. 

Our team developed a layout that allows students to easily engage with faculty and administrators, creating a less hierarchical and more egalitarian journey through the building. The new space includes daylight-infused student-only lounges, dedicated faculty spaces, and transition zones where students and faculty co-mingle.  

Another key driver in planning for the project was to recognize that with multidisciplinary, collaborative healthcare teams becoming more prevalent, students should also learn in close-knit teams. The curriculum employs a pedagogy of a six-student learning community — students learn, develop and are mentored in the same six-person cohort across all four years of school. The renovation carved out spacious labs and study portals to accommodate these small working groups. The team also transformed the auditorium from a static, traditional stadium-seat format to an acoustically dynamic space with flattened tiers that facilitate collaboration.  

Designing stages to support the drama of active learning 

Alongside integrating engineering and science to tackle real-life medical issues, the curriculum at Carle Illinois spotlights hands-on learning in the cadaver lab. The lab — which was a project priority and has now been in use for eight months — allows students to simulate medical procedures in physical and virtual environments, a unique and necessary feature of the space. Whether students are learning to navigate the tactile characteristics of the human body or dissect and study an organ at the molecular level, the lab allows students and professors the flexibility to execute various simulations. 

A state-of-the-art virtual lounge offers an additional rehearsal stage. The column-free space is inspired by a black box theater with its large open space supported by a grid of technology mounted overhead. This design supports the engineering-infused curriculum by accommodating advanced technology and visualization equipment, as well as the space needed for student cohorts and medical professionals to work alongside each other.  

The creative challenge of this renovation project was to design a college that offers the range of experiences future physician-innovators need. The team not only considered the academic needs of students, but also the intensity and stress of medical school. When students need downtime, they no longer have to retreat to their homes but can instead descend to a respite space in what used to be a dead space under the auditorium. The space has been converted into a quiet lounge where students can study, relax or even do quiet yoga. This thoughtfully designed cavern honors a student’s need to go “off-stage.”    

“I hope we created a really acoustically soft, visually soft meditative space where a student can go to just totally unplug,” said Troy Hoggard, the lead architect on the project. 

Designing to create an ‘ecology of positivity’ 

Beyond the building’s brick and concrete façade, visitors will be pleasantly surprised to find open spaces with contemporary finishes. Resource offices and study areas are outfitted with ergonomic furniture and colorful walls visible through floor-to-ceiling glass dividers. The walls are adorned with strategic messaging to inspire, unite and uplift, as the intense curriculum guides them through daily rehearsals of real-world medical care. 

“We included multiple areas of environmental graphics that promote the field of medicine, cheer on the university itself, energize the cohorts and create an ecology of positivity within this renovation project. The combination of design, lighting and graphics comes together to create this incredibly new, culturally rich space,” said Smith.