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Artist's rendering of the plaza entrance to the Ryerson University Student Learning Centre.

The ceremonial shovels broke ground last May, and soon big machines moved in to tear down the Sam the Record Man building and make way for a new student learning centre at Toronto's Ryerson University.

For the 64-year-old school and its vibrant downtown neighbourhood, the $112-million project represents the end of an era and the start of a new age. Gone is the iconic music store that stood for almost 50 years on Yonge Street. In its place will be a building of dappled glass and steel, a modernist space for tomorrow's scholars and for the community.

"It will be a spectacular building designed not only to be a learning centre for students but also to welcome people in the city," says Adam Kahan, Ryerson's vice-president of university advancement. Scheduled for completion in 2014, the new centre is part of the school's ambitious master plan to revitalize its campus and meet the 21st-century needs of its growing student body.

Ryerson has been on a building spree in the past decade, adding eight new facilities to its campus since 2002, including a recently opened athletic centre in what was once the Maple Leaf Gardens hockey arena, and the Image Arts Centre, a photography research centre, school and gallery set to open at the end of September. Also on the drawing board are a 20-storey residence that will accommodate 500 students and a building for the school's health-related programs.

Vaidila Banelis, senior partner at Zeidler Partnership Architects (one of the firms behind the new student learning centre and Ryerson's Ted Rogers School of Management, which opened in 2006), points to a notable feature in both buildings: retail operations on street level.

"The integration of retail elements in an academic space is something that's unique to Ryerson," he says. "I think being right downtown and not having a traditional campus, Ryerson is more comfortable with commercial partnerships. They also wanted to have a seamless integration with their neighbourhood, and the majority of the Yonge Street facade is retail."

Kahan says this mixed-use approach to design is part of Ryerson's growing role as a city builder. "We believe that to be a great university, you need a great city. And to be a great city, you need a great university."

City building isn't what comes to mind traditionally when people think of universities. But then again, Ryerson has always bucked tradition with its market-smart, forward-thinking sensibilities. Where many schools have focused largely on academics, Ryerson has pushed for practical, experiential learning, an approach designed to give students relevant, real-world experiences and better prepare them for careers in their fields of study.

Since it was founded 1948 (when it was called the Ryerson Institute of Technology), the university has earned a reputation for hands-on education and is well regarded for programs in journalism, aerospace engineering, retail management, information technology and nursing, Kahan says.

Pascal Murphy, an instructor who teaches a course on homelessness in Canadian society at the university's G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education, praises Ryerson's ability to adapt its programs not only to changes in industry and labour markets but also to societal trends. "The mere fact that Ryerson has been offering a homelessness class for over 10 years now is indicative of that ability to adapt and respond to what's happening in society and the world at large," he says.

So what trends are shaping Ryerson's programs these days? Kahan points to two key areas: digital media and entrepreneurship.

Three years ago, Ryerson created the
Digital Media Zone, a business incubator that provides technology entrepreneurs with office space, business counselling and mentoring, promotion and networking opportunities, and funding. Valerie Fox, the zone's executive director, says the program answers an urgent need voiced by students, alumni and members of the business community.

"Students and alumni were coming into [Ryerson President] Sheldon Levy's office, asking for help with mentorship, access to resources, space and funding," she recalls. "He called me into his office and said, 'What we need to do is not only help our students get jobs but also help them create companies and jobs. Let's be a start-up ourselves and try something new.'"

Digital Media Zone started with 35 entrepreneurs and within three months was receiving dozens of applications, some from students at other universities. Today, about 250 people are part of the zone, which has grown to a 16,500-square-foot facility.

The Digital Media Zone is adding an additional 20,000 square feet of office space in October, Fox says. "We've helped over 50 companies grow and create about 550 jobs," she says. "It's exactly what a university should be doing: creating a learning environment to help people be successful and to really make an impact in the world."

Digital Zone member Alexey Adamsky, a student in Ryerson's master's program in computer science and founder of Three Red Cubes, a maker of mobile games and applications, agrees. "I think it's amazing that Ryerson is taking such a different approach," he says. "For me, it's a great opportunity because I can earn my degree while working toward my dream to build a company and create jobs."

As part of its push toward digital media and entrepreneurship, Ryerson also developed a digital specialization program, open to students from any discipline who have completed their first year of studies. This 12-week program includes two courses: one that teaches the tools of digital media, and another that supports and mentors students as they build their own businesses based on digital technology.

"The notion is that you adapt this program in a way that is relevant to your field," Kahan says. "So, for example, if you're a fashion student you're learning about fashion, manufacturing and marketing, but at the same time you also need to know how to use the technology of the day in your job or business."

As market trends change and as its students' needs change, Ryerson will continue to adapt and grow, Kahan says. This year alone, it has introduced about half a dozen new programs, including biomedical sciences, real estate management – the first in Canada, Mr. Kahan says – and sports media management. The latter is especially timely given Ryerson's new athletic centre, to which the school expects to draw members of the community to watch university sports.

"The key for us is societal relevance, and for our students to be career- or enterprise-ready when they leave Ryerson," Kahan says. "How will our academic programs continue to foster this mandate? That's the question we'll always be asking as we continue to evolve."