Future is Now
A carefully designed
classroom revolutionizes how teachers teach and students learn.
any professor can attest, rapid advances in knowledge, ever-more-powerful
computers, and ever-shorter student attention spans mean that teaching
engineering is not what it used to be. Unfortunately, many engineering
classrooms are exactly what they used to be.
University of Pittsburgh, that began to change a few years ago. With a
boost from a major alumni donation, the chemical engineering department
built a state-of-the-art classroom that has spurred professors to abandon
the traditional lecture format in favor of a more flexible approach that
maximizes student involvement. The change was, to some, long overdue.
was very hard to teach certain classes in a regular room, says Eric
Beckman, associate dean of research and chemical engineering professor
at the University of Pittsburgh. At one point I was drawingon the
blackboardwhat an Excel spreadsheet should look like . . . it was
beyond ironic and getting into the silly.
Add in the fact that Beckman wasn't using the textbook much anymore,
and the time was ripe for a change. The only problem? The classroom
of the future that he and others in the department had in mind would
cost a lot more than just loose change: nearly half a million dollars,
their cue from computer classrooms at the University of Massachusetts
and at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the department asked Frank Mosier,
a chemical engineering alum and former vice chairman of British Petroleum
America, if he would help finance a similar facility. Mosier quickly ponied
up $200,000, and the university and the chemical engineering department
came up with the rest of the money for the $440,000 project.
Pitt may call the Frank Mosier Learning Center the classroom of the future,
but in many ways it shows what is attainable today. Though expensive,
the technology itself is essentially off-the-shelf. There are 30 computer
stations equipped with flat-screen displays, as well as the instructor's
station in front with overhead projection capability. The flat screensas
well as the decision to keep the CPUs in a separate room, connected by
wires running under the classroom's elevated floornot only
make the room less cluttered, but also make it easier to teach.
can see everyone else, says Beckman. There's no peering
around big pieces of equipment. The two-year-old room, where all
of the department's core courses are now taught, was so well received
that the electrical, civil, and bioengineering departments have all built
or are planning similar rooms.
updated classroom makes an ideal environment for an updated form of education.
Active learning, unlike the old model of lecture-then-homework,
breaks class time into smaller, more varied chunks. Beckman usually lectures
for no more than 10 minutes at a time, then has students work on a related
exercise while he roams the room. Students are encouraged to help one
another, which makes for a more efficient learning process. There
was always a time lag between class and students actually doing the work,
which makes it harder to retain the information, Beckman says. Now
the feedback loop is shorter.
that loop is no small task for professors, however. I basically
had to do my course over again to put it in an active learning mode,
Beckman notes. But he considers the work well worth the effort. The
students are getting it' better now. You don't see them
sleeping in class, and they don't stay stuck.
Beckman notes that the combination of the new classroom and new teaching
methods have also resulted in a more subtle, but amblematic change. I
used to come to class with notes, he says with a laugh. Now
I come with a ZIP disk.
Ray Bert is senior editor of Prism.
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