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The Future is Now

By Ray Bert

A carefully designed classroom revolutionizes how teachers teach and students learn.

Photograph University of PittsburghAs 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.

At the 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.

“It 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 drawing—on the blackboard—what 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, in fact.

Taking 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 screens—as well as the decision to keep the CPUs in a separate room, connected by wires running under the classroom's elevated floor—not only make the room less cluttered, but also make it easier to teach.

“Everyone 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.

The 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.”

Shortening 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.”

And 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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