Taking Learning to the Next Level: A Classroom Master Plan

By Jackie Ross Flaum


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It’s just the way things were done: Professors stood behind lecterns and wrote figures, dates and notes on whiteboards or wheeled in projectors to show overheads, while row after row of students sat in hard wooden tablet chairs perfect for balancing notebooks and writing class notes.

Few questioned whether that was the best environment for college professors to teach or students to learn. After all, it worked—thousands of lawyers, corporate executives, doctors, writers and even college professors received a liberal arts education that way at Rhodes College and elsewhere. Although today’s faculty and students are far different from their counterparts of 50, 30 or even 10 years ago, the wooden tablet chairs remained in rows and the projectors were still wheeled in.

Nobody questioned whether there was a better way to use classroom space to improve the academic process.

Until last year.

Today, Rhodes is one of the few colleges in the nation to possess a master plan for the use of academic space. Other schools such as Vassar, the University of Richmond and Connecticut College have developed classroom master plans. And that’s where Rhodes began—but that’s not where its master plan ended.

“We did more than classroom master planning, actually,” said Dr. Bob Johnson, vice president of Information Services at Rhodes. He and the academic dean, Robert Llewellyn, came up with the money to fund the planning. “We asked our architects to look at all learning spaces, which included classrooms, laboratories, study spaces and even faculty offices. This kind of planning puts all the possibilities on the table, asks for input from faculty and students, and then tries to match use with the available resources while bringing the parts into a coherent whole worth more than the sum of the parts. It’s the difference between campus master planning and merely renovating a building.”

Only a year ago the planning committee began with the question of how to create effective classrooms. The group examined what had always been done and asked: Is this the optimal environment for teaching and learning? Today’s professors have lectures that are supported with computerized data, images, outlines, texts and video clips that must be projected onto a screen. They download Web pages of information for use in the classroom, while students take notes on laptop computers. Students and faculty engage in discussions more often than ever before. How do the wooden tablet desks designed for paper notebooks and the fixed lecterns of yesteryear fill their needs?

The answers are now in Palmer 205, Clough 313 and the lecture room in Buckman 216—the first tangible results of the Rhodes master academic space plan. “We’d never done classroom or academic space planning here. We had a campus master plan where we asked, ‘Where do we put buildings?’ We’ve also studied traffic patterns to decide where to put cars near those buildings—that sort of thing. But we never planned for what goes on in those academic spaces,” said John Olsen, associate dean of academic affairs and a member of the planning committee.

When the architects and committee members interviewed faculty members and department heads about their ideal classroom space, three distinct types emerged. To test them all, the committee commissioned a prototype of each of the three at about $60,000 per room. The classrooms in Palmer, Clough and Buckman, created last summer from existing rooms, are being tested by students and professors. “We thought it important to show the faculty and students we were serious about this,” said Chuck Stinemetz, Biology Department chair and associate professor who chaired of the master plan committee.

The types of classroom space not only reflect different teaching styles but also account for the small, medium and large classroom sizes the college needs. Developers also tried to give faculty members most of what they said they wanted in space and technology:

  • Palmer contains the more traditional student chairs–but these chairs are on wheels and have laptop-friendly tablet arms.
  • Clough has the discussion configuration with more space and moveable tables and chairs that can be arranged in a U, rectangle or closed square.
  • Buckman has a lecture room with tables and chairs in rows facing a lectern.

The three new classrooms have similarities as well as differences. In addition to comfortable chairs, correct lighting placement, complementary color schemes and flooring, proper temperature control and good acoustics, each new classroom has uniform technology—even the computers in the rooms work the same—so faculty members don’t have to learn and relearn how to use the equipment in each space they use. Each has such things as a lectern with a computer to operate the video projector in the ceiling, CD/DVD, PowerPoint and VCR capability, open sight lines, blackout window curtains and track lighting for best viewing of material on a screen.

Professor Michelle Mattson, associate professor of German and chair of the Modern Languages Department, uses Palmer 205 and says she’s “90 percent” happy with it. She served on the planning committee and wanted more technology. But she finds the new space better for teaching German than the older classrooms. “We need utmost flexibility,” she said. Her ideal classroom must be flexible enough for students to listen to lectures as one, then break into small groups. “We wanted tablet armchairs, too. These chairs have bigger tablets, move on wheels and offer more space for taller or larger people.”

Initial student reviews of the classrooms proved to be just what the committee hoped: 10 times more comfortable, a nicer learning environment, clear sight lines to the board or screens and places to set and use their laptops.

The new spaces “should contribute to more effective teaching, but they were also designed to allow for implementation of new pedagogies or teaching styles,” said Stinemetz. For example, he said, more professors are leaning toward problem-based learning for students. Students do more learning outside the classroom, and in class they learn to apply that information. Stinemetz said that type of teaching goes hand in hand with the new curriculum and calls for small groups—and classroom space that is flexible enough to get students into small groups. “The new spaces allow that type of teaching.”

Once Rhodes and its architectural firm, Ellenzweig Associates Inc. of Cambridge, MA, began looking at classroom space, they became aware that the college was in a rare position.

“What made the Rhodes project so interesting was the study of all academic space on campus, such as the faculty offices and science labs, and not just classroom spaces,” said Matthew Ali, project manager for Ellenzweig. “This was due to the unique opportunity of a good deal of space becoming available in the old Burrow Library upon completion of the new Paul Barret Jr. Library. We looked at the organization of the departments and made recommendations for the long-term locations and layouts of all the departments; some, like the History Department, would be moved entirely, but most would remain where they were with modifications to their current layouts. The plan presents a new way of looking at the current buildings, provides the best use for the existing space, and makes recommendations for renovations for the next five to 10 years.”

In deciding on the use of existing academic space, Olsen said: “It was a real juggling act with all the details.” Still, the need was clear. Some departments were spread across campus, some were shoehorned into spaces, and others expected to expand the number of faculty members but had no office space to offer.

The committee and architects settled on several factors to consider when planning space:

  • Academic offices would be standardized to about 10 by 15 feet. Currently, faculty members have offices that range from grand sizes to broom closets.
  • Academic departments would be physically located together.
  • Offices, like classrooms, would make the best use of modern lighting, color schemes and acoustics and carpet innovations to make the space user-friendly.
  • Academic space would offer centralized meeting areas where faculty and students could meet, talk, have coffee and interact.
    Having set those parameters, the committee began studying which departments should make the first move when the time and funding are right. The architects suggested first creating those spaces that would be least expensive and invasive, such as:
  • Setting up the History Department on the second floor of Buckman. “We’d never thought of that—frankly, it had never occurred to us. There was no reason for them to be in Clough other than they’ve always been there,” said Olsen.
  • Connecting the Biology Department in Frazier Jelke and the Chemistry Department in Kennedy by opening up the adjacent walls. “Those sciences are interconnected. Buildings should reflect the kind of students you want within them. That’s the kind of student we want for the future: one who can think in a very interdisciplinary fashion, not just biology or chemistry. In some way in creating space we are recreating the thought processes we want students to have,” said Stinemetz.
  • Renovating Ohlendorf Hall, the mathematics building.

Other moves and changes involve what Olsen calls the “domino effect.” The biggest domino will involve the Burrow building and its future that will accomodate some administrative offices currently located in Palmer. Then the Modern Languages Department, scattered over four buildings, can move into Palmer with the English department.

For the immediate future, the committee hopes to open more optimized classroom space over the coming summer. As funding becomes available, the college will move forward with other items in its plan.

“When it’s all finished, a number of classrooms will have nothing more dramatic than different furniture and baseline technology. Some of the rooms will have been completely rebuilt, however. In some cases, departments will move to different buildings altogether,” said Johnson. In other cases, the departments will stay put, but their classes will be moved to the same locations, allowing them to build more of a “homeroom” scenario.

When it’s all finished, Rhodes will have the classroom and academic space most institutions will never even dream about—or plan for.