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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Faculty reform space to improve student learning


    Courtesy of Jane Hunter

    Students learn about human genomes in the Collaborative Learning Space classroom in the Science-Engineering Library on Nov. 5, 2014. After more than a year away, students are finally looking forward to a return to fully in-person classes in the fall 2021 semester.

    Various UA science, technology, engineering and mathematics professors are in the midst of an experiment to see how a new classroom design impacts student learning.

    “I found it was hard for students to interact with each other [in traditional lecture halls] and it was hard to get high levels of engagement,” said John Pollard, a lecturer in chemistry and biochemistry. Pollard wanted to create an environment that facilitates opportunities for making connections and building ideas.

    Now in its three-week pilot run, Pollard and other STEM professors are testing what teaching is like in the Collaborative Learning Space classroom created in the UA Science-Engineering Library. This learning space comes equipped with many roundtables, screens and whiteboards for student use.

    “The main advantage is the ability to have students engage with each other and work in groups,” Pollard said.

    There is a lot of research that shows a large benefit overall to students who are put into an active learning situation, Pollard said.

    “Active learning is best defined as a process where learners are actively engaged in their own learning,” said Katie Southard, a graduate student studying molecular and cellular biology. “It requires students to be a part of meaningful activities where they are actively thinking about what they are doing. In an active learning environment, students participate in activities that often involve group learning, problem solving and inquiry-based activities.”

    There is enough evidence that shows traditional lecture alone is not an effective teaching modality for class, according to Pollard.

    “This is hard because this is how many of us as professors were taught,” Pollard said. “But just because that’s how we were taught doesn’t mean that it is what’s best for our students.”

    So far, feedback from students has been positive, Pollard said. The students like to be able to engage each other and have better access to the instructors, teaching assistants and preceptors.

    “[The learning center] allows students to articulate their ideas in a small group setting where the instructor can act as a resource rather than the main disseminator of information,” Southard said.

    However, the experimental room does have some limitations, such as not being able to see a screen well if seated in certain areas of the room.

    Jordan Barrows, a sophomore studying biochemistry and molecular and cellular biology, said he likes being able to converse with group members easily and noted how the room really encourages conversation. But a valuable aspect of the lecture-hall setup that he found lacking in the room was the centralized focus of the class.

    Pollard is aware of these limitations. The goal is to learn as much as possible about the room configuration while in the pilot run so professors can think about how to improve future rooms, Pollard said.

    “We at the UA want to be the institution that is cutting edge on research and cutting edge on research in teaching,” Pollard said. “When students decide to come here, they are going to be taking chemistry, biology with people who have expertise in not only the field, but [also] in some of the most advanced ways in learning that we know.”

    If the UA is training future scientists and medical field professionals, it makes sense to have their education include authentic science experiences, Southard said. Collaboration and debate is a regular part of a scientist’s job.

    Ultimately, however, it’s about the students and improving their learning experience.

    “It’s an experiment, but we’re starting,” Pollard said.


    Follow Julie Huynh on Twitter.

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