Beyond the classroom: Experimental environment promotes undergrad learning

Posted on 22. Jun, 2011 by in Academic Departments, Beyond Boundaries, Electrical and Computer Engineering, Issues, Magazine, Students

Graphic of a person at a computerTraditional lecture-style classrooms date back to the 1000s, when the earliest papal universities were established in Europe. Students would listen and take notes as an instructor read verbatim from one of very few copies of a hand-written manuscript.

Though the goals of higher education have changed in the past millennium from producing more clergy members to preparing global leaders, classroom architecture essentially has not. Most courses are still conducted in rooms where students sit in rows facing one instructor, who delivers a lecture. This basic structure establishes a teacher-centric classroom, where material is presented in a “one-size-fits-all” format that isn’t effective for all students, says John Booske, the Duane H. and Dorothy M. Bluemke Professor and Chair of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Booske is spearheading an initiative to challenge the traditional setup by creating an alternative classroom space that will better allow instructors to adopt a new paradigm of individual-focused, technology-enhanced teaching strategies. The Wisconsin Collaboratory for Enhanced Learning (WisCEL) is a joint effort by the College of Engineering, College of Letters and Science, Wendt Commons, UW-Madison Libraries, Division of Information Technology, Facilities Planning and Management and other faculty members and academic services.

The WisCEL team is renovating two spaces on campus to become experimental learning environments for a variety of introductory-level courses. One of those spaces is located in College Library. The other will make up the entire fourth floor of Wendt Commons, the new consolidation of Wendt Library with the Engineering Learning Center and Engineering Media Services.

Though the exact structure of courses held in WisCEL spaces will vary and evolve over time, the team anticipates there will be a heavy emphasis on technology and immediate, frequent feedback for students. Instead of coming to class to listen to a lecture, students might listen to a recorded lecture online and then go to the WisCEL space to tackle practice problems at computer workstations, which would provide immediate feedback as they submit answers. Instructors and teaching assistants also would be available to help students as they work through the problems. “This really challenges people to ask, ‘How do we engage students and how do we best teach students today?’” says Deb Helman, the director of Wendt Commons. “Space really does influence how people teach, and one of the things we’re trying to create is a space that is as flexible as possible.”

The flexibility of the WisCEL spaces sets them apart from other experimental teaching and learning environments at other institutions. “We haven’t found a combination elsewhere that serves as both teaching space and group study space,” Helman says.

Wendt Commons is a popular location for group study, especially for engineering students. A WisCEL priority for the Wendt Commons location was to create a space that could continue meeting students’ needs, while adding additional instructional functionality. “Students use the building heavily, and they’re always asking for more improved space,” Helman says. “This is a big win for our students.”

Introductory engineering courses in electrical circuits and statics will be held in the Wendt Commons WisCEL space as early as spring 2012. The College Library location will host introductory math, and in the next couple of years experimental language courses also are planned. “We want to see more students emerge as successful learners and for all of them to emerge from college at higher levels of learning than they are currently,” Booske says. “We’re applying the very best we now know about how human learning occurs and how different learning approaches and spaces maximize or inhibit effective human learning. We’re creating learning environments—a combination of learning methods and the spaces that support them—that will achieve that objective of maximum success for everyone.”

WisCEL is supported by a grant from the Madison Initiative for Undergraduates, a campuswide effort to improve the quality and long-term value of undergraduate education at UW-Madison.

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