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April 8, 2010 Volume 31, No. 26

Strickland Hall room renovation this summer will be a class act


This is an artist’s rendering of how 117 Strickland Hall will look when classroom renovation is completed this summer. The design features a new configuration that has seats in an oval shape with concentric rows that allows most students to face their classmates and hear more of the conversation. Rendering by Campus Facilities-Design Services

Teaching & learning

Model classroom project aims to create interactive environment

Like most of Mizzou’s centrally scheduled classrooms, 117 Strickland Hall is almost always at or near full capacity when classes are in session. More than a dozen academic departments teach courses in the 49-seat classroom this semester.

Although scholarship and course content have changed dramatically over the years, not much has changed with the physical layout of 117 Strickland. Students taking classes there this semester are learning in a teaching environment that is virtually identical to the one MU students experienced there when Strickland Hall opened nearly 40 years ago as the General Classroom Building.

That experience will change next fall. The room has been selected for a complete renovation over the summer to incorporate new concepts in classroom arrangement, setup and design. Next fall, nearly a dozen faculty members will teach courses in the revamped classroom, and they and their students will be asked for feedback to see if the room changes are having the desired results.

Called the “model classroom project,” this initiative had its genesis several years ago when Jim Spain, vice provost for undergraduate studies, appointed a task force to explore the campus environment for teaching and learning. Led by Mel George, University of Missouri System president emeritus, the task force looked at a wide range of pedagogical issues at MU.

“One of the outcomes of the faculty input that Mel and that task force collected was a recommendation that the campus really look at the classroom environment,” Spain says. Working with Campus Facilities-Space Planning and Management, he and his office helped launch an online classroom quality survey of faculty that has collected data for two different semesters.

Faculty response to those surveys, “really motivated us to look at new models and ideas about classroom arrangements, setup and design that better support teaching and learning,” Spain says.

That’s not to suggest that Mizzou’s classrooms are derelict, says Heiddi Davis, director of Space Planning and Management. To coincide with the task force report, her staff auditted the condition of centrally scheduled classrooms — checking items such as lighting, paint and floors. She says that strictly from a maintenance standpoint they were all very serviceable.

In addition, staff from the Registrar’s office visits each classroom every summer to check seat count and look for maintenance problems to report to Campus Facilities.

“But those things weren’t really addressing the concerns faculty had,” Spain says. “We weren’t really asking faculty, ‘Is the room laid out the way you would want to better support your teaching?’ So our recent efforts have been focused on making sure we were seeing it from the perspective of faculty who were actually in these classrooms doing the work of teaching.”

That’s when Davis and Spain enlisted the help divisional administrators to identify a group of veteran professors who have taught a wide variety of courses. They asked those faculty to attend a series of “listening tours” of different classrooms over the past year, then they asked campus interior designers to come up with a new classroom prototype.

Designers developed a new room configuration that has seats in an oval shape with concentric rows that allows most students to face their classmates and hear more of the conversation. Swiveling seats will let students follow their professors as they move around the room or to turn to their neighbors for work groups.

Other improvements include: additional projectors and screens so students won’t have to crane their necks to see, carpet instead of vinyl tile to improve acoustics and electrical outlets ringing the room so students can charge up fading laptop batteries.

“These are things that we know, based on good teaching models, should have a positive impact on teaching and learning,” Spain says. “For instance, technology has been the big game-changer, and the campus has made a significant investment in technology in centrally scheduled classrooms.”

And, although technology can have a positive classroom impact, “More recently, there is a recognition that you can PowerPoint students to death,” he says. “We need to create an environment of interaction, because we know that enriches the learning experience.”

The new look next fall at 117 Strickland “will allow us to try and test out some of these ideas and concepts,” Spain says. “We can see how it works and get feedback from both faculty and students. Then we an decide how best to scale it up in other campus classrooms.”

The model is intended to be something of a template for future class renovations, although Davis stresses that the campus does not want to take a “cookie-cutter approach” to classroom design. “We want to be flexible enough to accommodate different teaching styles, room capacity and types of student-faculty interaction, ” Spain says.

There are other challenges in developing a new and effective model for classroom design. To meet the space demand caused by rising student enrollments, the campus has to maintain capacity. “Cost is certainly a concern as the campus struggles with a difficult budget environment,” Spain says.

“We know that our students and how they prefer to learn has changed over time, and we also know that many of our faculty have changed their teaching styles over time,” he says.

“The collaboration between our faculty, Campus Facilities and other administrative offices on campus is helping us have important conversations about teaching and learning spaces. We hope the outcome is classroom space that is redesigned to better support our faculty when they teach and ultimately to improve student learning.”