University of Minnesota Embraces Experiential Science Teaching Paradigms

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University of Minnesota Embraces Experiential Science Teaching Paradigms

New $70-Million Facility Provides Innovative, Flexible Teaching Environment

The University of Minnesota is abandoning the traditional teaching methods of yesterday in favor of providing students with interactive and technology-laden instruction in the science disciplines. The new mindset facilitates innovative teaching paradigms that replace the old-fashioned lecture format with an environment that offers hands-on learning.

Providing this type of environment required the University to construct the $70-million Science Teaching and Student Services Center on its Twin Cities campus. The 120,000-sf facility features five floors that are interconnected by an atrium at the west side of the building, overlooking the Mississippi River. Construction began in January 2009 and is slated for completion in September 2010.

“Our objectives are very ambitious because we want this to be the best facility of its kind in the nation,” says Robert Kvavik, who recently retired as the University’s associate vice president for planning. “This building sits on the Washington Avenue bridgehead, where the light rail will stop. About 25,000 students walk across that bridgehead every day, so this is a good opportunity to create a pathway where the learning and practice of science is visible.”

In addition to creating an ideal venue to put science education on display, the building is designed to meet the University’s other three objectives to:

  • Foster an experiential science teaching and learning environment
  • Provide space for informal individual and small-group study
  • Be flexible enough to easily and inexpensively accommodate future teaching paradigms and new technologies

“The new teaching paradigms will emerge faster than we can imagine with the new technologies and this building will be adaptable to the necessary changes,” says Kvavik. “Keeping pace with the future teaching paradigms and ever-changing technologies will provide an environment that enables students to learn and better comprehend scientific concepts.”

Anticipated Outcomes

A better learning environment equates to positive outcomes that enhance the success of students by preparing them for jobs demanding analytical ability, creativity, and familiarity with new technologies. The experiential, hands-on teaching methods educate the next generation of workers who are flexible, adaptable, and able to respond to changing economic and technological circumstances. Bolstering the curriculum with increased research and student engagement activities provides further opportunities for practical learning.

“In fact, students in our introductory biology course are working on practical problems in their freshman year,’’ notes Kvavik. “There are no more lectures in the College of Biological Science because the entire curriculum has been redesigned to support experiential learning. Nursing and Public Health are also converting to a hands-on curriculum and Physics is in the first stages of doing the same.”

The University’s mission corresponds with trends that show students want to be active participants in their learning experience, rather than merely listening as professors discuss the course material. The days of cramming hundreds of students into a tiered classroom to hear a lecture are disappearing at the University of Minnesota. This type of teaching is especially outdated at a time when students can be easily distracted from a monotone lecture by indulging themselves with their own technology, such as cell phones and iPods.

Therefore, the University is integrating lecture activities and innovative technologies, such as multi-media audio-visual effects and social networking, directly into the laboratory and teaching environments.

A survey conducted by the EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research (ECAR) of approximately 30,000 students at 100 universities produced results that support the University’s mission. The survey revealed that students want immediate access to real data and they expect information technology to be integrated into all aspects of the learning process. They want sufficient table space for a variety of information technology tools and they prefer integrated laboratory facilities. Having access to faculty members and experts is equally important to the students.    

The need for social space also ranks high on the list of student expectations. For example, they want access to small-group work spaces, shared screens, and work group facilitation. The University’s effort to meet the needs of students not only today, but well into the future, is intended to exceed anticipated outcomes.

“We’re offering the foundational skills needed for success in science and future careers in terms of problem solving, data analysis and interpretation, laboratory skills and experimental design, teamwork, communication, and quantitative reasoning,” says Kvavik. “We already have empirical evidence that students who learn in an interactive environment have a better understanding of science.”

The University has tested students and determined they are better able to solve problems and have a higher level of conceptual learning after participating in hands-on education. In addition, the students are more likely to have a better attitude and a higher satisfaction level, which increases the probability they will perform well in subsequent classes.

All of these factors result in higher graduation rates, which translate into a financial boon for universities in terms of continuing tuition. The positive results have made it easier for the University to recruit students. In 2009, the College of Biological Sciences received 4,700 applications for 350 available freshman slots.

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The state economy also benefits because the students are better prepared to meet the demands of a competitive and challenging job market. It is interesting to note that a large percentage of the students who graduate from the Twin Cities campus with science, technology, engineering, and medics degrees — known as the STEM disciplines — usually obtain jobs working for the state of Minnesota.

Debunking Myths

The previous Science Classroom Building, which was constructed at the end of WWII on the bridgehead over the Mississippi River, was not designed to offer the modern teaching paradigms. Therefore, it was demolished to make room for the new building. Faculty members in the Chemistry Department suggested building a new facility that would house six large traditional tiered classrooms. However, the University’s administration managed to obtain buy-in from a sufficient number of stakeholders after explaining why the auditorium-style classrooms are no longer suitable for today’s innovative teaching methods. The state legislators agreed to provide funding for the Science Teaching and Student Services Center, having first rejected a proposal for a building with tiered classrooms.

The University had gathered data to verify that large classrooms in the old building were underutilized because departments were abandoning this type of teaching. In order to further validate its contention that the innovative teaching paradigms were more effective, the University developed two pilot classrooms in 2008 to implement the new pedagogy.

The evidence was clear that students’ grades improved by as much as one point in the hands-on teaching environment. The students also expressed greater satisfaction with the environment and the faculty members. Students and faculty innovators became primary advocates for the construction of the state-of-the-art building.

Another fallacy that surrounded discussions about the new building was that departments would not have enough faculty or resources to implement the new paradigms. However, this was quickly addressed by pointing out that the Biology, Nursing, and Public Health departments made the change with no additional faculty. As an added bonus, higher enrollment numbers generated by the new teaching paradigm mean more revenue that could be used, if necessary, to hire additional faculty members.

Facility Features

The Science Teaching and Student Services Center is designed to offer all of the amenities and flexibility necessary to accommodate instruction paradigms and the adoption of new technology as time evolves. Seventeen hard-walled classrooms can be easily divided into 27 spaces via a movable wall system. Individual and group study space is distributed throughout the building.

Two tiered classrooms are included in the design, as well. However, they are being constructed in just three tiers, with enough flexibility in the floors, walls, and ceilings so they can easily be reconfigured to become small interactive classrooms in the future. Three interactive classrooms — seating 54, 90, and 117 students — provide a highly collaborative, computer-rich, hands-on learning environment.

The University conducted a square footage comparison between the tiered and interactive classrooms. The results show that a 250-seat tiered auditorium requires 3,750 assignable square feet, while an interactive classroom with 252 chairs requires 6,600 ASF.

“The interactive classroom is more expensive in terms of space, faculty, and electricity,’’ says Kvavik. “However, if you are serious about being a top university that can attract the best students, you have to provide this type of environment or you are simply going to lose.”

By Tracy Carbasho

This report is based on a presentation by Kvavik at Tradeline’s 2009 College & University Science Facilities conference.

Project Team

Architect: Hammel, Green and Abrahamson, Inc., Minneapolis
Design Architect: Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates, PC, New York
Development Manager: Hines Interests, Minneapolis
Electrical: Hunt Electric Corp., St. Paul, Minn.
General Contractor: McGough Construction, St. Paul, Minn.
Mechanical/Plumbing: Metropolitan Mechanical Contractors, Inc., Eden Prairie, Minn.

Project Data
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