Central Campus Classroom Building fosters engaged learning

The Central Campus Classroom Building is filled with innovative features, from swiveling auditorium seats to a room with 42-foot-long curved screens that hang in a circle from the ceiling.

But the University of Michigan’s newest building is more than just a sleek, high-tech instructional space. It is part of a movement across campus – and beyond – to make teaching and learning a more collaborative, engaging experience. The CCCB is the first facility at UM to be designed entirely to support active learning in large courses.

“We wanted to make this building as forward-thinking as we could,” said Frances Mueller, associate vice provost for academic and budgetary affairs. “This is part of a larger effort to support innovative teaching campuswide.”

The 100,000-square-foot building opened in January at the intersection of Washtenaw and Geddes avenues. It is bustling this semester with students studying everything from physics and biology to dance theory and costume design.

Amy Gottfried, a lecturer IV in LSA, teaches Chemistry 230 in the Central Campus Classroom Building to students who are broken into small groups, each with their own video screen and whiteboard. (Photo by Austin Thomason, Michigan Photography)

The idea for the CCCB was born more than a decade ago, said Monika Dressler, director of academic technologies in LSA Technology Services. At the time, faculty members in a focus group led by Mueller and Dressler indicated they wanted to be more creative in their teaching but felt physically restricted by their classrooms.

“They mentioned trying to teach in innovative ways, but were constrained in traditional classrooms with fixed, forward-facing seating and limited technology,” said Dressler, who in partnership with Mueller helped guide much of the CCCB’s planning and design. “Those rooms aren’t conducive to students working in groups or teams, or to faculty members walking around the room interacting with different student groups.”

Instructors’ increasing desire for more flexible learning spaces coincided with a growing body of research showing the benefits of active learning on student outcomes, said Timothy McKay, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, professor of physics and astronomy, and associate dean for undergraduate education in LSA , and professor of education in the School of Education.

Active learning involves the use of structured opportunities, such as projects, discussions and collaborations, for students to process course material during class time. It is a teaching strategy that has been proven to support deeper learning and encourages students to develop critical thinking skills.

McKay teaches introductory physics, a foundational course that typically enrolls about 700 students across three sections each semester. He said it can be challenging to keep students engaged in traditional lecture halls built for passive learning.

Students work in small groups in a classroom in the CCCB.  (Photo by Austin Thomason, Michigan Photography)
Students work in small groups in a classroom in the CCCB. (Photo by Austin Thomason, Michigan Photography)

“If we design a class in which what we ask students to do is sit and listen in a seat, it is much less effective than when we design a class where what we ask students to do is active and engaged,” said McKay, who was on the CCCB Classroom Design Advisory Committee.

Deborah Meizlish, associate director of U-M’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, said a movement to incorporate more active and collaborative learning in higher education has been gaining steam for at least three decades.

There have been efforts at UM over the past several years to transform existing classrooms into flexible learning spaces and to incorporate such rooms in new buildings to support active learning. In addition, CRLT launched the Foundational Course Initiative in 2018 that seeks to make foundational classes across the university more engaging, equitable and inclusive.

Meizlish, who was involved in identifying and preparing faculty to teach in the CCCB, said it is the first building at UM to be designed and constructed expressly to support active learning pedagogies for large classes across multiple disciplines.

“It really unleashes new approaches to teaching across the university,” Meizlish said.

The CCCB has 1,400 seats in seven classrooms. More than 350 additional seats are scattered throughout airy corridors that are flooded with natural light. All classrooms have rotating or moveable chairs, enabling collaboration.

The biggest classroom is a 572-seat auditorium that is wide rather than deep, so students in the very back are only 14 rows away from the stage at the front The seats swivel completely around, and the multiple aisles that slice through the rows enable instructors to easily navigate the space.

The CCCB's 190-seat classroom-in-the-round allows students to sit in rows that form a circle around the instructor, with each student no more than five rows away.  (Photo by Frances Mueller)
The CCCB’s 190-seat classroom-in-the-round allows students to sit in rows that form a circle around the instructor, with each student no more than five rows away. (Photo by Frances Mueller)

The CCCB’s signature room is the 190-seat classroom-in-the-round. Students sit in rows that form a circle around the instructor in the center. The greatest distance between the instructor and any student is five rows.

“The idea of ​​this room is that it feels very intimate, and students can see each other from across the room wherever they are,” Mueller said.

Four compound complex curved screens – 42 feet wide by 8.75 feet tall allow instructors to present multiple pieces of media simultaneously. Dressler said some instructors plan to display maps alongside videos or share multiple images along with slides to create an immersive experience.

“In a more traditional lecture hall, you would have to show one, and then stop, and show another, and stop, which can become disjointed,” she said.

The classroom-in-the-round is the first of its kind at UM and one of only a few at educational institutions across the country.

Students write on whiteboards in the new CCCB.  (Photo by Austin Thomason, Michigan Photography)
Students write on whiteboards in the new CCCB. (Photo by Austin Thomason, Michigan Photography)

Amy Gottfried, a lecturer IV in the Department of Chemistry, was among the first instructors to teach in the CCCB. Her Chemistry 230 students sat in small groups, each with their own video screen and whiteboard, working on problem sets.

Gottfried said she loved the setup.

“I can see where people are at, and I get a much better sense of where students are at in problem-solving so I can adapt the feedback that I’m getting to an individual group or the class as a whole, and I can adapt the pace of my teaching, ”she said.

Gottfried said active learning is “more effective, more engaging, and a better use of class time.”

Mueller and Dressler said it’s exciting to see how the CCCB has already had a significant positive impact on teaching and learning at the university.

“It’s enabling our faculty to teach large classes in really innovative ways and reflects Michigan’s commitment to exceptional instructional experiences,” Mueller said.

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