As one of its initiatives to address national shortfalls in science, technology, and math education, the Virginia Tech College of Science opened a new classroom in fall 2010 that enables collaborative and interactive learning for a lecture-style class.
The classroom, called Student-Centered Active Learning Environment for Undergraduate Programs (SCALE-UP), was designed by Robert Beichner, an American Council on Education Fellow at Virginia Tech and a visiting professor in the Department of Physics.
Beichner’s project started as a way to decrease failure rates in his introductory physics classes at North Carolina State University. The idea was so successful that other schools began using the classroom design, also with positive results. Now more than 100 universities around the world are using the SCALE-UP concept.
“The classroom is carefully designed to facilitate interactions between students, as well as between students and faculty members,” Beichner said.
Research has shown that recent college graduates place great importance on the quality of the relationships they had with each other and their professors, he said.
“The most important technology in the room is the tables,” Beichner said.
The space feels open and holds 7-foot round tables casually arranged around the room. Each table seats nine students and has three laptop computers. White boards occupy three of four walls. Projector screens around the room promote the feeling of an open environment with no typical front or back of the classroom.
Students work in assigned teams of three throughout the duration of the course. Typically, the instructor spends a brief time at the start of class with announcements and assignments. For the rest of the class, students work together to answer questions and solve problems. The instructor is free to circulate around the room and help students figure out the answers.
“I found my role to be more of a coach than an instructor,” said Jill Sible, associate dean in the college, who taught a microbiology course in the classroom in fall 2010. “These undergraduate students were actually doing graduate-level work. It was exciting to be part of the learning experience.”
Beichner said studies show that only 2 to 3 percent of people learn well from lectures.
“Just presenting the material is not what is critical anymore,” he said. “Obviously, students need that material, but they need to work with it and be guided for effective learning to happen.”
Students access classroom content through the Internet. Beichner said the instructor’s role is to teach them how to sift through information to determine what is valid and then use that information to solve problems.
“Employers today are looking for teamwork, problem-solving, and communication skills,” he said. “The SCALE-UP classroom pedagogy develops that skill set.”
Evaluations of learning in a SCALE-UP classroom show that students’ ability to solve problems is improved, their understanding is increased, their attitudes are better, and their failure rates (especially for women and minorities) are drastically reduced.
While practically any subject matter can be taught in this type of setting, Beichner said science, technology, and math (STEM) courses are particularly well suited.
“It’s imperative that we change the way we teach so that more students choose and succeed in STEM fields,” Beichner said. “These are the fields that drive our economy.”