Cutting-edge physics studio helps big classes learn in new ways

Dedra Demaree demonstrates the touch-screen capabilities of one of the Starboards in her new physics studio. (photo: Theresa Hogue)

When students walk into the new physics studio in Weniger Hall, they immediately know they’re not in a typical classroom. For one, instead of desks assembled in rows facing a lectern, the room is filled with a series of round tables surrounded by brightly colored chairs. The walls are covered in Starboards, which are like whiteboards that double as giant touch screens. There’s no “front” to this classroom, no teacher-centric orientation.

Dedra Demaree,  assistant professor of physics at Oregon State University and the driving force behind the physics studio, said her sister, an adult education specialist, likened the room to a kindergarten for adults. It immediately invites participation instead of being a static learning environment.

The studio classroom is modeled after an innovative project out of North Carolina State University called SCALE-UP. The name stands for “Student-centered active learning environment for undergraduate programs,” and it is based on years of research about ways to approach student-centered learning for large groups of students. It’s a problem faced by many faculty teaching required undergraduate courses. How do you teach in innovative, engaging ways when you’re trying to educate 75 or 100 students at one time?

“We know when students are actively engaged with course material they’ll be more successful,” Demaree said, based on more than three decades of research in college-level physics education. “It’s important to give students the opportunity to do things in a more authentic way, to not just listen but to engage in the practices of their field.”

The physics department has been at the cutting edge of student-centered learning with its innovative upper-division courses, but now the department is focusing on enhancing its large introductory courses. Demaree’s own research demonstrates that learning gains have been higher in her large classes than in most large physics classes in the country.

Bright colors meet high tech function in the new physics studio. (photo: Theresa Hogue)

The OSU space is the only SCALE-UP classroom in Oregon, and is one of the most state-of-the-art SCALE-UP classrooms in the nation, Demaree said. A number of other universities, including MIT, have adapted SCALE-UP classrooms. At OSU, students are grouped into three sets of three at each table, and each group has their own laptop to work from. They also work on traditional whiteboards at their table, as well as the Starboard nearest to them. Everything is interconnected, so Demaree can communicate to her students via the laptops or send information over the Starboards, displaying everything from group assignments to ideas and solutions generated by their classmates.

The studio, which was first used during Spring Term, serves students in Demaree’s introductory physics course, which is a requirement for all science and engineering students. The 185 students she taught during Spring Term had two hours of lecture each week, two hours of lab work, and two hours in the studio, where they had a series of physics problems to solve as small groups each week. This replaced three hours of lecture and three hours of lab previously offered for the introductory class.

A low-friction surface in the center of the room provides space for students to physically engage in experiments, such as pushing each other on wheeled carts to learn about force and inertia. This detail is unique to the OSU studio. At their desks, they can draw diagrams on the Starboards and then have Demaree or one of the two TAs in the classroom look at their work, and even make changes from across the room via computer. And Demaree can also show the entire class one group’s solution, and have them discuss the results, by simply holding up the whiteboard to a nearby camera, displaying the work on all the monitors in the room.

Convia system

One of the reasons the physics studio space is such a standout is the Convia wiring system used in the room. Convia, an offshoot of Herman Miller, provides ceiling tracks that allow users to run cables and electric wires from the ceiling and then reroute those wires when the room’s configuration changes, eliminating the need for expensive rewiring. It also provides for easily controlled lighting systems that allows users, via computer, to dim or brighten different portions of the room at different times. It’s also power-efficient and environmentally friendly.

Discussing different methods of solving a problem, and whether or not their methods were sound, is an important part of the class.

“It promotes the goal of thinking about reasoning rather than trying to match a textbook answer,” she said. “It puts students in charge of generating the solutions.”

But that approach doesn’t always go over well. In fact, Demaree has met resistance from students who want to be told what to do, and who believe the goal should be to get the textbook answer rather than to be able to generalize the process to new situations.”

Demaree’s assistant, Sissi Li, a Ph.D student in science education, said some students resent the idea of student-driven learning.

“A lot of them want to know ‘Am I right?’” Li said. “They say, “Tell me what I’m supposed to think, what I’m supposed to do.”

That black and white approach doesn’t work well in the world outside the classroom, and Li thinks Demaree’s approach is more realistic.

“The ability to assess a problem is more important,” than learning one approach to every answer and then parroting it back, she said.

The studio project was funded by private donations and TRF funds. Facilities services had to tear down eight storage units to create the classroom space. The lighting and aesthetic design was designed by undergraduate Holly Needham, who chose low chemical paint and low impact carpeting. Media Services and COSINe worked together to design and set-up the technological infrastructure.

As the classroom evolves, the technology can easily be adapted to new uses. Demaree said other physics faculty also will teach in the space, and one day envisions combining lab with the studio. For now, she’s looking to make a few changes to her activities for the fall courses she’ll teach, and trying to utilize the unique opportunities the studio provides to their best advantage.

Demaree knows focusing on the scientific process rather than the final number will pay off for the students academically.

“I think this method is really powerful.”

~ Theresa Hogue

Comments are closed.