OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

New OSU physics studio uses technology to engage student-driven learning

08/18/2010

CORVALLIS, Ore. – When Oregon State University 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, an assistant professor of physics at OSU, is the driving force behind the new studio, which is one of the university’s efforts to better engage students by providing productive learning environments. The studio is modeled after an innovative project out of North Carolina State University called SCALE-UP, which stands for “Student-centered active learning environment for undergraduate programs.” SCALE-UP is based on years of research about ways to approach student-centered learning for large groups – a problem faced by many faculty around the country who teach 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. “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 OSU physics department has been at the cutting edge of student-centered learning with its innovative upper-division courses; now the department is focusing on enhancing its large introductory courses as well. Demaree’s own research demonstrates that learning gains have been higher in her large classes than in most large classes in the country.

The OSU physics studio is the only SCALE-UP classroom in Oregon, and is one of the most state-of-the-art such classrooms in the nation, Demaree said. The studio project was funded by private donations and the university technology resource fee funds. The studio was first used last spring term and serves students in introductory physics courses, which are required for all science and engineering students.

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 their classmates’ work.

A low-friction floor cover 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. The Convia wiring system used in the room 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 allow users, via computer, to dim or brighten different portions of the room at different times.

At their desks, students can draw diagrams on the Starboards and then have Demaree or one of the three teaching assistants 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 by simply holding up the whiteboard to a nearby camera, displaying the work on all the monitors in the room. Students then discuss whether the solutions are viable, and offer their own approaches.

“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.”

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.”