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A non-profit publication of the Office of the University Relations of Virginia Tech,
including The Conductor, a special section of the Spectrum printed 4 times a year

Bridge building discussion well attended

By Sandy Broughton

Spectrum Volume 18 Issue 34 - June 27, 1996

Imagine a classroom of the future. Gone are the traditional lecture-hall desks, bolted to the floor, with cramped, flip-up writing surfaces, all facing towards a chalkboard. At your disposal is the latest in advanced communications, information technology, multimedia instruction, special power, lighting and acoustics, and about 30,000 square feet devoted solely to state-of-the-art classroom instruction.

"Give this the consideration of your wildest imagination." That was the invitation staff architect Michael Hedgepeth extended to a group of about 40 Tech faculty members who gathered to discuss design features of instructional spaces within the planned Advanced Communication and Information Technologies Center (ACITC). "This is vitally important to us as we make additional plans. We are keenly interested in your feedback," Hedgepeth said.

What resulted was a discussion cognizant of the vastly different disciplines that make up a Virginia Tech education, and the unique teaching methods and technological requirements of each. From theatre arts to biochemistry, electrical engineering to interior design, mathematics to education, professors from a variety of subject areas exchanged ideas and approaches to the use of classroom space. The forum was sponsored by the Center for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching (CEUT) and the Provost's Office.

"The bottom line is to create a more accommodating space for our students with flexibility over time for teaching options," said Tom Head, director of Media Services, and part of the university ACITC planning team. Head and Susan Brooker-Gross, associate provost for undergraduate programs, opened the session with an overview of the ACITC plans to date.

The architectural firm of Sherertz, Franklin, Crawford, and Shaffner Inc., which is designing the new center, has completed the "stacking and blocking" phase of design by determining what functions will go on which floors. They are now moving into the "preliminary design" phase, in which they will specify how each space will be configured and equipped. One-third of the building will be devoted to advanced research, one-third to an open access digital library, and one-third to high-technology classrooms. Planning for the $25-million, nearly 100,000-square-foot building has been accelerated so that groundbreaking will take place next summer. Construction is slated for completion in 1999.

Among the options and innovations the faculty group discussed: movable tables and chairs, so that rooms can be configured in a variety of ways, from traditional theater seating to small work groups; the capability to use different types of technology at the same time and to seamlessly shift between technologies; class-response mechanisms; adequate working surfaces so that students can spread out their notes, calculators, design equipment, or lab specimens; facilities for observing classroom instruction; telecommunications portals, so that students can use their own portable equipment in class; assistive technology for special students and visually or hearing-impaired students; handicap accessibility; task specific, movable lighting with controls for density and configuration; temperature controls; distance-learning capabilities for two-way, simultaneous interaction at several sites; computer terminals situated to accommodate group work; language-translation facilities; security to provide 24-hour access; storage space for instructional equipment and materials; space for the instructor to move among the students.

In addition to technological innovations, the group also placed a premium on encouraging human interaction in the new classrooms. "This building should above all feel like a place where you want to learn," said Andy Belser in theatre arts. "Technology shouldn't overpower the human component of teaching and learning."

One of the challenges in planning the facility is to anticipate changing uses of space and upgrades in instructional technology. The high-resolution, large-screen digital projections necessary for instruction in art history, for instance, may be housed in the same space as the small student groupings, "scientific visioning," and wet-laboratory facilities used in entomology instruction.

Brooker-Gross reminded participants that the ACITC will be a unique space on campus. "This is not a building that will be assigned to a college. This will be a university-wide building. As such, it will have to be designed with enough flexibility to perform many functions."

"This building will showcase Tech's advanced research for the public," CEUT director Terry Wildman said, "and that will include advanced pedagogical techniques. We are keenly interested in the relationship of teaching methods and the way space is used." Wildman said the CEUT will continue sponsoring this type of faculty input session, not just for the ACITC building, but for classroom spaces throughout the campus.

"Improvement in campus classroom design is an on-going initiative for CEUT.

All faculty members have positive or negative feelings about the space they teach in, but we have no coherent knowledge about what works best. This is a way to gain from the perspectives of many experienced teachers," Wildman said.

Notes from the faculty forum on instructional spaces within the ACITC will be summarized and posted on the CEUT website at http://www.edtech.vt.edu/ceut/ceut.html.