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including The Conductor, a special section of the Spectrum printed 4 times a year

CALS Using High-Tech Classroom

By Stewart MacInnis

Spectrum Volume 19 Issue 23 - March 13, 1997

More students, fewer faculty members, and the availability of computer technology have converged at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences to create an environment where computers are becoming more important as learning devices.

Students learn not only the content of courses about crops, biology, and insects, but they also learn how to use computers more effectively--a skill that is becoming increasingly more important. Professors are also learning the value of computers as powerful teaching tools and a means to teach more efficiently when teaching demands are growing.

"Had I known just how involved it was and how much work was involve, I may never have taken this on," said Jim McKenna, professor of crop and soil sciences. "I bit off more than I thought. But since we've gotten through this much, I can see just how valuable this all is."

McKenna was faced with an introductory class that had become increasingly popular. Faced with more than 100 students in the class last year, McKenna divided it in two. Then he found he had to divide the larger section again. All this increased teaching time. At the same time, fewer and fewer of his students in the course about crops had a farm background, so more and more of his time was spent in developing basic literacy in the subject.

The solution was to put one-third of the course into computers. For two classes a week, the students attend lectures in a traditional classroom. For the third class, the students go to a "supplemental learning center" in Smyth Hall at a time convenient to them.

In addition to eight computer work stations, the center provides two benches where students can see actual samples related to the section of the course being taught on the computer. They can feel the texture of various soil types, they can examine the differences in seed types, they can inspect live plants, and they see subtle details in a microscope that cannot be effectively converted into a computer picture.

The hands-on component is a key to the success of the course, McKenna believes.

"The lab lets them see items in person," he said. "They can go from the interactive multimedia presentation on the computer to the hands-on part and back again. They can learn at their own speed, spending time where they need to."

Putting together the 24 programs making up two courses involved a significant investment in time, said McKenna.

"For every minute of multimedia there is an hour of work behind it," he said. "It's a lot of work, a lot more work than I would have thought. But once you've got it in the can, the course can go on forever. And it's easy to update once its together."

Students take quizzes administered by the computer as they progress through the programs. If they miss a question, they can go back and study that section until they get it right. That gives students the potential to get a perfect score on the computer portion of the course. The computer also grades the multiple-choice tests, eliminating that teaching chore and allowing McKenna to give more essay questions in the regular classes.

Don Mullins, professor of entomology, coordinates a team of instructors from five colleges in teaching first year students the introductory course, "Life Sciences in the 21st Century." The one-credit course is designed to show the students the array of careers available in the biological sciences. The Internet is a crucial feature of the course.

"We keep four or five assignments on the Internet, we have the lectures posted right there," Mullins said. "If a student misses a class, he can go there and get the assignments. That's very helpful when we only meet once a week."

The course is part of the Biological Sciences Initiative, a move to centrally teach some courses that are common to disciplines in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the College of Arts and Sciences, the College of Forestry and Wildlife Resources, the College of Human Resources and Education, and the Virginia/Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine.

Price Hall, the home of the Entomology Department, is also home to CALS' computer classroom. It is a place that can tap the riches of the Internet and allow instructors to develop high-tech, interactive presentations for students throughout the college.

"This is not a computer lab," said Tim Mack, department head. "It's a classroom with computers, with work stations. It's a place where students will receive instruction."

The room is lined with 16 computers, has a lab bench where students use microscopes and other instruments to study specimens, and traditional student desks. But lectures in the classroom are anything but traditional.

A digital video projector displays anything that can be put on a computer screen, allowing instructors to use eye-catching and memorable graphics, incorporate motion pictures into their lectures at the touch of a button, and engage in greater interactivity with students.

In addition to the computers, the room is equipped with a PowerPC server, a color page scanner, and a slide scanner.

"The technology made us re-think how we teach," Mack said. "Students say they love it, but they also say that it's not easy."