LOOKING UP IN A DOWN MARKET: Forward Thinking Campuses Are Upgrading Classrooms Despite Challenging Times By The Sextant Group, Inc.
  In this difficult economic environment, many colleges and universities are searching for ways to upgrade facilities and improve student
outcomes without expensive construction projects. We believe this is an opportunity to move beyond the simple “carpet and paint” Band-aid type renovations to a more meaningful re-design of yesterday's classrooms and lecture halls.

  To replace the old style rows of student desks facing the instructor standing static at the front of the room (the “Death by PowerPoint” rooms in the words of the customers students), we envision innovative and creative approaches in a more collaborative learning environment.

  “It can be daunting to consider moving from a traditional classroom to a learning studio environment,” observes Michael Shafer CTS, Principal from our Phoenix office. “Not only is the space itself and the technology different, the teaching style can be a different way to interact with students.”

“An excellent way to provide teachers the ability to practice in this environment would be to renovate an existing small space and create a Learning Studio Lab. Here teachers can develop new teaching materials and practice new teaching styles in the smaller (less expensive) Learning Studio Lab. The Lab can also be designed such that the technology can be easily replaced and refreshed, allowing teachers to find the technology package that best works for them.”

  These novel approaches to learning space renewal carry are variety of labels, including studio physics (originating from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute), SCALE-UP* (NC State's Student-Centered Activities for Large Enrollment Undergraduate Programs), MIT's Technology-Enhanced Active Learning (TEAL)**, Problem-Based Learning or PBL Rooms, BlackBox classrooms, SandBox Spaces, Incubators and many other monikers and acronyms.

Put simply, the concept is based on replacing passive learning associated with lecture-based delivery with active learning opportunities - turning the “sage on the stage” presenter into a coach, a guide, a mentor and an experience designer and transforming the students from passive note-taking machines into active, contributing, collaborative members of the class.

For example, this may involve getting away from the traditional front of the room and distributing the students throughout a room at round tables designed to support interaction within the small group without
requiring voices to be raised to the point of distracting other groups. Each table might be fitted out to support laptop computers, group sized displays or other technology tools.

Often, the concept is designed for the instructors to teach “in the round” when a
short “lecturette” is needed but spend most
  of their time moving about the room from table to table, coaching and guiding. This room layout lends itself to odd shaped rooms and rooms with columns and other obstructions that would otherwise preclude their use as more typical classroom spaces. Many schools find they have existing spaces or a series of existing spaces that have been overlooked that may now be turned into contemporary instructional areas with small scale demolition projects.

  It is common to dedicate a group-sized flat panel display for each student workgroup. A simple button combination from a dedicated computer or a student laptop assigns its output to the display, allowing very easy real time collaboration between the students. Several ceiling mounted projectors and screens are used for the instructor when teaching to the entire class, and may also be re-purposed to display any individual groups work as well. The odd spatial geometry and the “teaching in the round” may require the ability to project images on several wall surfaces rather than the typical front of the classroom.

Of course, the acoustical environment is a critical component to a successful outcome. Senior Consultant Greg Clark observes, “As opposed to the traditional lecture space where there is typically only one individual speaking at any given time, classrooms that successfully foster active learning will often have several collaborative group discussions happening simultaneously. In some cases, these rooms can accommodate very large class sections, with dozens of 3 to 9-persongroups. And each of these groups may be supported by some form of multi-media system with dedicated audio. Accordingly, the noise level within these spaces can build up quickly.” This can cause rooms to become uncomfortably noisy, not only making it difficult to communicate, but introducing an unnecessary and unwanted stress to class time: having to constantly overcome a high level of background noise can be both mentally and physically tiring. However, with the proper planning and considerations during the design process, these unwanted side effects can be avoided. Careful consideration must be given to room volume and shape, selection of surface finishes, furniture layout and HVAC system noise."

Specialty lighting expert Norm Russell in our new Santa Barbara office has an additional perspective. “The Black Box classroom provides the opportunity to employ a task-ambient lighting strategy that supports
and enhances student participation in a collaborative environment by focusing student activity between the two configurations of full group meeting and sub-group collaborations. This strategy is simple: provide a moderate ambient illumination level over the entire room
  controlled separately from more directional, tightly focused, higher illumination task lighting at each collaboration table. The two lighting layers can easily be controlled by the instructor to move between the full group meeting ambient selection and the sub-group meetings task lighting selection.”

One additional green benefit: the task-ambient lighting strategy also provides a significant reduction in energy use, especially if it is replacing a more traditional lecture hall lighting system. Norm notes that typically, the cost savings from reduced energy use provide a return on the investment within two to five years, so the task-ambient system literally pays for itself.

  Numerous campuses are using this teaching approach in some variety. For example, well over a hundred colleges and universities are using SCALE-UP type facilities in one fashion or another. And while the approach requires a modification to the typical pedagogy favored by faculty traditionalists for many years, the results thus far have proven to be well worth the effort.

NCSU, for example, has data comparing over 16,000 students over more than five years of instruction in traditional and SCALE-UP settings*. Their findings include improved conceptual understanding, particularity in the top third of the class; improved attitudes and attendance; and reduced failure rates, particularly for women and minorities. MIT has similar outcomes in their studies.

  So how does this affect our original issue of tight funding for new construction? Quite simply, it is much less expensive to renovate several old classrooms than to build a new building from the ground up. Certainly, there are costs involved – demolishing walls, new
lighting and HVAC modifications, upgraded furnishings and additional technology investment. But, in terms of improved learning per dollar spent, this approach offers a compelling argument.

  The ideas presented here are just a quick introduction to the topic. There are endless variants and options, based on existing space, the nature of the curriculum, faculty acceptance and, of course, budget. In fact, we have seen similar modifications to the old style lecture halls, morphing tiered and tired spaces into collaborative teaching environments. Look for more on that in a future article.

By all accounts, the economy is again on the upswing. But just as collapse didn't happen overnight, recovery won't either. In order to move forward in the competitive new world of higher education, campuses are compelled to be more creative in how they expand their offerings to improve student outcomes. It is critical to get wise counsel and direction from design professionals who understand the new pedagogies and the Systems, Spaces and Services required to make them function.

The construction of new classrooms and laboratory buildings, while highly desirable, may not be an option for many schools for some time to come. Innovative and resourceful re-purposing of existing spaces – getting beyond the carpet and paint Band-Aid upgrades to a truly transformative improvement - may be the answer, from both a financial and pedagogical standpoint.

  Although we weren't the designer of this recently-renovated learning studio at the University of Wisconsin Eau Clair, it caught our attention as a transformation that perfectly embraces the concept, configuration and strategy.


* - Robert J. Beichner, Jeffrey M. Saul, David S. Abbott, Jeanne J. Morse, Duane L. Deardorff, Rhett J. Allain, Scott W. Bonham, Melissa H. Dancy, and John S. Risley, "Student-Centered Activities for Large Enrollment Undergraduate Programs (SCALE-UP) project," in Research-Based Reform of University Physics, edited by E. F. Redish and P. J. Cooney (American Association of Physics Teachers, College Park, MD, In Press)

** - For more information on Technology-Enhanced Active Learning (TEAL), see http://web.mit.edu/edtech/casestudies/teal.html

  HOT NEWS #1: The Sextant Group announces acquisition of West
Coast-based lighting, stage and studio facility planning and design firm Norman Russell Design. Built upon a 30-year personal and professional bond between the respective principals, adding Norman Russell Design to The Sextant Group of companies adds a comprehensive set of lighting design and control skills and experience to complement Audiovisual, Information Technology, Security, and Acoustics expertise.
  HOT NEWS #2: Industry Leader Craig Park FSMPS, Assoc AIA joins The Sextant Group, opens new Midwest office. Craig is an award-winning and nationally-recognized thought leader on topics of audiovisual and collaborative technology applications.
MARK VALENTI CTS has been invited to present “Learning Space 3.0: Real and Virtual Space Collide” at the Steelcase Education Symposium in Atlanta on September 21, and again at the Academic Facilities Council of IFMA, at their 2010 Atlanta Conference on
October 29th.
  Valenti was plenary speaker at
SCUP-45, the annual international Conference and Idea Marketplace
of the
Society for College and
University Planning
in Minneapolis, July 18 – 22, presenting
“The Emerging Intelligent Campus”.

  Mark was also invited to reprise his SCUP-45 keynote presentation at the Pacific Symposium in Albuquerque at the University of New Mexico, Friday October 8th, and at the North Central Regional Conference at the University of Cincinnati, October 25-27, 2010.
  At InfoComm 2010 Conference and Exhibition in June, Valenti presented two topics: conference-wide, he spoke on “Space, Time and Technology -
The Future of AV”,
and as part of
EdTech Summit, Mark presented “Learning Space 3.0” (see news coverage in THE Journal and
Sound & Video Contractor
  JOHN COOK CTS presented “Emerging Technologies: Are You Wired, Tired, or Inspired?” August 26 at the Synchronicity 2010 Conference at Red Deer College, Alberta Canada.
  John also presented “Designing Spaces for Nursing Education: The ‘Three S’ Model” along with President Jonathan Fishman AIA and Associate Principal Joseph Briggs AIA, IIDA, LEED AP of Richter Cornbrooks Gribble Architects at a recent assembly of healthcare executives from across the country.
Senior Consultant Jim Viviano's recent insights on Financial Simulation Labs was featured in
Archi-Tech Magazine.
  CONNECTING MEDICINE AND TECHNOLOGY: The Sextant Group’s work on the Center for Connected Medicine won Archi-Tech Magazine’s Grand Prize for Best Project over $1 Million plus ProAV Magazine’s Spotlight Award for Health Care.
  The project showcases advances
in high-level communication, computing, networking and healthcare technologies in flexible, one-of-a-kind “experience center.” The project team included The Design Alliance Architects, ThoughtForm and SoundCom Systems. Both awards were presented at the InfoComm 2010 Conference and Exhibition in Las Vegas.
  Mark Gillis CTS-D and Ed Dukstein CTS-D host a September 2 webinar on the Center for Connected Medicine, a joint venture by IBM, Alcatel-Lucent, Cerner, and University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, with strategic partners Google, dbMotion, Johnson Controls, Polycom and Research in Motion (RIM, makers
of the BlackBerry).
  Society of Marketing Professional Services (SMPS) recognized The Sextant Group with a Marketing Communication Award. The
third-place honors for the firm’s Holiday Greetings were presented at the National Build Business Conference in Boston in July.

Drexel University
Welcome Enrollment Center
Philadelphia PA

University of La Verne
Morgan Auditorium
La Verne CA

The Cleveland Clinic
Multidisciplinary Center for Simulation
Cleveland OH

City University of New York
New York University Langone
Medical Center
Joint Simulation Center
New York NY

City University of New York
Two Court Square Classroom Building
New York NY

New York University
Vanderbilt Hall
New York NY

New York University
Polytechnic i2e CITE Game
Innovation Lab

Brooklyn NY

Middle Tennessee State University
Science Building
Murfreesboro TN

Ottawa University
Learning Commons
Ottawa KS

Old Dominion University
Student Success Center
Norfolk VA

San Jose State University
Student Union
San Jose CA

United States Army
Fort Lewis Barracks
Ft. Lewis WA

Durham County NC
Human Services Complex
Durham NC

Paramount Pictures
Stages 29 & 31
Hollywood CA

Maravilla Community Performing
Arts Theatre
Flexible Form Theatre
Scottsdale AZ

Nextel International (NII Holdings)
Strategic Technology Planning
Reston VA

EQT Energy
Corporate Headquarters
Pittsburgh PA


  The Sextant Group Welcomes
  Principal Norm Russell, opening new Santa Barbara office

Principal Craig Park FSMPS, Assoc AIA, opening new Midwest office in Omaha

Senior IT Designer and Security Specialist Terry Robinette RCDD

Acoustician Stalin Vera

Systems Designer Rob Walbrown

Marketing Coordinator Jim Manly


The Sextant Group is an award-winning full service technology consulting firm specializing in the planning and design of educational, medical, corporate, government, institutional, performing arts, broadcast, and sports & recreation systems and facilities.

Recognized by architects and institutions internationally for the integration of communication technology into the built environment, The Sextant Group's services include audiovisual and information technologies, structured cabling, access/security, and architectural acoustics.

With over 800 active or successfully completed projects on over 200 campuses across North America, The Sextant Group operates offices in Atlanta, New York, Omaha, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, Santa Barbara and Washington DC.


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