Expanding the dimensions of learning in time and space

Sep 4, 2012

Utilizing an “internal cloud,” plus new and renovated labs, Kettering University’s Physics Department is engaged in active learning.

The PALS lab in action.Dr. Bahram Roughani, professor of Physics and Physics Department head, is a man on a mission that borders on a crusade. He is working to incorporate active learning methodologies into the Physics curriculum at Kettering University.

“We want to create the tools to empower faculty members to use educational best practices,” he said. To accomplish this he has been re-structuring existing labs and building a new lab to facilitate active learning. The new lab is aptly named the “Physics Active Learning Studio” (PAL Studio or PALS).

“We wanted to have the capability of capturing electronic techniques that will allow students to learn in their best learning environment,” he explained.

While still under development, the features of the PAL Studio include a smart projector capable of projections of real-time graphics or video content onto everyday surfaces and an Infrared (IR) pen to maximize use of the smart projector. Roughani said the next step in developing the PAL Studio would be to install a recording station so faculty could record lectures or parts of lectures that students could access on line at their convenience.

Calling it a true collaborative effort, Roughani referenced the contribution of Kettering’s Information Technologies department who installed the interactive equipment and software that facilitate active learning.

Dr. Bahram Roughani“They had to install a specific wireless connection for virtualization,” said Roughani, “all the applications software for the PAL Studio are located on one server that is connected to the computers in the classroom,” he explained. “The classroom computers utilize software on the server without having the software installed on the computers themselves, something like and ‘internal cloud.’  Eventually, students will be able to log into the server from anywhere - work, home, or a coffee shop - using a wireless connection,” said Roughani. It is the first classroom with virtualization at Kettering.

According to Roughani, the PAL Studio will facilitate a higher level of learning in Bloom’s Taxonomy, the widely recognized classification of learning objectives within education that includes three domains, or types of learning ability: cognitive, affective, and psychomotor (sometimes described as knowing/head, feeling/heart and doing/hands respectively).

“Currently we are limited to four hours in a room such-and-such. We lecture to students who passively listen, and then leave the classroom to do the work assigned to them,” he said.

Roughani’s theory is that utilizing a blended version of learning methodologies will allow students to learn more effectively based on their habits. Some learn better on their own, some learn better by discussing the topic with other people, some learn better by working with others to solve problems.

“In a classroom one can present the material in a variety of these learning styles, but even if the instructor manages to cover all the learning styles it still may not be enough to maximize the learning styles of all students,” said Roughani.

The cross-shaped work station in the Phys 2 Lab.In reviewing Physics course delivery at Kettering, Roughani saw the need for an environment that would allow students to learn in the method that best suits them while enabling faculty to present material in the best possible way to facilitate learning. In other words, active learning.

To illustrate the difference between passive and active learning Roughani used the analogy of playing cards versus watching  a movie – “You wouldn’t watch a movie sitting in a circle and you wouldn’t play cards sitting side by side in a row,” he said, pointing out the “traditional classrooms are designed to watch faculty present, with everyone sitting passively in rows.”

His goal in renovating existing labs and building the PAL Studio is to transition the Physics curriculum from a passive mode of learning to an active mode of learning.

To encourage faculty to engage in active learning methodologies, Roughani said that Physics faculty members who request PAL Studio to teach in have to submit a short proposal outlining how they will incorporate active learning into their curriculum to best utilize the room.

In addition to the PAL Studio, another Physics lab, the Electricity and Magnetism Lab, commonly known as the “Phys 2 Lab,” was re-configured to facilitate active learning. The original Physics labs on campus were “designed around the equipment with workstations facing the wall,” said Roughani, “but equipment does not interact, so it won’t care how we design the lab.”

Roughani designed the Electricity Phys 2 Lab, by taking the old fixtures away from the wall and putting four work stations in the shape of an X, locating the power sources and equipment near the center of the X. “We went from 12 tables to eight,” he said. This configuration requires students to work in groups of three rather than two, and fosters more interaction and collaboration.

“They were simple changes that made a big difference,” he said. “The environment you create sends a message. When you’re designing a classroom you are designing a learning environment.”

“I believe the Physics community is at the forefront of research in education,” said Roughani, “a generation ahead of other disciplines in fact.” He attributes this lead in educational methodology to the nationwide “SCALE-UP” program.  “It started in Physics and now other disciplines are adopting the concept,” he said.

The SCALE UP philosophy is being employed in both the PAL Studio and the Physics II lab.   

Originally entitled “Student-Centered Activities for Large Enrollment Undergraduate Physics,” SCALE-UP now stands for “Student-Centered Active Learning Environment with Upside-down Pedagogies.” In the SCALE UP structure there is no separate lab and lecture. It is designed to make class time more hands-on, focused on questions and problem solving, where student work in teams and the instructor moves around the room engaging in conversations versus lecturing.

The three aspects of this pedagogy that "flip" the traditional idea of instruction on its head include students becoming teachers by working together and sharing what they've learned with each other. Additionally, activities that used to take place in the classroom, like content delivery, take place outside the formal learning space. It is the responsibility of the students to learn the basic material and start working with it before class. The final “flip” involves the development of curricular materials by thinking about the end product and building the lesson plan based on the results wanted.   http://www.ncsu.edu/per/scaleup.html

“In the field of Physics we have gone so far as to research what is the best sized table for teaching in an active learning environment,” said Roughani.

Students working on an assignment in the Phys 2 Lab.Other details include researching and determining that three students working on one computer are more likely to stay on task than if every student has their own computer, he said, because they can’t engage in personal internet use and have to collaborate on the task at hand.

With nine students per table and three students per group, the opportunity for group interaction and collaboration facilitates active learning. And just what is the best sized table? According to Roughani, research has shown a table seven feet in diameter is best for fostering interaction and active learning.

“What I took from SCALE UP was the idea of interaction,” he said, “and then I reduced it to the size of our classes. What you might call a scaled down version of ‘Scale Up,’” he joked.

To accomplish his mission, Roughani began fundraising in early 2010, and started work on physical development of the lab spaces in 2011. The room was developed with $25,400 in donations and support from the Provost’s Office, with $23,500 of donations from three alumni including Sharon Hillquist, wife of the late Ralph Hillquist ’59, Kenneth Shinn ’50 and J. Michael Losh ‘69.  “Bonnie McArthur, from University Advancement, was instrumental in helping us secure funding for the PAL Studio,” said Roughani.

Physics faculty and students are currently able to have partial use of the PAL Studio.  The studio will be available for regular classes upon completion of final IT installation, according to Roughani.

Contact Dawn Hibbard