Teal is Not the Color of MIT’s Introductory Physics Classroom…

Thanks to some very dedicated staff and faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) last week, I and about 40 other attendees of the National Learning Information Infrastructure (NLII) fall focus workshop on "Learning Space Design for the 21st Century" enjoyed an intimate tour of more than a half a dozen of the newer formal learning spaces at MIT.

As my colleague Steve Ehrmann of the TLT Group, who presented to the group said, first of one space and then of others: "I attended lectures in this room 30 years ago and it was nothing like this." Steve, an alumnus of MIT, kept up the refrain throughout the evening. According to Steve, everything looks the same on the outside (except the Stata Center, see below), but the insides of the classrooms have been transformed. I was impressed. Can I please go back to school?

At MIT, like on many modern campuses, the architectural and landscape heritage is mostly preserved--which sustains the campus brand, image, and feel. Yet the core mission of the campus--the learning and research that g'es on--is supported to the utmost by appropriately-designed interior learning spaces enhanced with current technologies.

There is a little bit of exterior change, though. The juxtaposition of old and new was nowhere more striking than during our stroll down the street past the industrial-age architecture of the Wright Brothers' Wind Tunnel and then into the courtyard in front of what is currently the boldest of new campus buildings, the playful Stata Center [image above]. I could imagine that some wild nanotechnology bugs had gotten loose from a lab and was causing campus buildings to mutate into a strange titanium, brick, and red and yellow enamel landscape of non-intuitive shapes. Here's a link to a multimedia tour of the Stata Center.

We visited a set of language learning labs and classrooms, the redesigned "aero-astro" department (planned from vision to implementation by the nation's "chief rocket scientist"), a completely adaptable large classroom inside the Stata Center, and several other formal learning spaces. The dedication of the MIT staff and faculty showed by taking us on this tour, which took place after regular working hours, was even more impressive than you might think because this was at the end of the first day of classes of the academic year.

Of all the interior spaces we saw, I found the classroom for the introductory physics class, the TEAL classroom, of the TEAL (Technology Enabled Active Learning) Project to be the most interesting. During the semester, the room services 500 students in introductory physics, never in a group larger than about 100 students at a time. Remember your introductory physics lectures? You probably sat in rigid rows, too close to other students for comfort, all facing forward to the sage on the stage who was writing on endless blackboards with chalk. There'll be no more of that in physics at MIT for freshmen. Instead, there is the most humane classroom I've ever seen.

This modern MIT studio-style classroom, which is the physical manifestation of a larger project that completely redesigned the curriculum, is definitely not a lecture hall. Within its 3,000 square feet nine students sit at each 7-foot round table. Each group of three students share a networked laptop computer and below the table, each student can reach into an alcove and grab a handheld remote device to answer questions from the instructor.

A state-of-the-art instructor's workstation is in the center of the room, but the physics faculty spend most of their time walking throughout the space utilizing wireless microphones. It seems like every square inch of wall space is covered with video screens and whiteboard--one whiteboard specifically dedicated to each of the students' tables. Ceiling-mounted video cameras are pointed at the whiteboards, and the images from any one of the cameras can be projected onto each of the whiteboards at the instructor's command--so student work can be shared throughout the large space.

A class session g'es like this: The instructor might speak to the entire class for maybe 10 minutes or so, using the workstation to project video or images from a digital slideshow or even that old workhorse, the overhead projector. Then he poses a question to the class and gives an option of, say, five possible multiple-choice answers. The students reach under the table and each pulls out a mobile response device and "votes" for the answer of their choice. The instructor then displays a bar chart of the responses, which usually shows, the first time around, a wide range of choices made by the students.

Then, rather than indicating which answer is right, the instructor encourages group discussion during which students explain--perhaps sharing equations or comments on their table's whiteboard, which is displayed as needed onto all the whiteboard using the overhead videocams, why they think one or the other of the answers is correct. After the discussion, the students "vote" again. The process is repeated as necessary and students end up learning from the "lecture," the discussions, and from their own thinking as they watch the bar graph results change until eventually most or all of the class is voting for the correct answer.

This classroom didn't come cheap, though. The design and renovation of the 3,000 square feet plus the purchase and installation of the technology in it cost about one million dollars. The coolest thing about it for MIT is, though, that overall the curriculum design is saving the department money over time. They've never used teaching assistants, always staffing the introductory course with faculty members instead, so by eliminating large lectures mixed with smaller discussion and working sessions, they've significantly reduced the number of faculty bodies it takes to teach the class.

This new classroom/curriculum gets results. The faculty can statistically demonstrate that a much higher percentage of students reach benchmarked understanding levels much more quickly than they had previously done with the old curriculum, using older technology and a classic lecture hall. The beauty of the TEAL Project is that the space and the technology in it are well-designed, through good planning, to serve the collaborative, interactive learning process that the physics curriculum was rearranged to create. Shouldn't it always be so?

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