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U Michigan to Study Flexible STEM Classrooms

Researchers at the University of Michigan are using a $300,000 National Science Foundation grant to look into the difference between teaching and learning in traditional lecture halls and more flexible classrooms.

Provided by the NSF's Improving Undergraduate STEM Education Program, the funding will help Associate Professor Cindy Finelli and Research Fellow Aaron Johnson continue their research into "how the flexible spaces make a difference in the ways students interact with one another and with faculty, and how they affect the way students learn," according to a university news release. "The researchers also are collecting faculty experiences to focus on how instructors adapt pedagogy using these spaces."

Studying classrooms in the U Michigan College of Engineering, the researchers have already begun preliminary analysis of feedback from students and instructors.

"Students really love it, and they've asked for more classrooms that can be used by other faculty," said Finelli, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science and director of the college's new Engineering Education Research Program, in a prepared statement. "The flexible classroom allows students to be more engaged, and it gives faculty a chance to use a wider variety of activities that include hands-on exercises, team-based learning, student group assignments and study teams, among others."

Finelli's teammate Johnson has already conducted a pilot study in classrooms with easily movable furniture, monitors throughout the room and tablets for teachers to pitch content onto screens as they wander around the room. Findings of his pilot include:

  • Instructors used the monitors creatively to display class material, have students collaborate on Google Docs or work collectively on problems;
  • Participating faculty said they thought the monitors minimized distractions and helped students focus;
  • Participating faculty said that, rather than sitting anywhere as they do in traditional lecture halls, students in the flexible classrooms tended to sit with their teammates, leading to students getting to know one another better and building more effective teams; and
  • Instructors developed new activities to take advantage of the flexible spaces.

"The hope is in the future these rooms will encourage more instructors to use more active learning. It's exciting to see how it continues to be used in the future," Johnson said in a prepared statement. "When teaching in a traditional lecture hall, faculty often only get to interact with a few students. In these classrooms, though, they are able to interact with all students."

About the Author

Joshua Bolkan is contributing editor for Campus Technology, THE Journal and STEAM Universe. He can be reached at [email protected].

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