by The Sextant Group

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. “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.”

The Smarter Classroom

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.

Why Do This? Improved Student Outcomes

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.

Sounds Expensive, But Cheaper Than Building

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.


* – 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