Active Learning Spaces to Multiply in Fall
The pilot learning space in Science-Engineering Library will receive a "total transformation," and four more spaces will be retrofitted across the UA campus.

By Doug Carroll, University Relations - Communications
April 27, 2015


Engineering professor Paul Blowers  taught last fall in the Science-Engineering Library Collaborative Learning Space.
Engineering professor Paul Blowers taught last fall in the Science-Engineering Library Collaborative Learning Space. (white shirt)

The Science-Engineering Library Collaborative Learning Space, site of a STEM learning pilot project on the University of Arizona campus late last fall, is about to sprout wings and take off.

Work will begin in May on the classroom space, which has a capacity of 260 and will undergo a "total transformation" for the fall of 2015, according to Jane Hunter, associate professor of practice for the UA’s Office of Instruction and Assessment.

And that’s only part of what will be happening in active learning with the Undergraduate STEM Education Initiative, funded through 2016 by a grant from the Association of American Universities.

A space in Biological Sciences West, able to accommodate 112 students, and two more in the Integrated Learning Center, suitable for 60 students apiece, will be adapted in an expansion of the project. A fifth campus location is being scouted for a new space that will be funded by a $50,000 grant from Steelcase Education. Of the 540 proposals that were submitted to Steelcase, the UA was one of only 12 schools that were awarded grants.

"We want a variety of sizes, as well as a variety of locations across campus," Hunter said. "By distributing these rooms around campus, we like to believe that people will see them and say, 'I’d like to do that.'''

Two lecturers who need no persuasion are Susan Jorstad and Amy Graham. Each is scheduled in the fall to teach two course sections in the Science-Engineering Library Collaborative Learning Space, or SELCLS.

They’re already tweaking their curriculum, and they can’t wait to get started.

"I was ready for a space like this before it existed," said Jorstad, who will teach an introductory course in molecular and cellular biology to students who will be seated at tables of six throughout the space.

"I’ve been doing active-learning things all along, but in a space that’s not very conducive to it."

Jorstad said she was an early adopter of clickers in the classroom and has been looking for better ways of reaching students.

"I like to lecture, and I think I’m good at it," she said. "But there is research showing that students do better when you’re not talking at them.... This is the first major science class that they take in pre-med, and it’s not uncommon for a third of them to get a poor grade. Some will succeed no matter what you do, but we need to pull up the others."

To aid the effort, she will have at her disposal banks of monitors, tabletop whiteboards and A-frame whiteboards on wheels, and other audio-visual components of "high-touch" technology. University Libraries, UITS and facilities personnel are involved in making it happen.

She’ll also have a complement of preceptors — students who previously demonstrated a mastery of the material and will be sprinkled about in “zones” as in-class facilitators, each receiving three units of upper-division credit.

Graham, too, will have an opportunity to bring some existing tools for her Chemistry 151 class into an environment that seems more conducive. She has been using an online program, Socrative, that initiates four or five multiple-choice quizzes during the course of a 75-minute class. Students log in on mobile devices to take the quizzes.

"It prompts a lot more questions," Graham said. "It points out what they don’t know. A lot of students want me to tell them what they need to know. They think that my telling them means that they know it. It doesn’t."

She said she’s excited about the collaborative possibilities when students are facing one another instead of all looking straight ahead to the front of a lecture hall.

"I want to ramp up the level of engagement," she said. "It will be a challenge, but I’m up for it."

Hunter said the best is yet to come with active learning, noting that as many as a dozen different classes will be using each of the spaces in the fall.

The introduction of the SELCLS was made in the middle of the semester last fall, requiring on-the-fly adjustment by instructors and students. This time, everything will be in place from the start.

"There really isn’t a 'front' of the room, and it will be easier to adapt when it starts out that way," Hunter said. "With these classes, there’s a heightened need for classroom management (by instructors). There’s a lot going on, and you want the students to stay on task.

"We had a lot of positive reaction from students," she said. "They liked the ability to collaborate with their peers, although there were some challenges with classroom-wide communications since the space is so large. We’re addressing those things."

To help prepare the instructors, a Faculty Learning Committee was created specifically for those who teach in collaborative learning spaces. There also will be two workshops over the summer. The first will focus on pedagogy, the second on technology and classroom management. A webinar featuring the UA project will be offered on May 5 by the Learning Spaces Collaboratory (

"These rooms are like a catalyst for those who have been thinking about modifying their teaching strategies," Hunter said. "The innovators, the early adopters, they want to be in on this.

"A year ago, I don’t think anyone thought we’d have this kind of momentum, " she said. "We want to have showcase classrooms. That’s our vision. We have big dreams."   


Resources for the media

Jane Hunter

UA Office of Instruction and Assessment