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Virginia Tech News / Articles / 2018 / May 

Steelcase funds work to create an active learning space where students and faculty collaborate

May 25, 2018

Tim Baird
Timothy Baird, assistant professor of geography in the College of Natural Resources and Environment and senior fellow for the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology, engages with students in the classroom. Photo courtesy of Virginia Pellington.

A corporate grant will fund efforts to transform an existing Virginia Tech classroom into a living laboratory to support learning strategies that promote engagement, creativity, and collaboration, while helping researchers better understand patterns of active learning.

The educational arm of Steelcase, a company that produces office furniture and architectural and technology products, awarded one of its Active Learning Center grants to a team led by Timothy Baird, assistant professor of geography in the College of Natural Resources and Environment and senior fellow for the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology. Out of more than 1,000 proposals submitted, Virginia Tech was one of only 16 education institutions across the nation to receive the funding.

Baird will lead efforts to transform a classroom into an active learning space to promote engagement and creativity and to assess student and faculty experiences and learning outcomes. Active learning strategies help students take an active role in the learning process and prepare them to demonstrate course concepts, analyze arguments, and apply ideas to real-world situations.

Addressing concerns from education, intelligent infrastructure, human-building interactions, and computer vision disciplines, the project will support faculty who embrace active learning strategies and work to shift students’ classroom expectations.

Home to the Center for Environmental Applications of Remote Sensing (CEARS), Room 217 in Cheatham Hall was designed over 20 years ago as a space for instruction, outreach, and collaborative research using remote sensing to better understand human-environment interactions and dynamics on the Earth’s surface.

The classroom/lab is currently arranged in a traditional, theater-style seating configuration with a teaching station in the front of the room. The room contains 22 computers used to process big data sets from geographic information systems, bioinformatics, and remote sensing applications. Redesigning this type of space into an active learning environment presents a unique challenge.

“The current design of Room 217 reflects an earlier time and set of ideas surrounding education and research. Today, we know that students can learn more and be more creative when they are actively engaged in the course and work collaboratively in groups,” explains Baird. “At Virginia Tech, we want to prepare students to excel in advanced computational data analysis to address global environmental challenges. And we also want students to practice the skills of working mindfully in teams. In partnership with Steelcase, we’re going to design an active learning computer lab that promotes engagement, collaboration, and creativity to set our students up for success.”

The renovation will support a more open and collaboration-friendly atmosphere, featuring new Steelcase furniture and whiteboards that will allow for a more flexible room layout and more learning space options, as well as more intimate spaces for study groups and research planning meetings.

New flooring will accommodate the Steelcase thread power distribution system, providing conveniently located power outlets throughout the space without affecting foot traffic. The classroom’s current projection system, which can only project one display in the room from a single, stationary workstation, will be replaced with a new system that will allow multiple users to display information simultaneously from multiple devices, including laptops, tablets, and smartphones, encouraging collaborative work.

The transformed space will also serve as a real-life laboratory for a transdisciplinary research project designed by Baird’s team to examine the impacts of active-learning classrooms on students and faculty from the perspectives of social science and engineering. The CEARS lab and a more traditional computer lab space located across the hall will both be outfitted with various sensing devices, including accelerometers, vibration microphones, and ceiling-mounted motion-tracking cameras.

Sensor data, which will reveal subtle patterns of human movement and behavior in each of the rooms, will be examined alongside qualitative and quantitative social data related to active learning events, students’ characteristics, and students’ and instructors’ perceptions of classroom dynamics.

“Our project began with a couple of simple questions: How much do you move when you’re not moving, and what do these movements mean?” noted Baird. “By integrating social science and engineering approaches, we hope to address these questions in ways that can help us to think about what happens in classrooms and how we may nudge people towards positive behaviors and outcomes.”

Baird’s team piloted the project with the support of a major SEAD grant from the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology (ICAT) and the Institute for Society, Culture, and Environment (ISCE). This funding helped the team create a mobile laboratory complete with accelerometers and microphones to collect data from classrooms in four separate on-campus venues.

ICAT Director Ben Knapp and Associate Director Tom Martin have cultivated a two-year relationship with Steelcase and took Baird, along with several other Virginia Tech faculty members representing various disciplines, to Steelcase headquarters in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in the spring of 2017 to discuss their current research interests, opening the door for possible collaborative opportunities.

Baird will work with Knapp and Virginia Tech colleagues David Kniola, visiting assistant professor of education; Pablo Tarazaga, associate professor of mechanical engineering; Les Fuller, systems administrator; Valerie Thomas, associate professor of forest remote sensing; and Randolph Wynne, professor of forest remote sensing, on the project’s organization, implementation, and data collection efforts.