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An engineer inside the classroom: How the built environment influences engineering education

Given the function of an engineering course to equip students with skills to design buildings in the future, there is no better place to leverage the built environment than in the engineering classroom.

Gerry Williams, CRB
11/29/2017

Given the function of an engineering course to equip students with skills to design buildings in the future, there is no better place to leverage the built environment than in the engineering classroom. Courtesy: CRBAs an adjunct engineering professor at a large university, I have had the opportunity to see the impact that the built environment has on my engineering students. Innovative features in a classroom can greatly enhance learning capabilities, whereas poor design (and even poor ventilation) can hinder cognition and learning.
  
Given the function of an engineering course to equip students with skills to design buildings in the future, there is no better place to leverage the built environment than in the engineering classroom. 

As such, in my day job as a practicing mechanical engineer for CRB, a leader for design and construction in the academic market, I apply my insight from teaching to designing facilities. In fact, years ago, while working with another firm, I had the opportunity to help design the building where I currently teach.

Reflecting back on that experience, I would have taught the course first and designed the building second to better outfit the facility for the learning needs of my students. 

The built environment is playing an increasingly more important role in the way students learn, which has evolved significantly in the last few decades. Consider the manual for my first pocket computer, a TRS-80, which was 126 pages. Compare this to my students’ iPhones, which come with a two-page owner’s manual because today’s young adults tend to intuitively learn through exploration. Students today need hands-on, multimedia, collaborative learning.
 
To accommodate this new learning method, schools are moving toward high-performance learning environments. This is a beyond-lecture-based approach to education through interactive, collaborative curriculum. While the mode of instruction changes to enhance student learning, the facility in which students learn should also evolve. 

To educate and prepare future engineers, university buildings can showcase how the space works by exposing wiring, ductwork, steel beams, HVAC, etc. Students can have the opportunity to monitor and manipulate the built environment of their classroom. And the classroom design itself can better facilitate learning. The following components are some of the ways to do just that: 

Collaboration and casual encounter zones

Building designs should incorporate intentional spaces where students can meet and collaboratively learn together. These include study and meeting areas throughout the facility, as well as room (or the flexibility to create room) for students to work in teams in the classroom. Not only does this provide students with practice for the collaborative work they will do in their future engineering careers, but it also aids their learning as they apply theories and problem solve together.

Safe places to fail

Ideally, curriculum is designed so that students learn the theory in a class, work in groups to design project solutions and then build that project to test against the theory. This requires lab space and storage space for equipment and materials. As engineers increasingly put new technologies like 3-D printing and virtual reality into practice, accommodations to include these technologies in the classroom should also be made.

Considerations for flexible modes of learning

Like hands-on learning, multimedia learning—or the use of pictures, video, and other modalities—will become more prevalent in classrooms. Technological adaptations should be made for functions like recording lectures and in-class instruction. This will enhance opportunities for distance learners and provide additional paths for students with different learning styles.

Learning on display

The inclusion of plenty of glass to see in and out of learning environments serves two functions: It directly aids learning, and it improves aesthetics, which can also aid learning. First, designing for interior windows that look into classroom and lab spaces provides opportunities for observation. Students learn by seeing others do. Second, a space with lots of glass and light feels better. While the research on this point is still developing, anecdotal evidence shows that students are more engaged and focused when their environment feels good. 

High ceilings

Similarly, high ceilings help create a better feeling. They also improve ventilation. Studies have shownthat high concentrations of carbon dioxide in buildings may hinder cognition and focus.

Leave out the large lecture hall

Recently, more and more evidence suggests that lectures are not the best mode for learning. 
In a Chemical Engineering Education article titled “High-Performance Learning Environments,” professors Pedro E. Arce and Loren B. Schreiber of Tennessee Technological University have argued that lectures are “typified by a non-active, non-collaborative approach that leads to low efficiency student learning.” Not only do modern-day students have a difficult time absorbing lectures, but the unilateral nature of lectures does not allow students to develop independent, critical and creative thinking. As universities like the University of Vermont’s Larner College of Medicine, begin to phase lectures out of its curriculum, space for large lecture halls should no longer factor heavily in education building designs.

Building as an extension of the curriculum

Engineers often search for creative solutions to hide the wiring, piping, ductwork and other mechanical components of a building. But in a learning environment, those elements should be out in the open for students to see and study. Taking that idea a step further, students should be able to manipulate certain aspects of the building to test theories, develop creative solutions and see firsthand how all the inner workings of a facility fit together. 

I will be sharing more on this topic at Tradelines’ College & University Science & Engineering Facilities 2017 conference on Friday, November 17. I’m looking for input from educators about how they’d optimize the space in which they teach and from engineers about how they design to enhance student learning.
Educators, if you could design your facility, what would you include or change? Which components of your classroom and facility have best supported student learning? Which have hindered it? 
Engineers, what learning components are you incorporating into academic buildings? Considering your own education, what would have enhanced your learning?

Gerry Williams is senior mechanical engineer at CRB. CRB is a CFE Media content partner.

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