ASU launches new, high-tech learning environment for life science students

New Active Learning Classroom

As Arizona State University’s spring semester begins, students studying life sciences will learn about subjects such as evolution, neurobiology, and genetics in a new, high-tech classroom designed to promote “active learning.”

Rather than listening passively to a lecture in an auditorium, students will work in small groups on “student-centered” learning exercises – facilitated by faculty and teaching assistants who are trained in active learning teaching methods. Research shows this highly structured approach enhances long-term conceptual learning and student success. In addition, by being actively engaged with course content, peers, and instructors, students recognize that learning is their responsibility.

“There’s a national movement – a critical mass moving away from the lecturing style where we know students really only retain five to 10 percent of the material, to a more student-centered approach,” says Miles Orchinik, associate director for ASU’s School of Life Sciences in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “On a large scale, research has shown great student success when traditional lecture classrooms are transformed into something like this. Instead of being a passive recipient of the information, students actually have to actively engage with the science concepts we are teaching.”

The School of Life Sciences’ new Active Learning Classroom holds 96 students grouped into tables of six. As the first of its kind in the school, one 23-inch touchscreen computer is available for every two students. Students can share information among groups or across the classroom through four projectors that display their work onto large screens. In addition, white boards help create an environment conducive to sharing information in real time.

“With this technology, we can nurture skills required by most employers today – skills, that traditional lecture halls simply don’t have the capacity to build,” shares Bina Vanmali, an instructional professional and biology education researcher in the school. “This innovative classroom helps students learn teamwork, collaboration and communication, and ultimately, will help them when they land their first jobs out of college.”

Since the fall, teaching professionals have trained faculty and graduate students how to work effectively in the active learning environment. Vanmali worked with faculty to modify lessons, labs and activities and Kathy Hill, an ASU doctoral student in education, trained graduate students in scientific teaching methods.

“Students learn more when they wrestle with the material, ask questions, talk with their peers and answer those questions,” explains Vanmali. “Rather than having a professor at a podium in the front of the classroom giving a lecture, the professor actually moves around and works directly with the students – one on one. There is no front to this classroom by design. Our faculty will be able to relax more and get the students more involved in the learning process.”

Christopher Dimond, an ASU life sciences graduate student who has both taken Hill’s class and taught in the Active Learning Classroom, says he believes more classrooms should be modeled after this one.

“With small group activities, everyone is engaged in the process,” shares Dimond. “It’s easy to hide in a classroom of 300 students. It’s harder to hide in a class of 25, and nearly impossible to hide in a group of three, four or six students. Learning by doing is really important.”

Leading classroom trends

Planning for the new classroom began last February and crews completed construction in August of 2012. The technology installation was finished two months later. The room cost approximately $625,000 to build – paid for by a combination of funds from the School of Life Sciences and student program fees.

Previously, the room was used as a lichen herbarium – storing a large research collection that is currently being moved off-campus.

“This renovation was not done on a whim,” adds Orchinik. “We are using current data that shows how students learn, how to teach most effectively, and how to reach into student learning patterns. In order to make life scientists and scientifically literate citizens for the next century, we must teach students how to think critically about information that is already out there.”