Swivel Your Lecture Seat to Face an Instant Lab

Inside a classroom built to mimic the ambiance of a night club, Bill Jennings wraps up his 15-minute lecture on electric-circuit design by posing a lab problem for his students. Mini-spots over the lectern dim while others brighten over tiered seats for 35 students - and music fades in.

Right at home in this $400,000, Starship-Enterprise-style classroom is Kevin O'Brien - a junior computer-systems major. Swiveling his chair so his back is to his professor, he is about to build a circuit like the one just lectured about.

Here at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., it used to be that a separate lab session with a graduate-student instructor might occur as many as seven weeks after a lecture. But everything Mr. O'Brien needs is right at hand in this state-of-the-art studio classroom.

In front of him is a personal computer, a pencil and note pad, an oscilloscope, and other lab instruments. And there is O'Brien's mission team: His buddies Kwesi Steele and Richard Gonyea, both juniors majoring in computer systems.

As the three chop through the problem, O'Brien's head bobs to the piped-in big-band sound of Woody Herman's "Woodchoppers' Ball."

"There's a difference between teaching efficiency and learning efficiency - this is more learning efficient," O'Brien says, comparing the studio and lecture formats. "Frankly, I didn't go to all that many of those [lecture] classes," he confesses. "I'm the kind of person who falls asleep in them. No way could I do that in here."

After finding that many students nodded off in the big lectures, Rensselaer dove head first into building these studios, defraying heavy costs with corporate donations, says Dr. Jennings.

What's the difference for the professor between this and the lectures he used to give? Fun, he says. "I enjoy teaching a lot more," he says. "I spend my time talking with students instead of talking at them."

Ed Maby, an associate professor of electrical engineering, actually designed this classroom.

"You probably noticed we're playing music," he says. "We found that if we don't play it they [the students] just stare at the problem. They've been conditioned to be quiet in class."

"We wanted to have a design where the student would physically have to turn around - so the instructor can see the instrument screens and see which students need help," Maby says.

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