The real value of ALCs

Was it worth it to pour millions of dollars into the Science Teaching and Student Services building?

Bradford Paik

The Science Teaching and Student Services building stands as a glistening symbol of transition. ItâÄôs past-meets-future structure with rustic brick and polished stainless steel.

But this juxtaposition in design also extends into the STSS classrooms. Only two traditional lecture halls were built, and theyâÄôre buried under floors of what the University of Minnesota calls Active Learning Classrooms.

Gone is the stadium-style seating with flip-out tables. ALCs are outfitted with round tables that promote group interaction. The ample flat-panel and projector screens ensure good views for all. Tabletop microphones allow for even the quietest students to be heard. And the white boards! You should see all of the white boards!

But in some lectures, flat-panel screens lie dormant. Professors stand at podiums with their backs to half the class. Pods turn into social circles. Students goof around on the PA systems (youâÄôre not funny, by the way). So, ultimately, was all this technology worth it?

Of the $72.5 million that went into the construction of the building, $17 million went into “soft costs” âÄî televisions, furniture and decor. $17 million, really? ItâÄôs not like academia could improve the way students absorb knowledge.

Oh, but itâÄôs trying.

ALCs may come with some expensive bells and whistles, but thereâÄôs a reason behind it. These new rooms require a professor who is willing to break from the norm, a professor like Sue Wick, who uses biology curriculum that enhances student-professor interaction.

The BIOL 2002 course that Wick co-instructs has used active learning curriculum since 2007. This style of teaching promotes students to derive key concepts through group work, then review it as a class. ItâÄôs a new way to approach lectures.

Rachel Drake, a sophomore in WickâÄôs class, agrees. She explains, the course is “more radical” than others.

“ThereâÄôs a bigger focus on collaboration with classmates,” Drake said. “[Professors] are walking around while theyâÄôre lecturing. It holds you accountable to pay attention.”

Not only does this teaching style hold studentsâÄô attention, Wick believes it helps students to really learn the material.

“They are learning how to analyze and problem solve. You can achieve that in a [regular] lecture, but itâÄôs harder because itâÄôs left to the individual,” Wick said. “From what we know about college age students âĦ they really do gain a lot by putting their heads together.”

WickâÄôs class doesnâÄôt waste any technology, either. Students use TVs, projectors and microphones to present group work. But Wick understands that the new layout and technology in an ALC might actually hinder typical notes-on-the-board professors. So, while some classes are thriving, others are held back; technology driving a wedge between the teacher and student, leaving poorly taught classes and unused technology.

But any technology thatâÄôs unused in class is certainly utilized on weekends. Go First!, a robotics club, was found on the fourth floor of STSS streaming robot competitions Saturday. And who better to offer insight on this usage than technophiles.

Sophomore Renee Becker and junior Danny Blau agreed that STSS offers technological advantages. But in terms of how those are used, Blau is realistic.

“ItâÄôs going to take a couple years for the rooms to be used to their full potential,” Blau said.

ItâÄôs also going to take professors and appropriate classes: STSS is not going to be right for every course.

“The University should monitor the needs of certain classes and professors so that resources can be used efficiently,” Becker said.

ThatâÄôs exactly right, robot girl.

STSS will only be successful if the University figures out what classes work in that setting.

ItâÄôs that age-old rap battle: The old-school wonâÄôt work in the new. Hopefully, there can be peace on the academic streets soon.


Bradford Paik welcomes comments at [email protected].