First active learning lab opens at University of Minnesota

The new lab has a collaborative and interactive setup instead of an instruction-based lecture setting.

Valery Forbes, Dean of the College of Biological Sciences, and Robert McMaster, Vice provost and Dean for the Office of Undergraduate Education, cut a ribbon at the new Active Learning Lab at the Biological Sciences Center in St. Paul on Friday, Sept. 6.

Mrunal Zambre

Valery Forbes, Dean of the College of Biological Sciences, and Robert McMaster, Vice provost and Dean for the Office of Undergraduate Education, cut a ribbon at the new Active Learning Lab at the Biological Sciences Center in St. Paul on Friday, Sept. 6.

Natalie Cierzan

The University of Minnesota opened its first active learning lab last week. 

In an active learning lab, students can interact with their peers on group research projects that are designed by themselves, not by their professors. The new lab is different from the 20 active learning classrooms already on campus because it has a collaborative and interactive setup instead of an instruction-based lecture setting, College of Biological Sciences staff said.

Students in the second part of the Foundations of Biology class series, BIOL 3004, will use the new lab on the St. Paul campus. Students will start the class by asking an unanswered research question, and then use the lab space to try to find an answer. 

“The way we teach biology has changed dramatically and continues to evolve,” CBS Dean Valery Forbes said at the lab’s ribbon cutting ceremony last week. “This lab is a very natural and important part of progression.”

While the room’s capacity holds less than 100 people, around 350 students will be using the lab throughout fall semester, said Catherine Kirkpatrick, an instructor for the class.

“I think for students, learning biology in order to answer exam questions is very different than learning to do biology, which is to answer the questions that we don’t already have answers to,” she said. 

Up until spring 2016, the class was focused on everyone working in one research area, Kirkpatrick said. Now, the class is divided into five different sections in which students can explore whatever research area interests them most. The class doesn’t have a set time, so students can go anytime during the lab’s hours. 

The total project cost $9.9 million, and construction went on for almost a year.

The building, which is over 50 years old, also received third floor renovations for the lab, a student commons area, fourth floor renovations for additional labs, new bathrooms and a new air handling unit. The new lab includes basic supplies to get students started, mobile stations, wheelchair accessible lab spaces, new windows and an overflow room where students can shut the door to regulate light more easily, saidChristina Kramer, CBS facilities manager.

Before this lab existed, students would often use empty classrooms or any available space to work, said John Ward, professor and CBS associate dean for undergraduate education.

“By having an appropriate space, the students have a place where they can work as a group that’s not a laboratory bench,” he said. “You really need a clean area where you can sit comfortably so you can talk to others in your group.”

Vice Provost and Dean for the Office of Undergraduate Education Bob McMaster spoke at the ceremony about CBS being able to stand out with its new lab compared to research environments at other institutions. 

“I started as a biology major many, many, years ago,” he said. “Maybe if I’d had a laboratory like this first semester, I wouldn’t have poured down the drain my chemistry experiment by accident,” he said. 

Twenty-three teaching assistants will switch off monitoring the lab seven days a week, Kirkpatrick said. All of them had BIOL 3004 in the old research space. 

A former TA for the class, Megan Bird, said she likes the collaborative opportunities the lab will offer. 

“The old space was a lot more cramped and there wasn’t nearly enough organizational space,” she said. “It was actually three lab rooms connected by doorways, so every type of experiment had its own room. You didn’t really get to know people from other experiments.”

Taren Stanley, another TA, agreed. The open layout makes communication easier, especially between TAs and students when they ask for help on their research, he said.

“I thought it’d be fun to help out people who are trying to go through that,” Stanley said.