A team of students and faculty from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Tickle College of Engineering collaborated to create their own innovative flexible learning environment within the university’s new Zeanah Engineering Complex. The students are members of an engineering fundamentals program, which takes a leading-edge, success-oriented approach to freshman engineering education, placing problem solving through collaboration as a priority.
The overarching idea was to create a welcoming learning environment and encourage group work that engages students in collaboration from their first moments in class.
“We didn’t want the traditional lecture hall, where students are just sitting and listening,” said the program’s director, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Richard Bennett. “We wanted them actively involved in the learning.”
Faculty looked at the ways other institutions used classroom spaces to support their teaching methods and theories. After experimenting with large auditoriums in other campus buildings, they saw a need for the new space to be designed in a way that would encourage students to learn from one another as well as from instructors. Architects worked the plans into the building design.
“So that led to no-front-of-the-classroom. That led to tables where students are working in teams of four to six, roughly,” said Bennett. “It’s very interesting in the classroom now—there will be some that work in two or three and then you get these groups that are moving chairs from the other table and they have eight there. And it’s all good.”
Even the sizes of the new spaces are flexible, offering the ability to host a full room of 128 students collaborating in groups or—with the deployment of a few collapsible walls— to create more intimate spaces in which students can interact closely with instructors during lab sessions.
Bennett points out that it is the combination of elements that makes it all work, from the flexibility of the rooms to the flexibility of the furniture. Students working together at any given table can communicate with other groups and their instructors through interactive multiple screens throughout the room. Everything can be arranged to suit whatever best serves the day’s purposes.
“We’re sort of pushing the envelope here in a sense,” said Bennett. “The ability for me to not be tied to an HDMI cable, to be able to walk around—that’s really helpful. Students can use the monitor to write together, get on the internet, or a variety of things. We’re still admittedly figuring out the best way—all the capabilities and stuff—but it has really worked out well.”
It all comes together to produce the original desired effect: that students are learning in an active, collaborative way—and even teaching one anther.
“I tell the students all the time that the best way to learn something is to teach it,” said Bennett. “If you’re helping somebody that’s struggling, that’s really helping you, too.”
The Zeanah Engineering Complex opened its doors in August 2021. Known as UT’s gateway to engineering, the complex is designed to provide engineering students with hands-on experiences from their first day on campus.
Together with the college’s prominent rankings and a rising reputation among the top public institutions for providing state-of-the-art research and educational facilities, the innovative classroom design process reflects UT’s campus-wide commitment to collaboration and partnership serving students, faculty, staff, and the community.
Chris Schmitz (865-974-8304, firstname.lastname@example.org)
David Goddard (865-974-0683, email@example.com)