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UW Classroom Upgrades Boost Teaching, Learning
January 4, 2012 — For students in Rachel Watson's lower-division microbiology classes at the University of Wyoming, there's little opportunity to be bored.
On the screens at the front of the room, Watson uses animations of her own creation to show the basics of cell biology. She projects images from the Internet and through the use of document cameras. She employs both a whiteboard and a digital tablet to write key terms and points. And using the computer installed in the classroom, she poses questions that students answer via their cell phones to provide instant feedback from the large groups.
It all makes for an engaging and interactive learning experience that wouldn't have been possible without UW's significant investment in classroom technology and other upgrades the past five years.
"It's about finding ways to make the learning experience fun and meaningful, and technology is huge for that," Watson says.
Private donations and legislative appropriations have fueled a building boom at UW in recent years, including several brand-new facilities with state-of-the-art classrooms and research areas. In addition, many existing classrooms in older buildings -- some of them dating to the early 1900s -- have been upgraded to conform with modern heat, ventilation and lighting standards and to meet the technological needs of today's students.
The result is improved instruction and learning, which lies at the heart of UW's mission.
"When I started (working here), we were really in the backwaters as far as technology," says Andy Bryson, a 21-year employee who's now the instructional media services coordinator in UW's Ellbogen Center for Teaching and Learning. "The last five or six years, we've just made huge strides. We're providing all kinds of services -- better than many other schools."
Bryson remembers the days when UW's audio-visual staff carted film and overhead projectors around campus in response to instructors' requests. That's no longer necessary. UW's new classroom standards call for the rooms to have fixed data and video projection capabilities, Internet connectivity for teachers and students, DVD players and instructor controls for audio and other features.
UW's recent investment in classroom upgrades began with a $14.6 million renovation and expansion of the Classroom Building, completed in March 2007. The building now contains 27 high-end technology spaces, including three triple-projection rooms, 11 dual-projection rooms and 11 single-projection rooms - all featuring DVDs, document cameras, laptop connections, and sound systems with multiple microphone choices.
At the same time as the Classroom Building project was funded, the 2005 Wyoming State Legislature also appropriated $4 million to begin renovating other highly used classrooms around campus. Such upgrades have taken place in facilities including the Anthropology Building, the Education Annex, Coe Library, the College of Law and the Agriculture Auditorium. High-end technology classrooms also can be found in the new Berry Biodiversity Conservation Center, the Information Technology Center and the new Visual Arts facility.
UW's showpiece for classroom technology, however, is the new College of Business facility. It features 34 high-end classrooms, seminar rooms and conference rooms, many of them tiered with state-of-the-art multimedia systems.
"This building is the university's flagship and marker which represents a change to the new digital future," says Gary Boulware, UW's instructional technology manager.
The College of Business contains six of UW's 18 classrooms in the WyoCast system, which records instructors' lectures and accompanying multimedia presentations for later access by students and others.
UW's Outreach School also has benefitted from classroom technology upgrades, with improved audio and video for classes delivered through video conferencing, increased multimedia capabilities in online courses, and upgraded electronic access to UW's library collections and laboratories.
Improved technology isn't the only noteworthy feature of the newly constructed or renovated classrooms at UW. In the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences, where 12 classrooms were recently renovated, the physical transformation itself "has been just an amazing change," says Steve Barrett, associated dean and professor.
In addition to the installation of new overhead projectors and whiteboards, the classrooms have new configurations, paint, sound-proof tile and heating/ventilation systems. Pointing to those features in Room 3076 of the College of Engineering, Barrett says the improvement was dramatic.
"This room was hot and cramped -- just not a good teaching environment," he says. "The renovation completely changed the ambiance of the room. Now it's a model classroom."
Additional upgrades and an addition to the College of Engineering facilities are high on the list for future UW construction projects. Other classroom renovations remain to be done as well. UW uses close to 400 classrooms, labs, seminar rooms and lecture halls each semester, and university officials say 182 of those rooms -- about 150,000 total square feet -- still need some level of improvement. The estimated price of those improvements is $20 million to $25 million.
Supporting the new classroom technology with proper maintenance and equipment replacement is another expense the university must shoulder.
The investments, while expensive, are paying dividends for UW instructors including Watson and their students. While it's true that technology itself doesn't produce good instruction, Watson says she now has more tools to help students grasp the concepts she's teaching.
"It isn't about bells and whistles -- it's about finding better ways to display concepts," says Watson, UW's 2011 John P. Ellbogen Meritorious Classroom Teaching Award recipient. "Using technology, I'm able to reach different kinds of learners and hear different kinds of student voices."
Watson's students say they appreciate that approach.
"She uses contemporary technology combined with a flexible teaching style for a dynamic environment that is unlike any I have ever seen," says James Caitlin Caines, a microbiology undergraduate student from Hyattville in the Big Horn Basin.
Because of Wyoming's investment in UW's core teaching and learning infrastructure, more and more students will have that type of experience.
Rachel Watson teaches in a biology lab at the University of Wyoming. The instructor says new technology made available through classroom upgrades at UW has allowed her to find new ways to teach and interact with students. (UW Photo)