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Neglected classrooms getting much-needed renovations

“I see this year as marking the start of a new era of opportunity,” said Chancellor Phyllis M. Wise, beginning her second full academic year as leader of the Urbana campus.
Photo by
L. Brian Stauffer

Bringing some class
Rhetoric professor Cheryl Price makes a point to student Tranxiang Lan in a newly renovated classroom inside Henry Administration Building. The classroom, in addition to upgraded electronic connectivity, abandons the formal lecture setting and allows for more student interaction.

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INSIDE ILLINOIS, Sept. 20, 2012 | Mike Helenthal, News Editor | 217-333-5491  [Email | Share ]

UI students have access to some of the best professors in the country using the most current data and teaching techniques – but funding challenges have made campus classroom space the final educational frontier.

The aim of the Instructional Space Improvement initiative, a five-year, $70 million project now under way, is to renovate and upgrade dozens of neglected classrooms.

additional photo

The design of this classroom, being used by rhetoric professor Cheryl Price, gives students plenty of laptop space and brings them closer together during more interactive exercises. Having a chalkboard, an overhead-projector screen, moveable seating and greater electronic connectivity gives professors a variety of lesson-plan options.
| Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

“We’ve completed some work already and we’re in the process of planning several more classroom and laboratory projects now,” said Doris Reeser, the capital maintenance planning coordinator for Facilities & Services.

While funding issues continue generally to be a challenge, Reeser said the classroom renovation initiative is the result of a comprehensive funding partnership encompassing a student maintenance fee, Provost allocations, the Library/IT fee and several departments and units.

The partnerships are broad-based and include matching money from academic units seeking more advanced renovation work.

“The work includes classrooms of all sizes and even some labs,” Reeser said. “In the past, the money just hasn’t been available.”

In all, 125 classrooms will be renovated comprehensively over the next five years, most of them receiving infrastructure work and technology upgrades such as overhead projectors and Internet connectivity.

One of the initial, and largest, projects is a complete facility renovation and addition at the Chemistry Annex. When the nearly $23 million project is completed, 12 classrooms and 100 lab stations will have been overhauled and updated, and long-needed infrastructure work completed.

“Other projects may include heating, ventilation, air-conditioning, plubming, roof and window replacements, exterior wall repairs, life-safety upgrades, and interior finishes such as flooring and painting,” Reeser said. “classrooms and labs will receive new furnishings and instructional technology systems. Accessibility deficiencies also will be be addressed.”

ISI leaders continue to meet with unit heads to determine what projects deserve first priority, how extensive the work should be, and whether they want to help fund further upgrades for specific classroom purposes.

“Some of the classrooms being addressed are in the same condition they were a decade ago,” she said. “With this initiative we’ll be on track to meet contemporary expectations and future needs.”

Chancellor Phyllis M. Wise said the work “will directly affect the learning experience” at the UI. “These remodels are not simply about upgrading aging classrooms and labs; they are about ensuring our future.”

That future, Wise said, demands detailed campus discussions and strategic planning in an effort to produce the most effective classroom models that engage students.

“These spaces will allow us to address important questions in teaching and learning,” she said. “They will maximize a new blended learning model of lecture and online learning, and encourage collaboration and interaction in physical spaces that are functional, comfortable and inspiring.”

Leslie Hammersmith, e-learning analyst for Campus Information Technologies and Educational Services, said those conversations have already started.

“I’ve been working with a lot of different departments on campus talking about classroom spaces,” she said. “The question being asked is, ‘Are the technologies and space we have meeting the needs of our students?’ We talk a lot about the future of classrooms, but we have to work and plan to develop a vision for our campus.”

One of the leading “future classroom” ideas is playing out inside the Henry Administration building, Hammersmith said, where four classrooms have been converted to a flexible design that includes moveable furniture and multiple screens for students to plug in laptops for collaboration. This design allows a professor to configure the learning environment to his or her choosing and gives students an opportunity to interact more and control the technology.

The project is not connected directly to ISI, but the results have been positive, she said.

“When you start making such broad changes in the design of the classroom, you also have to start asking for changes in pedagogy,” she said. “You have to have a plan to be able to utilize it. You have to have faculty buy-in and it has to be as easy as possible to adapt. There are more and more courses where students could benefit from a new approach to classroom design.”

Reeser said ISI leaders are interested in the campus response to the new renovated spaces. A pilot project will include an innovative, technology-enhanced, active learning instructional space.

“We want campus to have the opportunity to be heard,” she said. “We want to make sure this initiative is in keeping with the university’s mission. Classrooms do not have to be four walls and a chalkboard.”

And while bold new ideas for active-learning classrooms are the expected outcome of the ISI project, Hammersmith said even some of the basic renovation work is beneficial to a student’s environmental perception.

“I want to see more innovations happen in our learning spaces,” she said. “But if the ceiling is falling down and the paint is cracked, it changes the way the space feels to a student. It affects them, and the research shows that.”

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