Faculty for the 21st Century

Observations of Learning Environments

PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century members describe what their classrooms and other learning environments might look like to a visitor—emphasizing the unique aspects of these environments that cause them to become successful places for student learning.

If a visitor were to come into your classroom/lab—the environment in which you work with students—what impression would s/he leave with?

Presented below are responses from members of the PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century. The full interviews with these F21 members are also available.


A good friend of mine describes my teaching laboratory as “organized chaos”, and I guess this sums it up pretty well. To the passerby, it might appear as though I have a bunch of students “goofing off”, talking a lot and not sitting quietly at their lab benches doing their assigned task. But if that passerby stayed for fifteen or twenty minutes, they would come to realize that the students were actively engaged in the scientific enterprise – formulating hypotheses, designing and conducting controlled experiments to seek answers to scientific questions based in a real-world context. Likewise, they would find the classroom filled with active and engaged learners discussing concepts rather than “being lectured to”. They would probably mumble to themselves “This class is having too much fun to be learning anything”. (Actually I’ve had a few faculty peek in to see what was happening). For example, in my Biochemistry class, metabolic pathways are discussed in the context what the students ate in the morning and what energy drinks they use to help them through finals week.

Jeanne Andreoli


A visitor might very well leave wondering whether I was teaching and if the students were learning since students would be talking, getting out of their seats to talk with other groups. Students work in informal groups on problems that are difficult for individuals to answer. If the visitor stayed for the whole period they might see me give a mini-lecture of 8-10 minutes and then follow up with a series of multiple-choice questions using a student response system (clickers). Students and I cheer when most of them get the answer right, but if a number of them gave the incorrect answer, small groups discuss why one answer is better then the other and then I poll the class for their interpretations. Sometimes their explanations convince me to change the answer.

William Bromer


I teach organic chemistry in a community college. It is one of the more difficult courses that our students take and their experience in the classroom can influence their decision to pursue further STEM education. My awareness of this does have a significant bearing on what happens in my classroom.

I endeavor to transmit to students the excitement and opportunities in STEM studies and careers (as do all STEM faculty). In addition, I show students that there is a logic to organic chemistry and provide them with the necessary practice so that their problem solving skills develop incrementally. I have noticed that as student’s problem solving skills develop, so does their confidence and interest in the class.

My classes are usually held in a computer lab with a seating arrangement that facilitates group work and interaction. I go over main concepts but most of the instructional time is spent applying these concepts to solve assigned problems. Students work in groups in solving these problems after which they present their solutions to the class. Often, the problems pertain to real-life applications and are in the form of case studies. The focus of the discussion is the reason/logic for a particular proposed solution. I ensure that each student has an active role in these discussions and takes turns in presenting.

Moreover, I strive to make connections with each student in the class so that he/she would feel comfortable discussing (with me) their strengths and areas for improvement and committing to implementing a plan of action to remedy the latter.

I hope that a visitor would leave with the impression that many students have of my classroom: a place where learning occurs in nurturing and supportive environment, a place where there is sometimes excitement but mainly hard work, a place where there is noticeable growth, a place where students look forward to attending and a class that heightened their awareness of their potential for further STEM studies an a possible STEM career.

Brahmadeo Dewprashad


Two thoughts:

  • That lectures/classrooms need to be more like labs and less like museums, where artifacts and ideas are on display without further examination.
  • The learning for many students follows the pattern of structured chaos which often follows the pattern of neural networks or student mental models. I would like the visitors to leave with the impression that I’m trying to pry into the mental models of students in order to forge deep and sincere connections between what they know, what and how they think and what is really important about science and learning science. Another impression that visitors to our classroom might have is that of a dressing room, where we take clothes/ideas to try them on, examine them, see how they fit, why they fit (or not)? So many new scientific ideas are imperfect or not completely understood. So, to carry the analogy forward: when is it okay to buy a pair of pants that fits in the waist, but is the wrong length? It is important to ask that question, because that is the world in which we live.

Terence Favero


That I really like to interact with and engage my students in the classroom and lab, but particularly in the classroom, where interaction isn’t the norm. And it isn’t just about creating a climate, but about establishing a genuine give and take in the process of teaching and learning, and conveying to my students that I’m always learning in the process of teaching.

Lilia Harvey


That depends on the class and the time of the semester, though all of my classes include collaborative learning. In my lower division classes, a visitor would leave with the impression that while students are being guided through the maze of statistics and research methodology, they are also encouraged to explore and to make decisions on their own. I would hope that a visitor would see gentle correction along with plenty of support and encouragement liberally mixed with realistic and high expectations and lots of hard work.

In my upper division classes, a visitor would leave with the impression that the students are being prepared for graduate-level and professional work. No one gets to hide behind a textbook. All students are expected to read and understand primary source materials, contribute in a meaningful way (which we define early in the term) to class discussion and designing the experiments we conduct, and take responsibility for their learning.

Andrea Karkowski


The environment I work in is constantly changing, as much of my teaching takes place with both high school and college students in a variety of settings. Thus, the most important environment is not a physical one, but an affective one. The impression of a visitor would be one of a group of learners engaged in a particular task or exploration.

They're both mastering the material at hand and having some fun; it is noisy and sometimes chaotic, but there is an underlying sense of concentration. It is also an environment where there is technology at hand, but the technology is being used to solve a problem, not just for the learning of particular technology skills.

Robert Kolvoord


In the classroom they would encounter a “lecture” environment that tries to incorporate as much recent research as possible. I try to provide the historical basis for the particular subject at hand and show them how it is being applied to unanswered questions that will affect their life. I especially remind them of all of the unanswered questions that their generation will begin to answer. In the laboratory I have tried to blur the boundaries between my research lab and my teaching laboratory. I have students work on primary research that is ongoing in my lab as part of their course work. It gives them insight into how what they learn is applicable to the world of biomedical research as well as provides them with a lab experience in which the “answers” are unknown. I am hoping that this approach will help to “hook” some students early and get them excited about research.

Christopher Korey


I would hope they would see a community of learners all working with the material to gain a better understanding of it. I think of myself like Old Toby, the Shoshone Indian guide who brought Lewis and Clark through the treacherous, confusing parts of the Rocky Mountains. He got them lost a few times, but together with his knowledge of the area, they got through. My classes and labs are like that. I know the area, but I don't know every single part of every place. I bring an expertise, but not all the answers. My students work with real-world ambiguity. In the end they learn a great deal about testing the ideas in class through experimentation, but I don't teach the same class the same way each year because the students choose some of the route.

Timothy Lewis


I would hope that a visitor would leave with the impression that everyone is able to learn mathematics. They would see every student being active sometime during the course of the class. Whether it was working in a group to solve one of the problems, or working up on the board, participating in an in-class lab activity, every one should have felt a part. My goal is for every student over the course of a semester to walk away with knowing that math can be exciting, fun, and relevant to them.

Cynthia Martin


In our introductory physics lab they'd see students engaged in multiple, open-ended experiments designed to highlight the processes of the scientific enterprise as well as particular content. For example, in one part of the lab they might see three different kinds of pendulums being investigated, next to a pair of students exploring the physics of music, next to a pair looking at material crystal structures using the latest software, next to another pair measuring waves on a wire. Hopefully the impression they would take away would be one of curiosity and energy, and of course, community: people having fun together. They might also take note of the power of peer leaning that emerges from such a structured but open-ended set of diverse experiments taking place simultaneously.

Elizabeth McCormack


Hopefully the visitor would see that we are a group of colleagues working together to learn, a collaborative effort. In the classroom I might know more of the content than my students, but I would still be learning from them as they ask interesting questions, questions I had never considered. In the lab she would see us working together, sharing ideas. I spend as much time listening to my research students as advising them about ways to proceed.

Janna McLean


Very student-centered and learning-centered. Lots of question and answers among peers and with the instructor. Enthusiastic and active learning and diverse teaching strategies. Multiple intelligences and learning styles being addressed.

Allison Morrison-Shetlar


Thinking and asking questions are used more than watching and taking notes during class time.

James Napolitano


One of my main objectives in creating a learning environment is to make the excitement of discovery alive, so I would hope that the impression of a visitor would be of students and instructor excited about learning and comfortable with each other in the discovery process. The visitor would see students smiling, students asking questions, students questioning me. They would also see me pushing the students to move beyond the simple answer, pushing them to move beyond a quick "I don't know". And, they would see an instructor who was always trying new approaches to engage the students and to help them understand the material.

Wally Shriner


A visitor would see students working together and actively engaged in learning cell and molecular biology. S/he would observe a student-centered gathering where students learn through questioning and discussing molecular biology. In my laboratory, a visitor would witness my personal attention to all of my students as they conduct biological research using the latest lab equipment.

Robert Shurina


The classroom consists of five round tables, five blackboards around the room, a receiver for PRS clickers, a projection system for PowerPoint, DVD, whatever, and ten laptop computers (two for each table). If the visitor was a student fifteen years ago or more, her response would be “that’s not anything like the way I learned physics (or chemistry)!” After watching a brief PowerPoint presentation covering the main points, laced with two-minute questions answered using PRS clickers, the students would turn to their teams to work on, discuss, and debate, a particular set of questions. They would be working at the blackboards. I would be walking around, eavesdropping, and making cryptic statements. The first impression is total chaos and confusion. But stick around. Towards the end of the 75- minute session, the visitor would see quite a few satisfied students feeling as if they knew something they did not know 75-minutes prior. Even more interesting, the observer might feel that way, as well.

David Statman


In the classroom, I use an interactive-style of instruction in order to promote active learning, even when I’m “lecturing”. Whenever possible, I use a seminar format where students share in the exploration of material and take on roles as group leader/facilitator or group participant based on the nature of the material. At the same time, didactic moments occur, and I shift into “lecture mode”. My students are empowered to call me out on this (e.g., “Dr. Velkey, you’re LECTURING again!”) and shift the nature of instruction back to a more active and participatory style if they so desire. Visitors would also be struck by the extent to which my pedagogy is “low-tech” (my nickname is “Dr. Chalk”). While I am certainly no Luddite, I find that the use of a variety of “high tech” approaches to instruction (e.g. Powerpoint, interactive video, etc.) place an extremely high burden on me in terms of preparation time, and overconstrain the extent to which I follow a lesson plan. This is most certainly a failure on my part…others can and do use technology quite effectively in the classroom (and I do as well in certain courses).

My laboratory is a different place. In addition to being a place for research, I carve out space for the students wherever I can. Students in my lab are encouraged to decorate the facility with their own selection of artwork, etc. I have a small room in one corner where a computer workstation is set up next to a mini-fridge where students can store drinks and snacks. My laboratory is much “higher tech” (computers, video monitors, digital video cameras, etc.) and students are expected to master the use of the variety of technologies in the lab. My interaction with students in my lab is quite different than in the classroom (which requires some adjustments for lab students who have previous or concurrent experience with me in the classroom). In order to move a student assistant up to the level of collaborator (or at least “para-collaborator”) as quickly as possible, I shift from teaching to “mentoring”. Students in my lab are instructed more as apprentices than as “students”; I find this to be an ideal learning situation in which the laboratory apprentice quickly takes on a much greater level of responsibility and ownership for their own learning— it is much more interactive, dynamic, and collaborative as we learn together about the phenomena of interest in the lab. As a result, I feel that my experience with students in my laboratory is much more organic---visitors to my lab would say that, as a place, it is much more “alive” than my classroom.

Andrew Velkey


They are typically surprised / amazed with the level of energy and enthusiasm shown both by the professor and the students. Whether in the teaching or research environment, it is one of being engaged and challenged. Students work together, they ask questions, and they are excited about their accomplishments.

Mark Wallert


Students learn better if they were motivated and after their questions were answered. So my students have plenty time to ask questions. My lectures are given with careful explanations, logical organization, and good sense of humor. I use real world applications to motivate students. I am especially interested in examples that happened on the campus and in the areas they live. For example, to teach geometric sequences, I begin with the deadlines at Oakton.

ActionsDeadlinesSequence, 2n, n = 0, 1, 2, 3,...
Drop a class with 100% refund Week 11=20
Drop a class with 50% refundWeek 22=21
Drop a class without “w” on transcriptWeek 4 4=22
Drop a class with “w” on transcriptWeek 88=23
Finish a semesterWeek 1616=24

Tingxiu Wang


I would hope the visitor would that every session has students generating something that becomes the basis of a discussion by them or by the whole class. In a lab this may be data to share; in a lecture it would be the results of a worksheet. They come to look at each other for information, and I become the source of the assignment and the place to turn for guidance.

Donald Wink


Read more from interviews with these F21 members. Continue »