Physics faculty are taking a new approach to teaching, with a focus on team-based learning and data analysis.

They will take the traditional instructional model and flip it on its head, restructuring their courses in favor of interactivity—a change made possible by the new science classrooms on the fifth floor of Suffolk’s new academic building at 20 Somerset St.

“We are shifting to a less formal and more fluid way of learning,” said Professor Prashant Sharma, chair of the Physics Department. “It’s more enjoyable for students and, in the end, more effective for reaching learning objectives.”

Collaborative approach

Using a teaching model developed at North Carolina State University called “Student-Centered Active Learning Environment with Upside-down Pedagogies,” or SCALE-UP, students work together to gather and analyze data in-class and complete shorter assessments to receive immediate feedback.

Faculty have spent more than a year preparing to implement the SCALE-UP model, a dramatic change in teaching and learning made possible by the layout of the classrooms in 20 Somerset. Lab benches are replaced by movable tables and chairs so that small groups students can work together using equipment or solving problems on whiteboards.

The new format nullifies the concept of the “front of the room.” Three projectors allow for display of material and instructions throughout the room, doing away with the need for the professor to stay in one place. Instead, he or she will circulate through the room answering questions and providing instruction or one-on-one attention where needed.

Technology learning tools

Each classroom has a computer area where students can check in and have questions answered by instructors and teaching assistants. The new technology also allows students to interact with lab equipment using their smartphones. For example, students in the fall semester’s University Physics II courses will use the Magneto app to detect and measure magnetic fields.

“Today’s students are a lot more tech savvy, and it can be really exciting for them to use their smartphones to interact with equipment in a laboratory class setting,” said Sharma.

While select courses, such as Physics for Future Presidents, will make the jump to active learning starting this fall, some courses initially will be taught with a more traditional separation between lecture and lab. Gradually, using feedback from students and faculty, the department aims to eliminate traditional lectures and shift to teaching all material in an active learning environment.

“This will be completely new for many students, faculty, and administrators and we want to allow for some time to adjust,” Sharma said.

Universities using the SCALE-UP approach have seen students enjoying their courses more, with improved ability to solve problems, increased conceptual understanding, and reduced failure rates.

Sharma is introducing a completely new active learning course, The Life of Gems, this fall. The course will be entirely hands-on and involves microscopy and examination of crystal properties and growth.