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In Your Face

Hands-on interactive physics classroom sets a new standard for science education.

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Physics professor Michael "Bodhi" Rogers

“A truly smart classroom is where someone can be creative,” notes Michael “Bodhi” Rogers. Some people might not expect a physics professor to think in terms of creativity, but in this case they’d sell the professor short. Rogers not only thinks “outside the box,” he actually created the most innovative classroom space on campus.


Where last year there were two classrooms — with typical desks and chalkboards — and two storage closets, this year there are 11 round tables, each equipped with audio, data, and electrical outlets, plus Mac Powerbooks, in a comfortable room that can be divided in two. Each workspace allows students to create“learning communities” for three- to nine-person teams. Whiteboard panels line the room, doubling as sliding doors for cabinets containing equipment. The teacher’s space isn’t just at the head of the room: A wireless microphone and speakers allow the professor to lecture while moving around, stopping at student workstations — and engaging those students who might normally “play invisible” in a lecture hall.


Rogers and his colleague Luke Keller are the lead architects behind the new facility designed to promote “performance-based physics.” Built on successful models at some major research institutions, the room allows lecture, lab, and discussion to happen simultaneously and for the entire experience to be interactive. With this initiative, physics faculty members aim to propel Ithaca College to the forefront in student learning environments.


Through one of two technology-rich workstations, professors can beam notes or multimedia presentations to eight screens, and have students use transmitters to take quizzes. Just like on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, answers are displayed instantly. Students can gauge how well they’re learning, and collaborate on solving problems.


This enriches the learning experience, says physics faculty member Beth Ellen Clark Joseph. “You get students to work with each other to find the right answer.”


Adds Keller, “The first things you notice when you enter the room are the round tables, which enable student interaction. The high-tech aspects of the room were motivated by that layout.  If it were just another auditorium with the latest computer and audio-visual equipment, we would not be able to teach physics this way.”

With the work of facilities staff, the space was built with sustainability in mind. The carpet, ceiling tiles, desks, and chairs include recycled and recyclable material; the storage cabinets were salvaged. Extending the room’s lifespan even more is the College’s technology renewal program, which replaces campus computers and related equipment every three years.

Rogers (standing right), Luke Keller (standing left), and their colleagues are transforming physics treachingmostly by creating a space that's designed for collaboration and interaction.


Even so, the price tag for the facility and curriculum development nears the $.75 million mark. The College, the School of Humanities and Sciences dean’s office, and the physics department funded the effort, and the professors have submitted an application for a National Science Foundation grant for transforming introductory astronomy from a lecture course to an active learning course. To monitor the investment, the faculty will assess the learning environment. “We’re doing a controlled study,” explains Rogers, “to ensure that the room and curriculum lead to learning gains.”


Through technology, sustainability, and the ability to move lessons into students’ hands, Rogers believes he and his colleagues may have found the perfect combination for science education. “You’re allowing students to learn through more hands-on work,” Rogers says. “And when do you learn best? When it’s right in front of you.”

— J. R. Clairborne with Maura Stephens

Want to help Ithaca College science majors work on NASA projects, prepare for careers in medicine and technical fields, and conduct important research? The academic innovation campaign priority supports equipment purchases, curricular updating, and reconfiguring classrooms such as the new physics learning facility highlighted above. You can also support the Ithaca Fund for the School of Humanities and Sciences, which helps students to take internships and do collaborative research with faculty.

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