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Innovative WCCC classroom facilitates interaction, hands-on education

| Monday, Feb. 25, 2013, 12:03 a.m.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Westmoreland County Community College professor Dr. Kevin Kopper (center) works with freshman Adam DeMarchi of Ruffsdale during an early Western civilization class.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Westmoreland County Community College freshmen Jordan Ruggiero (left) of Greensburg and Joey Shodi (center) of Greensburg, work on research during an early Western civilization class.

Kevin Kopper buzzes from table to table in his history class at Westmoreland County Community College while students draw Roman warships on the classroom wall and search online for facts about the typical Roman family.

Kopper is among a handful of professors using a newly remodeled classroom in WCCC's Founders Hall who focuses on student interaction through group work and technology rather than traditional lectures and note-taking.

“Many of our students are digital natives. They were born after the technological revolution,” Kopper said. “The hardest thing (for teachers) is making the switch to student-centered learning” instead of direct instruction.

The SCALE-UP classroom is modeled after one developed by instructors at North Carolina State University who sought to “scale up” small, hands-on studio courses developed to teach physics, chemistry, math and engineering.

More than 150 universities around the world have adopted some form of the concept, including the University of Pittsburgh and Penn State's Erie campus, according to a list maintained by N.C. State.

WCCC's classroom, remodeled last fall for $178,000, can accommodate 30 students around five round tables, each with two desktop computer monitors and ports for students to plug in laptops, tablets or other devices.

The room features five flat-screen TVs with two additional projection screens that drop down from the ceiling. From a command center at the front of the room, professors can control all seven screens from a touch pad.

The room has no whiteboards or chalkboards. Instead, the classroom walls are coated in a beige paint that can be written on with dry-erase markers and easily wiped clean.

During a recent Ancient Western Civilizations class, Kopper assigned each table a different facet of early Rome to research. As students wrote notes on the wall, Kopper roamed the room offering guidance.

While each group presented notes to the class, Kopper projected an image on the room's screens that represented that topic and supplemented students' notes with details and tidbits.

“It makes (class) a lot more fun, playing with TVs and writing on the walls,” said Chris McDermott, 19, of Greensburg, one of Kopper's students. “I wish all my classes were like this.”

Research on the room's design showed better student retention and success rates, so “it made us comfortable spending that kind of money,” said Andrew Barnette, dean of public service, humanities and social sciences.

WCCC plans to track student retention in courses taught in the new room compared to course sections taught in traditional classrooms, he said.

Officials are considering converting more classrooms to SCALE-UP rooms, but no definite plans have been set, Barnette said.

The University of Pittsburgh has one SCALE-UP classroom in Thaw Hall and several similar rooms in other buildings on its Oakland campus.

The SCALE-UP room was started in 2007 using about $60,000 in grant funding and is used primarily by the physics and astronomy department, said Adam Leibovich, an associate professor and associate chairman of the department who set up the classroom.

Leibovich said the room accommodates 39 students at round tables with a laptop for each group of three students. It also features whiteboards, projectors and other physics lab equipment, such as motion sensors, stopwatches and low-friction tracks.

“Attendance was nearly 100 percent every day. It was very rare someone didn't show up,” Leibovich said. “The students were very engaged; they really had a good attitude about what they were doing, which is not always true with these big intro classes. ... They really were able to absorb the material better than in the big, normal, traditional lecture-style class.”

Kari Andren is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-850-2856 or kandren@tribweb.com.

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