About Chemistry, Environment, Waste Management and Green Life Inspirations

31 March 2010

Educating an engineer

The University of Pittsburgh has a new learning center for undergraduate chemical engineering students. The authors describe its innovative aspects and student and faculty reactions.
The Chemical and Petroleum Engineering Department at the University of Pittsburgh perceived a need to improve the existing classroom space to accommodate increased class sizes. A study team was formed in 1998 to identify classroom design options that would meet the department’s functional needs, based on the positive results that other universities had achieved by applying active and collaborative learning methods. The study team established the following design and operational goals for a new learning center:
  • facilitate and promote team-based classroom activities,
  • provide support for computer-facilitated classroom exercises consistent with active collaborative learning pedagogies,
  • ensure good visibility and interactivity between students and the professor,
  • be distinctive so that the students and the faculty would be proud of this unique asset, and
  • provide a central “hub” for the department’s students and faculty.
We started our program with extensive benchmarking of other universities that were using advanced classroom facilities. Many institutions helped form the database of “best practices”, but special thanks go to the Office of Planning Engineering and the Electrical Engineering Department, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) (1); the Chemical Engineering Department at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst (2); and the Center for Innovation in Engineering Education, Arizona State University (3). The willingness of these institutions to share their concepts, designs, and experiences was most helpful in the excellent outcome for the learning center. Its implementation was made possible through the generous support of Frank L. Mosier, an alumnus of the department. In appreciation of his support and leadership, it has been named the Frank Mosier Learning Center.
RPI’s experience (4) and that of the two other institutions we had benchmarked, as well as positive results from collaborative and active learning assessments that emerged from National Science Foundation–sponsored trials (5, 6), influenced the design of the layout and the audiovisual and computer systems.
In the course of benchmarking, several issues became “must do” priorities for the new learning center:
  • Good visibility. Many computer-facilitated classrooms have become burdened with computer monitors. Large computer screens sitting on top of tables can become a major impediment to visibility and interaction within the room. Meeting graphics and visibility needs was a high priority.
  • Good acoustics. CPU fans from many computers in a room can produce substantial background noise. Methods to reduce room background noise needed to be explored.
  • Ease of support. Hardware and software maintenance can be substantial for a facility with 30 or more PCs. Means to minimize the level of maintenance effort had to be examined fully.
  • Customized desktops. Whereas the preliminary list of software that the faculty requested was large (~24 different packages), the software required for any one class was small (1–5 packages). Customizing desktops for each class would be a desirable feature.
  • Minimal distractions. Because this was a classroom and not a computer lab, we wanted to minimize the distractions of e-mail and the Internet (except when desired by the instructor for a specific class).
  • Capacity. The operational needs of the department dictated that the learning center accommodate 75 students.
The center had four major design components: the room, the furniture, the computer system, and the audiovisual equipment.

Figure 1- photo of tinted window wall between learning center and 
Figure 1. Tinted window wall between the learning center and the hall (used at both entrances).

Figure 2- student desk with LCD monitors
Figure 2. Student desk with LCD monitors.
Figure 3 - podium showing control stations
Figure 3. Podium showing control stations.
Figure 4- photo of learning center
Figure 4. Overall view of the learning center.

The room

The existing classrooms that could be converted dictated the space available for construction of the learning center. The room is 30 ft deep × 65 ft wide. Part of the strategy to make the space unique and distinctive was to use tinted glass window walls adjacent to the entrances, as shown in Figure 1. Other elements of the redesigned room included raising the floor to accommodate the power and computer cabling to the desks and the podium and reconfiguring the HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) to meet aesthetic and operational needs. Acoustic panels were added to the ceiling to minimize echoes.


Early design decisions included the type and number of computers and the size and placement of monitors to meet the visibility requirement. The choice of computers and accessories had a substantial impact on the room layout and the furniture design.
The visibility requirement and, specifically, avoiding obstructions caused by monitors led the design team initially to consider monitors with nonglare glass tops built into student tables. Although this approach has been used successfully elsewhere, the additional requirement for promoting teamwork made the monitor-in-the-table approach unsatisfactory because of the difficulty of several team members peering into the “hole” in the table. Thin-screen LCD monitors were considered but deemed unsatisfactory because of the image and color distortion caused by viewing the monitors at an angle during team-based activities. This limitation was overcome when Acer View (San Jose, CA) offered an LCD monitor that has a 160° viewing range.
The availability of suitable thin-screen LCD monitors permitted the final design of the student desks, shown in Figure 2. The desk requirements included
  • accommodating five students (because of the room size and the need to have two- or three-person teams);
  • hosting two PC monitors, as well as the CPUs and peripherals (keyboard and mouse), and meeting the visibility requirements; and
  • providing writing space and storage space for the peripherals when not in use.
We decided on a commercially available telemetry system from Cybex (Huntsville, AL) so that the students’ CPUs could be located remotely. The Cybex units were installed under the students’ desks, one for each PC. These units permitted the remote location of the CPU and avoided having two CPUs at each table. (This remote location approach is discussed further in the following section.) The resulting student desk design fully meets the requirements for visibility, low noise (from computer fans), and the facilitation of teamwork and active learning via the PCs. The Cybex system also reduces the space requirements of accommodating 30 PCs in the learning center.
The podium had aesthetic and functional requirements; it was designed to complement the decor of the learning center and to house electronic equipment and the instructor’s PC (see Figure 3 and the following section).
The finished learning center is shown in Figure 4. The room was decorated with technical photography highlighting departmental activities.

Computer system

The basic computer system consists of 30 student PCs and an instructor’s PC. They all use the AcerView F51 LCD monitor and run under the Windows NT operating system. The overall configuration of the student PCs, the instructor’s PC, the server, and the network switch is shown in Figure 5.
The faculty was surveyed for software needs, and a suite of software was selected to meet the department’s requirements. Twenty-four software packages available in the learning center. The full complement of software is always available on the instructor’s PC, but the system was designed to have the desktop of the student PCs customized for each class. This ensured that only the software needed by an instructor is available for that class without other installed software that can distract students. The desktop can be modified by the system administrator to add or remove software for all 30 PCs in less than 5 minutes through the Novell Netware on the server.
Figure 5 - flow diagram
Figure 5. Configuration of learning center PCs and server.

Figure 6 - photo of pc room
Figure 6. Overall view of PC room.

Figure 7- picture of computer touch screen
Figure 7. Tech Electronics touch screen controller.
Netware provides several major functions. It allows login administration for individual classes, the instructor, and the system administrator. Most classes have a generic login for each class. File storage is via individual folders on the server, but not password-protected by individual students. For selected classes, where deemed appropriate, each student has an individual login. Netware also offers desktop management by class. The system administrator can create an account for each class. Then, by using ZenWorks, the administrator can add or delete any of the software packages available to the students in that class. Netware also provides file management, described later.
Remotely positioned computers. The student computers are not physically located in the learning center. Using the Cybex telemetry, the CPUs are in a separate room, as shown in Figure 6. The decision to place the PCs remotely was based on the concern about fan noise and limited space in the learning center. The configuration selected ensures adequate seating and workspace for five students at each table. This approach also minimizes the wear and tear on the PCs by the multitude of students who use them.
The file management system. The instructor can install files that are available to students on a read-only basis from a class-specific file folder on the server. The student can load the applicable file into the application (e.g., Microsoft Excel). Because the file is read-only, the students cannot save files to the location from which the file was opened. If a student tries to save work to the source file folder, a read-only designation appears.
Students can access template files that have been placed on the network by the instructor. After completing a classroom exercise, the students can save their work in the “student file” section on the server and transfer these files via the learning center network to their personal file space on the University of Pittsburgh’s UNIX timesharing system. This file export system is necessary because of the remote location of the PCs (no disk drives in the learning center). The arrangement has worked well. These file transfers are done with Ipswich WS-FTP software through the university LAN. A similar procedure can be used to transfer files into the learning center (e.g., homework).
Computer interaction. The podium is equipped with a touch-screen panel from Tech Electronics (Norcross, GA), so the instructor can set four modes of display and control the students’ PCs (see Figure 7):
  • Stand-alone: Each PC functions independently through the server and network switch as shown in Figure 5.
  • Instructor-to-student: The students’ monitors display what is on the instructor’s PC, and the students have no control of their PCs (Figure 8).
  • Student-to-instructor: A selected student’s PC also displays on the instructor’s PC (Figure 9). The instructor can optionally take control of that student’s PC to demonstrate the proper methodology on a problem.
  • Student-to-student: The work on a student’s PC is broadcast to the other students’ monitors at the instructor’s discretion (Figure 10).

Audiovisual system

The control aspects of the audiovisual system are built around a Crestron controller. Using the touch panel controller, the following functions are available to the instructor:
  • system power (main power, video projector);
  • lights—six lighting circuits are individually controlled for room illumination;
  • video source (document camera, VCR, video camera);
  • computer (podium PC, portable PC);
  • controller for 35-mm projector; and
  • audio system (microphone volume, program volume).
These are state-of-the-art devices and have served the needs of the faculty and students well.

Implementation, utilization, and reception

The students and the faculty have embraced the functional and aesthetic aspects of the learning center. One of the cultural outcomes that we strove for was an improved sense of community and better networking among students in the department; the behavior and feedback of the students clearly indicate that these goals have been achieved.
The faculty have adapted to the new instructional tools and opportunities for modified pedagogies. The learning center has only been operational for one year. Although each faculty member’s rate of adapting to the new system is different, essentially all have switched from the old overheads to Microsoft PowerPoint for visuals.
Beyond that, other changes include the use of Web-based lecture notes, which are delivered to each LCD monitor in the learning center, and full implementation of active learning, such as short lectures, in-class work on a PC-based problem (accessed by the students from the server), and group discussion of assignments.
The faculty continue to modify and adapt class format to make full use of the capabilities available. Formal evaluation of changes in learning and retention will be made on the basis of student assessments made before and after implementation of the learning center; preliminary qualitative feedback is very positive. Likewise, the faculty’s feedback has been quite positive.
The effort needed to support the advanced technology in the learning center has been minimal. A computer specialist is on contract for one day a week to make upgrades and changes to the computer system. Beyond several minor startup problems, the overall system has been essentially maintenance-free.

Early outcomes

We have completed two semesters and the summer session, and most of the department’s classes were held in the learning center. The database is relatively small in terms of quantitative assessment, but we can report some significant observations and trends.
The faculty have applied the new computer and audio visual facilities in the learning center in varying degrees. For classes in which a substantial transition to a cooperative or collaborative learning pedagogy took place, a review of student evaluations of the instructor showed that on average, the “overall” rating of the instructor increased by 15%, compared with previous evaluations by classes without the new capabilities. The most dramatic change was in the evaluation category “ability to solve engineering problems”, in which the average increase was almost 20%. Such changes are significant when the transition occurred in two adjacent semesters. A review of the ratings of the other instructors during the same time showed that no substantial change occurred in the ratings of those who used the new audiovisual capabilities but did not include cooperative and collaborative learning in their classes.
We requested student evaluations of the learning center, and these narrative assessments have been positive as well. They also identified some minor adjustments to improve functionality, which either have been implemented or are in progress.

Recommendations for further development

Because of the extensive and successful predesign benchmarking and the coordination of the design team with the faculty, the learning center has fulfilled all of the identified needs and expectations. If we had the luxury of selecting the dimensions of the room to be used, our preference would be to have a room that was deeper and narrower, that is, more nearly square.
Document cameras come in a wide range of resolutions. For optimal performance in an engineering environment, the highest resolution three-chip camera might be beneficial, but the $14,000 cost can be prohibitive. Alternative products to capture in-class lecture notes include electronic whiteboards and plasma screens. These devices must be reviewed to determine which approach best meets the needs of your students and faculty.
The Tech Electronics system’s ability to “broadcast” the instructor’s notes or slides to the students’ flat-screen monitors has been very successful. For an additional learning center in the School of Engineering at the university, the design team has eliminated the large-screen, high-intensity video projectors, so the only “projection screens” will be the students’ monitors. In the new room, the document camera has been replaced with a scanner and a plasma screen that the instructor can use for in-class writing.
Every institution will have different requirements and budgets that will dictate the approaches outlined here. However, we believe some issues are clear.
  • Cooperative and collaborative learning does improve students’ reception to materials presented. Other studies (4–6) have clearly shown that these pedagogical techniques also enhance students’ performance and their ability to apply new skills.
  • The available technology facilitates “active learning”; however, to realize the benefits, it is necessary that the faculty not be intimidated by new technology and overcome any reluctance to break typical engineering problems into 10- to 15-min “bits”.
  • To meet the needs and expectations of today’s students and faculty, the basic design concepts described here must be seriously considered.
  • The department has found substantial value in the new learning center and will share (at no cost) its design philosophy and implementation details with other departments. Please contact us to discuss possible collaboration.


  1. Maby, E.; Holmes, O.; Bequette, B. W.; Laplante, B. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY, personal communication, 1998.
  2. Malone, M. F. University of Massachusetts, Amherst, personal communication, 1998.
  3. Doaks, B. Arizona State University, Tempe, personal communication, 1998.
  4. Maby, E.W.; Carlson, A. B.; Connor, K. A.; Jennings, W. C.; Schoch, P. M. A Studio Format for Innovative Pedagogy in Circuits and Electronics. In Proceedings of the 27th Frontiers in Education Conference; IEEE, 1997; Vol. 3, pp 1431–1434.
  5. Felder, R. M.; Brent, R. Cooperative Learning in Technical Courses: Procedures, Pitfalls, and Payoffs; ERIC Document Reproduction Service, ED 377038, 1994.
  6. Felder R. M. J. Eng. Educ. 1995, 84, 361–367.

John N. Murphy is a visiting research professor at the University of Pittsburgh (Chemical and Petroleum Engineering Dept., School of Engineering, 1249 Benedum Hall, Pittsburgh, PA 15261; 412-624-9923; murphy@engrng.pitt.edu). His principal research interests are workplace and laboratory health and safety, advanced learning systems, and the application of computer-based training and virtual reality for improved and more cost-effective training. He received his B.S. degree in engineering from the University of Pittsburgh and his M.B.A. from Duquesne University; he is a Registered Professional Engineer.
Alan J. Russell is chair of the Chemical and Petroleum Engineering Dept.; Nickolas DeCecco Professor of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering; professor of molecular genetics and biochemistry at the University of Pittsburgh; and executive director, Pittsburgh Tissue Engineering Initiative Inc. (412-624-9631; russell@engrng.pitt.edu). His principal research emphasis is applied enzymology and tissue engineering. He received his Ph.D. in chemistry at Imperial College of Science and Technology, London.
Anthony B. Jones is a systems analyst and administrator at the University of Pittsburgh (Computing Services & Systems Development, 717 Cathedral of Learning, Pittsburgh, PA 15260, 412-383-9631; abj@pitt.edu). He received his B.S. degree in computer science from the University of Pittsburgh and is a Certified Novell Engineer. His work at Pittsburgh since 1991 has involved design, implementation, support, configuration, and migration of university computing systems and laboratories and management of technical staff.

cartoon of mechanic talking to scientist
"I see you've applied the team-based learning approach to your lesson on tensile strength."

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