To build a better classroom, design, test, repeat

Benedict 101 was renovated for the 21st century.
Benedict 101 was renovated for the 21st century.

In 1902 the architectural drawings for the proposed Sweet Briar Institute were allegedly placed on display in the window of a Lynchburg business where, the Lynchburg News reported, ” … they can be seen by all persons who may be interested in the best of architecture and modern ideas for educational institutions.”

Among the four original buildings in lead architect Ralph Adams Cram’s plans was one called Academic. Since renamed Benedict Hall, it was the College’s first classroom building.

Today, all who may be interested in modern ideas for educational spaces can peek inside Benedict 101.

This fall the room was transformed based on the collective ideas of those eminently qualified to know what makes an ideal space for teaching and learning in the digital age. Nearly half of Sweet Briar’s faculty responded to a survey by the Instructional Technology Committee asking for input on the design of a pilot classroom.

“The intent was to design a baseline configuration that has everything we would expect a classroom in the 21st-century to have,” said committee chairman Spencer Bakich, an assistant professor of international affairs. “And to make it as cost efficient as possible.”

Benedict 101 is one of several pilot projects ongoing as part of a strategic planning process in which good ideas are being put into action immediately, along with mechanisms to evaluate their effectiveness. In the coming months, the classroom’s design will be evaluated, improved and, importantly, replicated elsewhere on campus.

The underlying philosophy for doing so is the recognition that the quality of learning is influenced and judged by the environment in which it occurs.

“The classroom, as a center for interaction between faculty members and students, should support the energy, creativity, and joy of teaching and learning,” says Jo Ellen Parker, president of the College. “Cleaner, fresher surfaces and colors, flexible and student-centered furnishings, and options that allow each group of students to use the space as organically as possible all help create that positive energy.”

Indeed, flexibility was at the top of the faculty respondents’ wish list. To that end, lightweight, fold-down tables on casters are easily rearranged or moved out of the way entirely to go from a lecture to conference to a working-group set up in minutes. An interactive smart board and widescreen TV on facing walls allow simultaneous projection of media visible from either side of the room.

Professors said they wanted more usable wall space, so much of it is covered by white boards that are layered four deep. “Huddle boards” go from wall to table for group collaborations and back again, although tack strips and map clips weren’t overlooked. The students’ chairs — orange, modern “node” chairs from Steelcase — swivel and roll for maximum mobility and they’re equipped with storage trays underneath for backpacks.

The chairs are easy to clean, too — one of the myriad practical details considered by the committee, which included academic technology coordinator M.J. Stinnette and academic technology trainer Tom Marcais from the integrated information systems department, SBC purchasing director Cindy Ponton and assistant professor of international relations Padmini Coopamah.

The bamboo flooring was selected for its durability and environmental sustainability. The bright but warm spice-colored latex paint is low in volatile organic compounds, the electronics are Energy Star certified, and the furnishing materials are majority recycled and recyclable, including the roller shades designed to prevent heat loss and gain.

Even the hydraulic-lift Airtouch dual desk and podium is 69-percent recycled. “Of all the things [we bought], that was my favorite,” said Stinnette, despite being responsible, along with Marcais, for satisfying the second highest design priority: packing it with as much technology as practical and in such a way that it stays organized and working reliably.

They installed a wall-mounted “rack” that houses a power supply, clicker, an array of audio and video input and output devices and a Mac Mini computer that controls all of it. The rack swings out from the wall so key-carrying authorized personnel can access the cable connections in the rear compartment, but users can only get to the unlocked front panel — where a list of instructions tells them what buttons to push.

Stinnette said the rack system is already being implemented in other classrooms. “It’s part of an ongoing process to standardize and organize audio-visual equipment to create more reliability — so we don’t have any more problems with cables being moved to another room or disconnected and professors not able to start class on time.”

Another cabinet stores external devices, such as a webcam for video conferencing and a document camera for projecting notes on screen.

President Parker funded the Benedict 101 pilot through a discretionary grant from the Mellon Foundation. Sweet Briar’s development office is actively seeking new funding to renovate seven additional classrooms.

“As we learn what works and what doesn’t, we look forward to planning similar renovations to other learning environments on campus,” Parker said.