Smart Classrooms Give Instructors More Options

SOCORRO, N.M. February 1, 2013 – Not everyone at New Mexico Tech had the entire holiday week off of work. A few dedicated people spent the closure installing four new Smart Classrooms.

Thanks to federal Department of Education grants, Tech now features 18 high-tech interactive classrooms, plus 10 interactive Learning Lounges and one SmartLab.

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Dr. Dave Westpfahl in one of Tech's Smart Classrooms at the Distance Education studio.  Tech now has more than 20 Smart Classrooms in use.


The new Smart Classrooms are Weir 102, Weir 203 and Cramer 120. The fourth installation was in Weir 132, which serves as a “learning lounge” and collaborative work space.

Christy Neill, the Director of Strategic Planning and Resource Development for Academic Affairs, oversees the Title V programs. She said that for instructors who take advantage of the new equipment, the technology has had a profound impact on pedagogy.

“Teaching becomes very interactive,” she said. “Instructors can pull up a map, then draw on the map, then save those drawings and email them to students. They can work with split screens with side monitors and projectors. They can have PowerPoint going and go to a website without minimizing either one.”

Neill said New Mexico Tech has been extremely pro-active in upgrading technology compared to peer institutions.

“We are very progressive in our distance education capabilities,” she said. “We’re very interactive with students. It’s not just the professor on a stage in front of an audience. Thanks to our successes with federal grants, we’ve seen transformational changes in many of our classrooms and student lounges.”

Dr. Warren Ostergren, professor and chairman in the Mechanical Engineering Department, said he noticed an immediate increase in student interaction in class due to the new technology.

“Normally, we’d show slides during Senior Design Clinic,” he said. “With the SmartScreen, I can annotate the slides. I found immediately that it enhanced the discussion – by being able to write my notes on the slides. It gets students really involved. Two projectors get more information in front of them and gets them more engaged than before.”

Dr. Keith Miller, also of the Mechanical Engineering Department, said he too has found that students are more engaged in discussion when he can present more information via the dual projectors.

“The dual screens gives you more flexibility,” he said. “We can bring videos, download information from the Web or do PowerPoint slides. And you can emphasize points by writing on those screens. Also, if you teach a class more than once, updating old slides is a process of continuing improvement of the lecture material.”

Another obvious benefit of the technology is for distance students, who can interact in real time with their fellow students and the instructors.

Dr. Brian Borchers, math professor and director of the undergraduate Title V program, said students and professors have taken advantage of the lecture capture system.

“That’s a powerful feature that students are using,” Borchers said. “Students can go back and watch the lecture again. They just go to the web page and review the video. All the slides, all the videos, all the notes – they are all documented. Students aren’t so dependent on their notes. We are creating options. As an instructor, my preference is for students to use the lecture capture and pay more attention and interact, rather than copying stuff off the screen and not thinking about it.”

The lecture-capture system has other applications as well, Ostergren said. During the FAA Center of Excellence Conference last fall, several attendees were unable to leave the East Coast due to Hurricane Sandy.

“That was a really unique situation,” Ostergren said. “Our top level people from the FAA and industry were stranded on the East Coast. Because of our Smart Classroom, we were able to use Adobe Connect and they could attend the conference while still in Washington, D.C.”

Borchers and Neill both said the new technology is having a significant impact on students with disabilities. Students with vision impairment or learning disabilities are taking advantage of the lecture capture system. Some students have been provided the service of note-takers. That service is still available (since not all classrooms have lecture capture), but many have found that the lecture capture system is more useful. Students can stop, pause and rewind lectures at their leisure from their homes.

Another feature of the Smart Classroom technology is the AppleTV, which allows instructors to stream video wirelessly from an Apple computer, an iPad or even an iPhone. Also, students – or a group of students – can deliver presentations wirelessly from their iPads or Mac laptops.

“The idea is to get out of the mode where only instructors talk and present,” Borchers said. “These Smart Classrooms provide the tools to create a classroom environment of collaboration and group learning.”

Rachel Montoya of the Distance Education Division has overseen the purchasing and installation of the new technology. She said she has tried to make the new technology as simple as possible for professors to use.

“They can automate the lecture capture system,” she said. “It’s so automatic it’s scary. You can’t really mess it up. There’s a control panel and you choose your projector and content. It’s all straight-forward.”

Tech qualifies for a host of federal grants because the university achieved Hispanic-Serving Institution status in 2009. Since then, New Mexico Tech has secured federal grants totaling more than $10 million, which includes enough funding to modernize 24 classrooms, 21 learning lounges and the Cramer 114 SmartLab. Tech will continue to pursue federal and state funding for additional technology upgrades.

Neill said she welcomes input from faculty members about continued installations and even newer technologies that may become available.

Montoya said, “Looking forward, I think every classroom will have these features eventually. This is the direction of the future.”

– NMT –

By Thomas Guengerich/New Mexico Tech