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Jennifer Momsen, associate professor of biological sciences at North Dakota State University, teaches in an Active Learning Classroom in NDSU's A. Glenn Hill STEM Center Building. The classroom's set up is based on a collaborative learning approach. IMAGE: NDSU

Region's colleges revamp classrooms, methods to create 'innovation ecosystems'

GRAND FORKS, N.D. – Consider the insulin pump.

To develop a modern insulin pump, professionals from several disciplines must work together, said Les Olive, director of campus planning at South Dakota State University in Brookings, S.D.

The task needs physicians to set dosages, mechanical engineers to build a pump, electrical engineers to power that pump and computer engineers to etch the unit’s controls onto a chip.w

“And the thing is, modern agriculture problems need the same kinds of relationships,” Olive said.

“For example, you need plant scientists, soil scientists, engineers and computer scientists to come together to find a way to administer herbicide in a more precise and controlled fashion than has been done before.”

That’s why SDSU’s new Raven Precision Agriculture Center is being designed with collaboration in mind, said Olive and John Killefer, dean of the SDSU College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences.

So, faculty members will be officed next to professors from other disciplines, not their own. Classrooms will sit students facing each other, not the front.

And students moving between those classrooms will traverse common areas, not hallways. Food, whiteboards and comfortable seating in the common areas will encourage more interaction.

“We’re talking about our facility as an innovation ecosystem,” Killefer said.

“We’re trying to get folks from multiple disciplines, as well as students, to address a common problem and attack it from multiple directions. ...

“We want people to mingle and share ideas.”

Colleges and universities throughout the Prairie Business region want the same. And for students, the college experience that’s resulting is very different than the one their parents may have encountered.


Consider a biology classroom at North Dakota State University, a classroom whose design – called SCALE-UP – captures the difference between old and new.

SCALE-UP stands for Student Centered Active Learning Environment with Upside-down Pedagogies, said Jennifer Momsen, associate professor of biological sciences. And unlike many acronymed academic endeavors, this one represents real change.

In SCALE-UP classrooms, students sit at round tables of about nine students each. That’s the first thing a visitor who’s used to a traditional classroom notices.

The second thing: Very little lecturing is happening, even for courses that used to be delivered in lecture form.

Instead, “we’re talking about a ‘flipped classroom,’ in which students learn the basic material outside of class,” Momsen said.

“So, they’re coming to class prepared.” Then in class, Momsen probes to gauge students’ mastery of the material, delivers “mini-lectures” on key points and assigns problems, which the students usually solve in groups.

Which brings up the third thing a visitor notices: how often students use whiteboards to diagram what they’re doing.

The SCALE-UP system works, Momsen said.

“There has been a lot of research looking at collaborative learning, and it has found that learning is a social activity,” she said.

“So, anytime we can talk to each other, we’re going to learn better. … We get bored if we listen to a lecture for too long. But if we can pause to talk our ideas out with a neighbor, it goes a long way toward keeping us engaged.”

By the way, the largest SCALE-UP installation in the world is at the University of Minnesota, according to

That U of M facility boasts “10 Active Learning Classrooms ... holding anywhere from 27 to 126 students,” the website reports.

“One third of all Minnesota undergraduates took a class in one of the new rooms within a year of opening.”

Engineering collaboration

Consider the charge given by engineering firms: Send us engineers who know their fields, can solve real-world problems and work well on teams.

The University of Mary in Bismarck, N.D., designs its program to do just that.

Currently, the university offers engineering degrees in partnership with the University of North Dakota. The renovation of an existing building into a full-scale, on-campus School of Engineering will start in the spring.

Linking the current and future programs will be a focus on collaboration, said Terry Pilling, engineering program director.

“For example, our faculty don’t have separate offices,” he said.

“We have one big office that’s used by all of our engineering faculty from all of the different disciplines. … So there is constant collaboration among the members of our department.”

Likewise, there are whiteboards “all over the place,” both inside and outside of class. In fact, “we don’t have any classes where students sit at a traditional desk and watch a PowerPoint presentation, for example. They’re on their feet and active much of the time.”

Furthermore, “our senior design projects are combined,” Pilling said.

Engineering students across America complete senior-year projects, typically in their own field.

“And we have design projects at lower levels – junior design projects – that work like that.

“But in our program, our seniors have to design projects that involve all of the different engineering specialties,” Pilling said.

“They delegate tasks depending on each others’ expertise, and then the whole thing comes together, which is basically the way the real world works.”

Innovation in medical education

And consider this: From their first days of medical school at the University of North Dakota’s School of Medicine and Health Sciences, prospective doctors see patients.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of that change.

“When I was in medical school, we had almost 100 percent lectures for our first two years, and the educational experience was focused on teaching,” said Dr. Joshua Wynne, the UND school’s dean.

“That teaching consisted of a ‘data dump’ from from the professor’s mind to the students’ minds, and the criterion of success was memorizing facts.”

Fast forward to today, when “the focus is on the learning that the students do, which is active and collaborative. … What our students now learn is how to work with each other, and how to use each other to both formulate questions and then access data sources to get answers.”

Three quick examples:

  • First, “I greet the students on their first day of medical school, and at 9 a.m., I present a patient dilemma to them,” Wynne said.

“They work on the case, which involves a child. … Then they meet Ben, who was the child and is now a student at UND. They chat in the auditorium with Ben, and he tells them about his experience.

“This is a dramatic change from the way I learned,” Wynne said.

  • Second, “the first time I delivered a baby, it was with a real mother and a real baby, with a full doctor standing behind me,” Wynne said.

“That’s not the way our students learn now. They go into a simulation laboratory, where a manikin can ‘give birth.’ The students can deliver the baby and practice with the manikin before they ever treat a real-life patient.”

By the way, these manikins can blink, talk, cry and have a cardiac arrest in front of the student, Wynne said. “All of that can be programmed in.”

Live actors from the community sometimes play the role of patient, too. “Then we ask those ‘patients’ to grade the student on the interaction,” Wynne said.

“One time, the ‘patient’ said to the student, ‘Sarah, I just want to tell you that when you gave me the bad news, you put your hand on my shoulder, and that made all the difference to me because you established that human contact. Keep that up.’”

Sarah won’t soon forget that advice and likely will follow it throughout her career, Wynne said.

  • Third, the changes extend to the school’s new building, which opened in 2016.

“Again, when I went to medical school, there was a separate building that was the library,” Wynne said.

“It was many stories high, and it was filled with thousands of journals and books.”

In the medical school’s new building, in contrast, the library consists of six linear feet of books.

“Now let me emphasize, we still have the same number of librarians,” Wynne said.

“It’s just that they are embedded with the students and the faculty, helping them or teaching them to do searches of the literature that’s available online.”

The bottom line is that if students simply are memorizing facts, “they’re going to be behind the eight ball,” Wynne said.

“That’s because the facts change. We refine our recommendations based on new knowledge. And the best way to have continual learning is to make students aware of that, so they can access that data and those findings and incorporate them into their practices.”

Tom Dennis

Editor, Prairie Business