Students help design UBC learning

A new Learning Commons at the Faculty of Land and Food Systems

As a child growing up with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), Stephen Ford, a recent graduate at the Faculty of Land and Food Systems (LFS), understands better than most the importance of creating unique physical learning spaces for individual student needs.

“It’s hard to overestimate the significance of a space to students,” says Ford. “I strongly believe a study space should be designed to suit the diverse needs of individual students.” He adds that he tends to learn better in a semi-private space with some background noise.

Since 2007, Ford has worked with a team to design the new Learning Commons at LFS, which will open its doors to students this fall.

The Learning Commons will serve primarily as a space for problem-based learning classes during the day, while the area becomes an informal study space after hours. Located on the third floor of the H.R. Macmillan Building, the space includes 12 study rooms called pods that have internet access, frosted glass walls and whiteboards. An interesting design feature is the western wall, which is coated with a special paint to make it a whiteboard. Sliding doors in another area allow the space to be opened up to accommodate larger groups and the entire space is open above the walls.

“I spent a lot of time listening to fellow students and discussing their visions for the new space,” Ford says. He visited classrooms to gather input from students, set up a WebCT group within his classes, and presented ideas at planning committee meetings with faculty and staff. He even brought students to the space for some product testing of chairs to solicit their opinions.

“Students will identify with this space,” says Ford. “It is encouraging when you feel supported in this way.”

The Learning Centre also at the Faculty of Land and Food Systems has played a significant role in the project’s development by creating a study space that fosters innovation through education. The centre provides the faculty with cutting edge teaching and learning tools such as WebCT, problem-based learning, ePortfolios, along with video, graphics and new-technology support.

“Traditional classrooms often impede face-to-face contact,” says Brent Skura, associate professor at LFS and program director, Global Resource Systems. “The Learning Commons will facilitate problem-based learning and students teaching each other as it encompasses areas for small and large groups.” He says the space is part of a longstanding initiative at the faculty to create an active community of learners, faculty, teaching assistants and others.

Engineering curriculum

In December 2008 as Chris Bazett finished up his undergraduate coursework in civil engineering, he heard his department would be redeveloping its curriculum the following month.  “I told them this was a subject that fascinated me and I was soon hired to administer the revamp,” he says.

But not just any revamp. Bazett’s task was to engage the entire department in the redevelopment, while also seeking collaboration from the student body. He describes his full-time role as “bridging the gap” between students and faculty.  “This level of activity, and support at the faculty level, has not been seen before,” he says. He adds past redevelopment activities were driven from the sides of people’s desks with no sustained focus.

“Students are really happy we are doing this,” says Barb Lence, Bazett’s supervisor, civil engineering professor and associate head of undergraduate programs who has been given a temporary release from teaching to oversee the revamp. Lence was instrumental, along with Reza Vaziri, department head, in recognizing the importance of the curriculum reform and in creating an opportunity for Bazett to help out. “We are so fortunate to have him as the middleman between faculty and students because he can see outside the box and bring a deeper level to our discussions,” adds Lence.

Other duties Bazett is engaged in include making recommendations about the curriculum redevelopment process, and facilitating coordination and communication among committee members.

Part of the restructuring is focused on filling in the gaps by offering more electives for students and more integrative design courses at second, third and fourth years. These courses will allow students to draw on what they learned from other courses, see interrelationships between courses, and understand their relevance to real-world engineering problems.

This focus was echoed by students at the end of last term, when they filled out a detailed survey developed by Bazett. The survey sought to capture their experience and generate ideas about ways to make the program’s curriculum more student-centred, so there is a shift from a traditional emphasis on the subject matter itself to what is being learned.

“Students like coming to me because although I am no longer a student, the student experience is still fresh in my mind,” he says. “The students can relate to me and feel comfortable relaying their views, anecdotes, and sometimes they express a concern about things that worked or didn’t.”

In May, the department conducted its annual two-day retreat. This year the focus was on curriculum redevelopment.  “I had at hand ready examples to share with faculty during the retreat,” says Bazett. “These real-life experiences help professors to better understand the student perspective.”