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Engineers apply modeling techniques to classroom design

STANFORD -- To create the best possible learning environment for case-study courses, a team of architects and professors was charged with design and layout of the new classrooms in the Charles B. Thornton Center for Engineering Management.

The requirements:

  • Seating should be arranged in U-shaped rows;
  • To create an appropriate level of comfort and to avoid having the room feel either empty or crowded, the rows and seats should not be too far apart or too close together;
  • Professors should not be right on top of the students in the first row, but they should not be standing too far away;
  • All students easily should be able to see everything on the blackboard or video screen; and
  • To foster class discussion, students should be able to see as many of the other students as possible eye-to-eye without having to turn their bodies much.

To assist the design team's decision making, civil engineering graduate student Mark Clayton built a three-dimensional, computer-aided design model of the room.

The team considered the depth of the lecture pit; the size of the blackboard; the usefulness and visibility of side boards; how far out to bring the U; how best to incorporate the access ramp, etc.

Clayton's model allowed the team to study the sight lines from every seat in the room. The model was used, for example, to decide how large the front wall with the blackboard should be, that is, how far away it should be from the students.

A larger wall meant that more material could be presented at once, but a large wall might impair the sight lines for the students sitting at the edges, and its scale might be too overwhelming when compared to the rest of the room. A small wall, of course, might be too "dinky" and not allow instructors and students to present material in a format and size large enough to be easily visible from the back rows.

With the three-dimensional model it was easy for the team to get a feel for the room from a number of positions and to agree on the "right" size. The model also was useful in adjusting the slope of the classroom to not impair the projection of material from the audio-visual room in the back.

Of course, we won't know if the classrooms will be better learning environments as a result of the model until we begin using them this year. We know, however, that the model stimulated the imagination of the design team and allowed the team to reach a consensus more rapidly.



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