Collaborating with Users to Design Learning Spaces: Playing Nicely in the Sandbox

min read
  • Keeping an open mind on how to redesign unused spaces — including theaters and swimming pools — can help a campus obtain additional classroom space.
  • Collaborating across campus can help generate funding and implementation of experimental classroom designs like the Clemson sandbox.
  • Building flexibility into a classroom design allows incorporation of new technologies as they come along.

What should a campus do when it needs more learning spaces but can’t construct new buildings? Dr. Benjamin Sill’s first task when he became the director of Clemson University’s general engineering program was to find space for classrooms and for the advising program. His search ended in the old YMCA building (Holtzendorff Hall), where space was available — but all of it in serious need of renovation. By tightening the general engineering budget and with help of the dean of the College of Engineering and Science, the old movie theater was converted into a classroom, the old basketball gym into an engineering project lab, and the old ballroom into a SCALE-UP classroom (Student-Centered Activities for Large Enrollment Undergraduate Programs; for more information, see and Needing additional space, Sill focused on the abandoned swimming pool that first opened in 1918, which was full not of water but of broken furniture. While some just shook their heads, Sill began to envision a new life for this space.

Holtzendorff HallMovie Theater01c 100_HoltzGymHoltzendorff LabHoltzendorff ClassPoolPool Two

Renovation of rooms in Holtzendorff Hall transformed a movie theater into a classroom, a gym into a lab, and a ballroom into a SCALE-UP classroom, with an abandoned swimming pool the next target.

How We Imagined It, with Technology in Mind

While Sill, who had become chair of the Department of Engineering and Science Education, and Dr. Elizabeth Stephan, who had become director of the general engineering program, talked with facilities and the Provost’s Office about design and budgets to renovate the swimming pool, a multidisciplinary group was meeting on the other side of campus. This group, called the Teaching with Technology Community (TwTC), began meeting for an hour each week in fall 2002, starting with only three people representing computer science, mathematical sciences, and experimental statistics, and one person in a dual role representing English and CCIT (Clemson Computing and Information Technology). The group’s original purpose was to explore pedagogically sound ways to integrate laptops into the classroom. Since then, TwTC has grown to more than 80 faculty, staff, and graduate and undergraduate students representing nearly 30 academic disciplines, several deans’ offices, the Rutland Center for Ethics, the Office of Teaching Effectiveness and Innovation, the libraries, student disabilities services, and additional CCIT areas. The scope has evolved as technology and interests have changed over the years. Often spin-off groups form around a specific technology; for example, a spin-off group now focuses on Second Life.

At the TwTC’s first meeting each fall, members brainstorm on where they want to focus their attention that year. In fall 2006, everyone rallied around the idea of designing and installing a teaching with technology experimental classroom that would be available to faculty from all disciplines. Although Stephan was not at the meeting, as a member of TwTC she received the minutes and noted the TwTC’s need for a shared classroom space that could be renovated. This article tells the story of how the old swimming pool became the Holtzendorff Teaching with Technology Experimental Classroom, or what most of us call “the sandbox classroom.”

How We Did It, Thanks to Collaboration

Finding the necessary funding to renovate space is always a challenge, but especially during these hard economic times. As I have talked to colleagues around the country about Clemson University’s renovation of an abandoned swimming pool, I’ve learned that a surprising number of colleges and universities have abandoned swimming pools that could be renovated into usable space. While many people have good ideas about new uses for their old pools (or some other now unusable space), everyone asks how we funded our project. Cost seems to be the one issue that stops people before they get started.

Our experience at Clemson leads me to suggest that colleges and universities are uniquely positioned to benefit from collaboration of their own faculty, staff, and students, who bring to the table many areas of expertise — a huge knowledge base, in fact. They also represent different disciplines and organizations, all with potential sources for funding. Together, they provide a collective voice that can carry more weight than their single voices with those who control university-level funding or external funding.

Of course, we all dream of projects where we simply describe what we want and someone else goes and makes it happen. The truth is that renovations to any space take a lot of people, a lot of talent, a lot of time, and a lot of money. The good news is that on all of our campuses we already have a lot of talented people willing to give their time to a project that will meet their needs and to use their influence to find portions of the necessary money.

In our case, the generosity of Sill and Stephan, as well as others associated with the general engineering program, was instrumental. They had the vision, they scrimped and saved as a department to contribute financially to the project, they had conversations with Provost Doris Helms and facilities staff, and then they did the most remarkable thing — they offered to share that space with other disciplines and invited the TwTC to become part of the design team. Some of our early design sessions were a lot of fun because we had no constraints in the beginning; we were visioning.

A time came when we had to deal with the less exciting details of renovations. One thing we realized right away was the advantage of adapting our vision to the space rather than the other way around. For example:

  • We wanted a raised floor, but instead, we did not entirely fill the pool with gravel and concrete, which gave us the same effect.
  • We wanted three projection screens, but because of the high ceiling and the large expanse of two walls, we decided that we could project on those two walls and only have the expense of one screen.
  • We wanted adequate storage space, but because we had men’s and women’s locker rooms close by, we did not need to build storage space in the room.

Those and several more adaptations allowed us to optimize the existing features of the space and lower the renovation cost.

Even with those cost-saving decisions, we had to seek additional funding. By coming together around a shared vision, we could approach the provost and other sources of funding with a stronger voice than any individual. I distinctly remember meeting with the provost’s accountant, who said, “I know she’ll ask if you have a representative from the School of Ed.” I didn’t even have to think about it before answering with a clear, “Yes, several people from the School of Ed are active with our group, including the college’s associate dean of research.” Much of the TwTC’s success derives from collaboration; everyone enjoys sharing ideas, learning from others, and sharing credit for a good idea or a job well done.

While ideas, expertise, and influence came from many disciplines and organizations, funding came from four: general engineering, the Provost’s Office, facilities, and CCIT. Four people representing general engineering, mathematical sciences, computer science, and CCIT submitted a proposal for and were awarded the HP Technology for Teaching Award, which provided two carts of HP tablet PCs. We achieved much of what we originally designed, in fact, failing only to find funding for the ceiling grid (which can be added later). The Holtzendorff Teaching with Technology Experimental Classroom, better known on campus as “the sandbox classroom,” was dedicated in December 2007 in the celebratory atmosphere of the TwTC’s end-of-the-semester symposium.

Often people ask for the total cost of the sandbox classroom. We don’t know, and we will never know because we will never be finished. We will always be looking for funding for the next technology we think might offer a solution to our latest pedagogical vision. However, we can say that at the time of the dedication, the renovation cost was about $260,000. Technology added to the renovated space was valued at about $200,000.

What We Did, with an Eye to the Future

With classroom space at a premium and funding for renovation projects limited, designing appropriate classrooms with an eye on the future is critical. When the TwTC began developing a vision for an experimental classroom, our primary goal was flexibility. We wanted to create a space that was essentially “plug and play” so that, when new technology is available or a different configuration of the space is desirable, we don’t have to start from scratch again. For example, we wanted to make sure we had enough power to accommodate additional technology in the future. We wanted to build in as much flexibility as possible.

From Swimming Pool to Sandbox

As we progressed through the design process for the abandoned swimming pool with Sill and Stephan, we realized we needed to find ways to take advantage of having a swimming pool, not another type of space, to renovate. We decided not to fill the pool entirely with gravel and concrete. That way we were able to house cables on whips under the floor, giving us the flexibility to reconfigure the layout of the space and still maintain the network, sound, video, and power connections at students’ tables as well as at the instructor’s station. The high ceiling of the pool area inspired us to design a metal grid with power and network connections for the three projectors and other equipment we might add later — maybe data collection instruments such as thermometers and motion sensors that would allow students to analyze live data in class. The grid would be motorized so we could lower it to easily add technology or service the projectors while standing on the floor of the classroom.

We wanted to begin with SCALE-UP furniture (10 round tables that seat 9 students each) and to control the window shades, projection, lights, and sound from anywhere in the room where we might wander while coaching students working on an in-class assignment. We wanted this wireless touch-control panel to simplify displaying a student’s work with projector one, another student’s work with projector two, and possibly a third student’s work or the instructor’s assignment with projector three — or any combination of projection options.

Removing TilePhoto of People Pooring Concrete?Ready for TechAV and Data BoxWiring to TablesCabeling SystemInstructor's StationTouch Panel DisplayIllustration of Projection Screen OptionsPhoto of Class in Session

Technology is built into the converted pool room, with cables under the floor and technology connections at students’ tables and the instructor’s station, which also features a wireless touch panel.

We also wanted to coordinate the exploration and formal research that takes place in the classroom. We wanted the faculty who teach in the sandbox classroom to use the available technology and to share their experiences with the larger Clemson community, not just other faculty but facilities and CCIT, so we could apply the lessons learned to other spaces around campus. We agreed that our first exploration and research would focus on how digital ink might be used in teaching and learning, as well as use of the increased projection options.

The generosity of the general engineering program made possible a wide range of classes in the sandbox classroom. Faculty from the following disciplines have taught courses in the sandbox: engineering, computer science, mathematical science, nursing, horticulture, and English. As planned, those faculty and their students have experimented with inking and with innovative ways to use the projection capabilities in the classroom.

To our delight, the generous spirit demonstrated by general engineering is contagious. Other disciplines have come forward to offer other classrooms that can be renovated into teaching with technology experimental classrooms and then shared.

Photo of student using e-inkPhoto of students working in teams

Students use grids to experiment with inking and work in teams on projects.

Students created a video about using tablet PCs and inking in academics at Clemson.

Cyberinfrastructure as a Driver

Clemson University administrators recognize that cyberinfrastructure (CI) is, as Provost Helms explains, the backbone of the university, enabling the university’s missions in teaching, research, and service. In May 2008, CIO James R. Bottum hosted CI Days at Clemson University. The two-day event included a poster session, presentations, panel discussions, and breakout sessions. About 350 faculty, CCIT staff, and students attended the event. To maintain the high momentum that CI Days generated, Bottum established a CI Implementation Committee with members representing research and teaching from the five colleges and service from Public Service Activities (Clemson’s extension organization). By mid-fall 2008, the committee had established three subcommittees charged with developing CI project proposals for Clemson’s Board of Trustees. One of those subcommittees is developing the design and installation plan for grid-enhanced classrooms that will allow students in-class access to data, computing, and collaboration tools. The proposal is due to Bottum in mid-March. The subcommittee will propose a phased approach to renovate three classrooms:

  • M305 Martin Hall, offered by the math department
  • 135 Lehotsky Hall, offered by the College of Health, Education, and Human Development (led by nursing faculty)
  • One of two possible rooms offered by the University Center at Greenville

For M305 Martin, the proposal calls for five digital displays and seating for 12 to 15 students. One proposed use of the room is graduate-level number theory seminars offered jointly with other universities.

The Lehotsky classroom has a seating capacity of 48 and a low ceiling, so multiple flat-panel digital displays will work better than the typical projection onto screens or walls. The proposal also calls for keeping the round tables already in the classroom, which can be used to create a modified SCALE-UP environment. Subcommittee members also want to investigate using the walls, perhaps with one of several possible technologies that allow writing on them, and designing an instructor’s station that better meets the needs of faculty than anything currently on the market. Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Management faculty at Clemson are active in the development of the Open Parks Grid. Having access to that grid in the Lehotsky classroom will allow students to collaborate with national park managers and beyond.

The University Center at Greenville (UCG) is the location for many Clemson University classes, and faculty and student interest in classes there is continually growing. While it is only about an hour away from the main campus, that distance coupled with limited technology at the UCG constrains what faculty and students can do in class. The UCG classroom renovation is proposed to gain easier collaboration with the main campus as well as other locations that will enhance teaching and learning. Subcommittee members are currently finalizing the specifications and budget as part of the proposal.

Lessons Learned

Much of what we learned in the design, development, and use of the Holtzendorff Teaching with Technology Experimental Classroom we are applying to the design of those three proposed classroom renovation projects. Probably one of the most important lessons we’ve learned is to take advantage of what we already have, including the features of the room; this helped us meet our goal of flexibility in the Holtzendorff sandbox classroom.

Other critical aspects are lighting and sound design. The lighting in the sandbox provides spotlights over each table, fluorescent lights when a lot of light is needed, lights under and over the balcony, and blackout shades on the windows. With a touch of a button or two on the wireless touch panel, faculty can completely change the lighting configuration to match our specific needs. We wish we had added a microphone at student tables, but we do have a wireless microphone that we can let soft-spoken students use during discussions. Later, when we add the ceiling grid, we can add microphones over the tables.

Photo with Spotlights onlyPhoto with Flourescents on

Spotlights focus light directly on the students’ tables, while fluorescent lights illuminate the entire sandbox classroom.

Everyone likes the wireless touch panel, especially the ability it gives to control the projection options without dashing back to the instructor’s station. Some users wish we had more than one video connection at each student table, but all of us make good use of the options we have to project up to three students’ laptops on one, two, or all three of the display surfaces.

We also learned that having a storage area is important. We have Ethernet cables, VGA-sound cables, dongles for Macs, lost and found items, and the two carts of HP tablet PCs to keep safe when classes are not in session. With the pool space, we were fortunate to have the men’s and women’s locker-shower rooms to convert into appropriate storage space.

A waiting list now exists for teaching in the sandbox classroom, so we have developed a process for deciding who will teach in the room. Faculty with funded grants that depend on the technology in the sandbox receive priority. A second waiting list already exists for a similar classroom designed for smaller classes. We hope to accommodate those faculty with the renovations to 135 Lehotsky.

With one year’s experience in the Holtzendorff Teaching with Technology Experimental Classroom, faculty and staff are now sharing their lessons learned. They report their research and experience in a variety of ways: at meetings in their disciplines; in formal presentations at local, national, and international conferences; and in publications intended for a wide range of audiences. Soon we will be ready to explore some new technology in our classes in the sandbox — something we can immediately plug in and begin to play because our design planned for that.

Thanks to imaginative renovations of unused spaces, collaboration across campus, and planning for flexibility, Clemson can take advantage of the sandbox classroom’s technology features and extend that model into future classrooms.

Barbara Weaver ([email protected]) is Senior Consultant for IT Faculty Relations and Innovation in CCIT and adjunct faculty for the Department of English at Clemson University.