UNH Manchester Rethinks Classroom Design Ahead Of Move

Feb 6, 2015

One of Mihaela Sabin's pod-style classroom studios.
Credit Ryan Lessard / NHPR

  As UNH Manchester prepares to move down the road to the larger Pandora Mill building, it’s going back to the drawing board to modernize its classrooms. The school turned to its faculty and students to help design the classroom that works best for them.

This month, researchers in Manchester, England will publish a report on the impact class environment has on learning. They find factors ranging from furniture to lighting can cause a significant variation on a student’s performance. And UNH Manchester is paying attention.

“We’re going right into the learning commons… [construction noise] as you can hear, they’re still working so we have to be a little careful to make sure we don’t get in their way. This whole area will be soft furniture, tables…”

Kathy Braun is keeping a close eye on the work. She’s UNH Manchester’s finance director. The school has budgeted $8 million for the renovation, and $1.3 million of that is for equipment and furnishings.

The school hopes the new building will not only provide more space, but better space.

More natural light.
Credit Ryan Lessard / NHPR

Large windows will let in more natural light, classrooms will have more USB chargers, will be entirely prewired with webcams. Labs will be more up-to-date, but most of all, classrooms will be more flexible.

Mihaela Sabin, an associate professor of computer science, says she’s already using furniture in different ways to get students more engaged. She sets up a problem, provides students with the tools and sets them loose.

“And then it’s learning by doing. So the instructor would walk through the classroom or the lab and listen to what’s happening, providing advice or when asked to, solve certain problems.”

Sabin uses round tables she calls “pods” that seat a handful of students who huddle in front of their laptops and easily talk with peers. It’s an idea she got from other STEM studios in places like MIT. And other teachers are taking note.

One of the chairs tested in the sit test, the Node, is very similar to the one ultimately selected.
Credit Ryan Lessard / NHPR

  Carolyn Gamtso is a professor and librarian at UNH Manchester. She says this approach not only works well for students, but for professors as well.

“So for example, we have some faculty members who as soon as they get in to the class want to put the students in circles. We have other faculty who may start lecturing so the idea of that five rows works, but then want to get students into groups.”

But to accomplish this, they need something as simple as better chairs. As part of a faculty-led design team, Gamtso organized a “sit test” in the library where students could try out dozens of chairs and provide comments.

The crowd favorite? A chair with a larger table which can pivot for right or left-handed users and has storage space for bags. It even has a cupholder…

“There is a cupholder, yes [laughs]… it’s right down at the bottom which is great because it avoids that coffee spillage.”

Most importantly, the wheel-mounted chair is easy to move around, so classes can rearrange themselves as needed.

The school is poised to spend about $80,000 to obtain 200 of those chairs.

Local interior designer Nico Flannery-Pitcher is working with the school to pick out furniture. And she says furniture makers have been listening to educators.

“So I think there was a demand that came up out of figuring out the best and different approaches to learning that sort-of the furniture industry responded to.”

The science labs won't be complete until summer.
Credit Ryan Lessard / NHPR

For UNH Manchester, that’s meant the next generation chairs, but also lounge-friendly sofas for the library.

And Carolyn Gamtso says a survey filled out by 60 faculty members echoed that sentiment overwhelmingly.

“Within academia, I think there’s a real change into putting the emphasis on the students and their interaction and their work.”

If all goes as planned, students will return from Spring break to a new building with new places to sit—and possibly, a new way of learning.