The Modern Classroom: Enhancing Lives Inside the Classroom and Beyond

In today’s digital age, there is an increasing emphasis on modern educational facilities that offer students an interactive learning environment that are equipped to support technology-based curricula.

Students leaving high school, for whom social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace are a part of everyday life, are choosing colleges with facilities that offer advanced technology, as well as stimulating and sustainable design elements.

By investing in new technology and improved, more sustainable facilities, community colleges are providing the tools their students need to succeed in the classroom, prepare for future careers and become better stewards of our changing environment.

A recent report from the University of Houston Department of Health and Human Performance found that students in classes that incorporate instructional technology with in-class lectures scored a letter grade higher on average than their counterparts who took the same class in a more traditional format. Such findings are encouraging colleges — especially community colleges that focus on vocational trades — to upgrade their classrooms to ensure that they are well-equipped with advanced technologies. 

A Learning-Centered Campus

Tidewater Community College, located in the South Hampton Roads region of Virginia, is committed to evolving the traditional basic classroom of the past into the high-tech classroom of the future.

The college maintains campuses in Chesapeake, Norfolk, Portsmouth and Virginia Beach. With more than 39,000 students per year, it is the largest provider of higher education and workforce development in Hampton Roads.

In 2007, the college commissioned Burt Hill to design a 70,000-square-foot LEED-certified science building on its Portsmouth campus. The new campus includes buildings and laboratories for physics, geophysics, astronomy and biology instruction.

All of the classrooms and labs are equipped with a full suite of audio/visual capabilities, and each subject has advanced technology to support the specific curriculum. For example, astronomy students utilize the campus planetarium and its laser projections to create software productions that are displayed on the dome for the entire class. There is also an on-site observatory that includes a retractable roof and electronic telescopes that interface with each student’s PC.

“It was important that we design the building infrastructure to support the technology that is currently incorporated into the curriculum, as well as make sure the building is equipped to handle future technological advances,” says John Knickmeyer, principal and project lead with Burt Hill.

As more community colleges participate in virtual classrooms, remote instruction is an important learning tool for schools to consider. Distance and remote instruction is a central theme at Tidewater, primarily because of the school’s multiple campuses. The campuses incorporate real-time remote interaction that includes PC instruction, exploration classes and video-conferencing interface capabilities. These systems allow students to participate in classes from home and with students and faculty from other locations.

Community Relationships

Another example of a community college responding to changing learning styles is the Delaware County Community College in Media, Pa.

Burt Hill designed a new science, technology, engineering and math complex on its main campus, which upon completion in December 2009 will consist of a 32,000-square-foot technology building and a 105,000-square-foot science, engineering and math building.

The technology building will house facilities for vocational trades, including carpentry, HVAC/plumbing, electronics, manufacturing and auto labs. The science facility will include chemistry, biology, physics, astronomy, computer and CAD labs, as well as general classrooms and programmatic space.

The school’s unique relationship with neighboring businesses and industry leaders is integrated into the curriculum.

“Local companies realize the need for skilled talent and by partnering with us, they can really grow their own,” says Jerry S. Parker, DCCC president.

Companies work with faculty to develop curriculum and also provide necessary equipment to students. Aerospace company Boeing helps cultivate select curricula and teaching labs at the college and also provided nearly $250,000 in equipment and course needs to instruct students in composite fabrication, sheet metal assembly, non-destructive testing and skills for the manufacture of military helicopters. Other corporate sponsors affiliated with the college include Sunoco, Synthes, Exelon, Southco, Pennsylvania Machine Works and Pepperidge Farm.

Developing Smart Classrooms

Ensuring that classrooms are designed as efficiently as possible should be a top priority for colleges eager to appeal to high-tech students and faculty.

Tidewater and Delaware community colleges incorporate smart building technology into their design. The smart buildings and labs bring technology into the classroom that is easily accessible such as SMART boards, which will allow written material to be transferred onto student PCs, paper or spreadsheets.

Faculty will have plug-and-play capabilities at their teaching stations, providing easy access to the Internet, document scanning and projection materials.

The buildings also include interactive displays with touch-screen capabilities, in order to coincide with the school’s curriculum, which often relies on a team-based learning approach.

Additionally, Delaware County utilizes advanced simulation techniques in the classroom. These techniques play a prominent role in health sciences classrooms, and feature dummies that can simulate medical functions and diagnostics.

The anatomy labs have computer simulation that allows for three-dimensional images and analysis. The simulation techniques are employed by the local police academy for student training programs.

Community colleges are also beginning to realize the importance of incorporating advanced technology into public areas outside the classroom. Delaware County and Tidewater County place a strong emphasis on advanced technology in public spaces and have created fully wireless campuses. They also use technology to promote sustainability, and include interactive display screens in common areas that feature information on building energy consumption and the relative carbon footprint.

“Technology and the sustainable message should not just be limited to the classroom,” Knickmeyer says. “These are strategies that can be implemented throughout buildings in an ongoing effort to emphasize the significance of this kind of thought leadership.”

Anton Germishuizen, AIA, is a member of Burt Hill’s board of directors and the executive committee. He can be reached at

Burt Hill