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From Lemons to Lemonade—School of Pharmacy turns destroyed space into state-of-art classroom

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When fire destroyed a large School of Pharmacy classroom in May 2012, the initial reaction was to re-build the heavily-used space as quickly as possible, recalls Dean Patricia Kroboth.  However, it soon became obvious that rebuilding presented an opportunity to enhance the interactive teaching and learning approaches that are prized at the school.  The result is a spacious, open room that allows up to 120 students to interact in small groups, connect with the professor, and communicate with the whole class. “We are proud of our curriculum and have an extremely innovative faculty, so we are very pleased to have a classroom that supports the innovative spirit in the School of Pharmacy.”

Some large pharmacy classes meet for up to four hours at a time, so a main function of the classroom has been to provide a space where students can work collaboratively on problem solving and exploration, in addition to learning from lectures.  “A goal of our classes is to prepare people who not only possess knowledge, but who can use it effectively,” says Associate Dean for Education Susan Meyer.  Kroboth and Meyer agree that as the redesign team became immersed in planning, they realized the array of choices that were available and how limited the School would be by a simple rebuild. Focus groups were conducted to get input from both students and faculty. As questions were raised in regular meetings with University consultants in areas such as engineering, architecture, lighting, electricity, and sound, the priorities for classroom use came into clearer focus.  For example, a large storage area was eliminated, seating was reconfigured, and computer monitors were provided for small groups of six.  Each major decision contained within it multiple, miniscule decisions. Decision-making was always focused on teaching, learning, and the student experience according to Kroboth, “We wanted each student to have the same powerful learning experience.”

The push toward active learning at Pitt’s School of Pharmacy came in the late 1990s with the realization that people in health care work as part of a patient care team, and to have impact, students need to learn how to foster effective and productive groups.  The original space had been designed for that purpose, with individual student tables that came together to form a semi-circle, also providing access to faculty.

Although the original classroom was “considered extraordinarily innovative at the time,” according to Kroboth, the rebuilt space has numerous state-of-the-art features.  What’s particularly different about the new design is the configuration of tables, with a computer monitor at each table.  This set-up means the instructor can drive material to all of the monitors, and students have laptops to plug into the monitor so each person in the group can see.  Previously, instructors didn’t have much space to move among the tables.  Now, there is plenty of room to roam around the class, and students can face each other seating three people on each side of the table.  Also, with this design, the instructor is in the center of the room and can easily walk around and access each group.  Perhaps more importantly, even the students who are farthest from the center are very close.  This takes a large space and makes it feel very intimate.

An example of how instructors use the new technology in the classroom occurs in the Drug Development 2 course, taught by Professor Sam Poloyac. In one class, Poloyac uses computer simulation for students to learn the impact of drug administration and dose on serum concentrations over time. Students in the groups decide how to change the doses or schedule of drug administration to obtain higher or lower concentrations and thereby achieve ideal therapeutic outcomes. The work from one group can then be shared with the entire class on each of the other monitors.

Ed Gyurisin, CIDDE Manager of Classroom Engineering, worked closely with Kroboth and the redesign team.  His department is “already incorporating some of the [design] details in different scenarios.  This project revealed new options for multiple projects we’re working on throughout campus.”

The hope is that this classroom model illustrates that School of Pharmacy faculty members fully embrace the philosophy that effective teaching is not always about the ’sage on the stage.’  “Our philosophy is about discovery, synthesis, interactive learning, and presentation,” notes Kroboth.  “This personalizes learning and promotes deeper more lasting knowledge.”  In this educational model, students take responsibility for their learning, quickly mature, and become strong presenters because they do it throughout the time they are enrolled in the School.  Kroboth smiles, “I think this contributes to the perception that others outside of the University have acknowledged:  ‘Pitt’s student pharmacists are the (pharmacy) employees of choice.’”

By Carol DeArment, CIDDE