I2I Learning Lab Redefines Classroom Environment

Some 1,800 first-year engineering students are addressing the biggest problems facing humanity this year through team-based projects. And they’re doing it in classrooms that are revolutionizing the way engineering is taught.

In the lower level of Neil Armstrong Hall of Engineering, the recently opened Ideas to Innovation Learning Laboratory emulates the workplace and puts design at the heart of the educational process. I2I, as the space is informally known, is all about flexibility. It comprises seven studios where students can work on different functions along the way to making a design become a solution. They are the Design Studio, Demonstration Studio, Prototyping Studio, Electronics Studio, Fabrication and Artisan Laboratories, and Innovation Studio. In these spaces, students can anticipate and plan for a chosen option, build and test a prototype, evaluate outcomes, and refine as needed.

“We’re focusing our classes around the National Academy of Engineering’s 14 grand challenges. Obviously the projects are going to be small, but we want students to think along the lines of the grand challenges,” says Teri Reed-Rhoads, the assistant dean of undergraduate education and an associate professor of engineering education.

The rooms in Neil Armstrong Hall are equipped with moveable storage carts and enough containers to allow student teams to work on “something up to the size and weight of a lawnmower engine from one week to the next,” Reed-Rhoads says. Tables wired for tablet personal computers, projectors, and floor-to-ceiling dry erase boards keep the tools of the trade close at hand and encourage group creativity. The variety of projects also helps students in declaring their majors as sophomores.

“We try to highlight all the disciplines, so they can make informed decisions the next year,” says Reed-Rhoads. “It’s imperative that our students have an appreciation and understanding of multiple disciplines, because that’s life and that is how they will be working.”

The educational architects behind the classrooms and learning labs in Neil Armstrong Hall are banking on a revolutionary philosophy that can help develop those less tangible attributes in future engineers. They’re excited to see how flexible space can lead to greater adaptability in students and to see how leaders can emerge from a creative, team-based atmosphere and even learn for themselves how ideas can lead to innovation.

“We find that a number of students are more visual learners. They see how you can apply engineering principles to actually make something. It whets their appetite for engineering. We don’t think of some of these attributes as something you can develop in a normal lecture hall situation,” says Michael Harris, associate dean of engineering for undergraduate education and professor of chemical engineering.

The new learning environment appeals as much to students as it does to faculty, especially to students who entered the engineering program a few years ago in the days of traditional learning spaces.

“I see a lot of potential in this new facility for students to use it,” says Bernie Davila, a junior in mechanical engineering who assists in the lab. “You could only use computers in the other labs I was in. Everything else was separate. The other setups didn’t contribute to the hands-on design philosophy.”

-William Meiners with Judith Barra Austin