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  September 25, 2000

High-Tech Classrooms Add Pizzazz

On a recent September afternoon, Tom Terry was preparing for a lecture during which students would learn why weak chemical bonds are critical to the way cells behave.

Terry, an associate professor of molecular and cell biology, spent part of his afternoon developing an animation of molecules bouncing into each other and forming temporary associations, to give flair to the next day's lecture on precisely how cells work.

"The information I'm trying to show to my students I can do in words, but it won't have the pizzazz," said Terry. "In the sciences, so much of what we communicate can be more effectively taught with good visual material."

On that same afternoon, Michael Lynes, also a professor of molecular and cell biology, walked into a 240-seat lecture hall in the Torrey Life Sciences Building, where students were arriving for his lecture.

The lecture hall is equipped with an assortment of high-tech equipment, including a computer/video projector, touch screen control panels, a gigantic screen and six large color televisions called "plasma monitors" that are suspended from the ceiling, waiting to give extra emphasis to a professor's lecture.

During the summer months, the lecture hall was given a blood transfusion of sorts, a $40,000 upgrade in state-of-the art equipment, some of which Lynes was about to turn on for the first time.

Lynes said he prefers to use high-tech tools instead of chalk these days: "My skill in drawing with a pen is limited."

For Terry and Lynes and a growing number of University professors, the use of sophisticated presentation technologies and the World Wide Web have become important, powerful and extraordinary teaching tools.

Enter the University's mediated classroom, a term coined for the $10 million, 10-year technology and aesthetic overhaul that is now a little more than half way completed.

"Our problem today is not in convincing the faculty about the benefits of utilizing technology in the classroom, but in keeping up with what they want to do," said Dick Gorham, director of the University's Center for Instructional Media &Technology.

"Our faculty are eager to learn and the technology workshops offered by the Institute for Teaching and Learning are fully booked immediately," Gorham said.

He said it's hard to keep up with the pressing demands from all sectors of the campus: "We're running as fast as we can."

Gorham, who is tasked with overseeing the project that began in 1992, said that upgrades in equipment along with aesthetic changes have been completed for 84 teaching spaces out of the original line up of 110. And of that 84, 10 rooms have undergone upgrades for a second time. With new construction on the Storrs campus, the number of rooms to be equipped has now climbed to 130.

"Technological renewal is a process that is not going to go away," said Gorham, explaining the round of second upgrades. "It's a continuous process."

The blueprint for the project, which began before UConn 2000 but has financially benefitted from the legislation, is for 10 classroom upgrades per year at a cost of approximately $1.2 million. The project has been extended to include the regional campuses and the School of Law.

According to Gorham, costs associated with the upgrades are in the $60,000 to $70,000 range for a 30-seat classroom, $100,000 for an 80-seat classroom and close to $200,000 for a large lecture hall.

"Since computers were introduced in the 1980s, most technologies have been getting progressively less costly and that is helping us to stretch the budget," said Gorham.

A typical classroom upgrade includes nearly a dozen pieces of equipment, such as laptop computer ports, document camera, desktop computer, preview monitor, 35mm slide projectors, VCR, video/data projector along with a touch screen panel to control all of the installed technologies and room lighting, as well as aesthetic enhancements.

"In some rooms we can now connect students and faculty to remote sites, communicating with other classrooms and other campuses," said Keith Barker, associate vice provost and director of the Institute for Teaching and Learning, which has responsibility for the overall project.

"Our high-tech classrooms are well used by our faculty," said Barker, adding that there's a "911" number to call just in case of any glitch.

"We've made the rooms and equipment user-friendly," he added. "All a faculty member has to do is to look at a menu and intuitively work his or her way through."

Recognition for progress with the project came in the spring, when the Chancellor's Information Technology Awards turned the spotlight on seven media technicians in the University Center for Instructional Media &Technology. Honored in the April ceremony were Jeffrey Albright, Michael Bolduk, Douglas Erickson, Barry Jezek, Kenneth Kamay, Lance Nye and Randolph Smith.

The seven were formally recognized for their involvement in the design, installation, and maintenance of the support systems in 84 mediated or high-tech classrooms and auditoria on the Storrs campus. They were also recognized for their swift responsiveness and ingenious solutions to technical problems that enable professors to use the mediated classrooms seamlessly.

"If you look back, this has been an extremely successful project," said Fred Maryanski, vice chancellor for academic administration, who is credited with launching the project with the support of a committee of faculty and staff.

"What this project has done is to place us among the leaders nationally in terms of high-tech instructional facilities," Maryanski said.

That statement was underscored last semester by a visiting professor from Virginia Tech, who told University officials he was most impressed by the wealth of high-tech resources made available to him to support his lectures.

As the project comes down the homestretch, that comment is clearly a high point to be savored.

Claudia G. Chamberlain