The power of architecture in a classroom and the influence of the SCALE-UP studio-style classroom design on students

“Architecture provides a stage to engender certain behaviors by curating one’s experiences.” – Allison Peitz, Overland Partners

My first real lesson about the power of architecture came fairly late in life – in 2008 – when FSU’s first SCALE-UP studio-style classroom opened up and I led a recitation for a traditional lecture class in the room.

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FSU’s first SCALE-UP studio-style science classroom.

The SCALE-UP classroom was certainly not designed for a traditional recitation class, in which an instructor generally writes the solutions to the week’s homework problems on the board and the students sit in their individual seats – all facing forward toward the instructor and the whiteboard (still blackboards then, actually) – and passively write down the problem solutions as they are written on the white[black]board.

Instead of the rows of forward-facing seats, the SCALE-UP classroom had (and still has) round tables, each seating nine students who generally work in groups of three.  The idea is to facilitate conversations among the students and an active learning environment.  It was certainly not intended for a passive traditional recitation session.

But the university was short of the 50-seat (all facing forward) traditional lecture rooms that we generally used for recitations, so I was assigned to teach traditional recitations in the 72-seat SCALE-UP room.

Despite the fact that I had been assigned to teach in a traditional lecture course that semester, I was an advocate of the studio-style SCALE-UP model.  In fact, the inclusion of the SCALE-UP room in FSU’s new classroom building had been my idea and I had campaigned for it during the building project’s design phase, earning me multiple dirty looks from the project’s lead architect.

But I had drawn the short straw on teaching assignments, so the privilege of teaching the first studio SCALE-UP-style physics class in the new classroom had passed to my very, very able colleague Simon Capstick.  And I had been assigned to teach a traditional recitation.

I was apprehensive as students walked into the SCALE-UP room for my traditional recitation on the first day.  Then I noticed something interesting – and encouraging.  As students sat down at the round tables before class, they pulled out their homework assignments and starting discussing them with other students already seated.  Despite the fact that the class was advertised as a traditional lecture class, the students were being moved by the architecture of the classroom (especially including the round tables) to start learning collaboratively – the way they would have been learning in a studio-style SCALE-UP class.

In subsequent years, I used the same SCALE-UP room to teach a hands-on physical science course for elementary education majors and then introductory physics courses for engineering and physical science majors – the population for which the SCALE-UP model was first invented at North Carolina State University.

About the same time that the first SCALE-UP classroom opened at FSU, our middle child, Allison, decided that she wanted to be an architect.  I showed her the SCALE-UP room, and apparently I talked about the power of the room design to affect student behavior over family dinner enough nights that she remembered that years later when she was working toward her Master’s degree in Architecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.

One evening during Allison’s second year at Harvard, she called me to tell me that she had decided to write (or design) her master’s thesis about how to deliver a SCALE-UP-style classroom experience to students in geographic locations where you couldn’t gather 72 students, or 20 students or maybe even more than 3 students in one place.  This would be done by seating the students who could participate around a round or U-shaped table and then connecting them via video and audio links to other small groups of students seated in similar facilities at other locations far away.

Allison defended her thesis in January of 2017 and then was hired by Overland Partners, which is a highly regarded firm in San Antonio where her then-fiancee (now husband) Geoff Peitz is a neurosurgery resident.  During one of her job interviews (perhaps with Overland), Allison was asked how she became interested in educational facilities.  Allison shared with me that she told the interviewer that she had become interested in such facilities because so much of the family dinner conversation while she had been in high school had been about our SCALE-UP classes at FSU.

When Allison married Geoff, she took his last name.  She is now Allison Peitz, and when I saw the quote at the top of this post on her web page at Overland, I instantly thought of our SCALE-UP classrooms and the dinner conversations we had while Allie was in high school.

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Allison defending her M.Arch. thesis at Harvard in January of 2017.

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A model of two small classrooms, each containing one round table for six students.  Each of these classrooms would be connected to other similar classrooms at other geographic locations to provide the instructional advantages of the SCALE-UP model to students in remote locations.

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Models and drawings showing how a number of small SCALE-UP classrooms could be incorporated into a structure.   The map shows a town in Wyoming that would be a candidate for such a facility.

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