Unfamiliar aromas waft down the corridors of Shepard Hall, luring students from their laptops and notes to a communal table where their professor prepares the next lesson. On the wall, a face appears on the screen, observing the gathering, commenting in Spanish on the nuances of the dish. In minutes, the students’ mouths and bellies are full and a powerful connection to a culture thousands of miles away has been formed.
This experience, pioneered by Weinberg faculty member Rifka Cook, has been made possible by the active learning facilities now available in the lower level of Shepard Hall—a.k.a. the Engagement Center. Cook has been teaching residence-based courses there, including one on gastronomy, which engage Latin American chefs to teach students about authentic cuisine utilizing the new demonstration kitchen combined with Blue Jeans videoconferencing software.
It is student experiences like these that motivate the director of Northwestern’s residential academic initiatives, Brad Zakarin, to find opportunities to blur the line between students’ academic and social lives on campus. Zakarin works closely with innovative faculty like Cook to explore advances in pedagogy that are now enabled by these new facilities.
“All of the rooms in the Engagement Center are intended to be multi-functional, but with an eye towards instruction and academic activities,” said Zakarin. “What we're trying to do is offer faculty an opportunity to come in and experiment with active learning techniques by having the latest in classroom technology and flexible furnishings. At the same time, we want to give students a chance to take classes with the people that they live among so that they can get to know their neighbors and hopefully combine the way they're developing academic and intellectual community on the one hand with residential and social community on the other.”
Each classroom in the Shepard Engagement Center comes equipped with the latest classroom technology and flexible furnishings so that each room can be setup and technology utilized in ways that provide the best instructional experience possible. Over the course of a single day, a room could be used for language instruction using a U-shaped setup in the morning, a math class using group workstations in the afternoon, and an evening economics class in tiered rows best suited for lecture. In that very same room, students will come in in the evening and clear out the furniture for a cappella practice or drama rehearsals as well as leisure activities like yoga and even movie nights.
But what the Shepard Engagement Center really offers to faculty is the opportunity to rethink the relationship students have with their classes and instructors.
“When students go into academic buildings, whether they're going into a formal lecture hall or whether they're going to a professor's office, there's a degree of awe that can often be involved with the ‘sage on the stage’ or seeing books on the shelves of a professor's office with their name on the spine,” said Zakarin. “Now faculty are coming onto the students’ turf and creating a greater sense of accessibility, thus making students feel more engaged both inside and outside of class. They can begin a conversation at a lecture and continue it over a meal in the dining hall because it's all part of the same residential neighborhood.”
For more on the new spaces planned on campus like the Shepard Engagement Center, check out Northwestern Housing’s Master Plan.