Gas station without pumps

2018 January 20

Active Learning Classroom

Filed under: Circuits course — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 18:40
Tags: , , , ,

This quarter, I’m teaching the labs for the Applied Electronics for Bioengineers course in just two sections, despite having 89 students enrolled in the course (the largest offering yet). The sections have 50 and 39 students in them.  What I need for the lab is just tables, chairs, power outlets, and enough room to move around and answer questions with 50 students working at once.  That turns out to be an amazingly difficult combination to find at UCSC.  Almost all the rooms that have sufficient space have fixed seating with no room to move around, and most have almost no power outlets.

This year a new classroom was opened up that fits the bill almost perfectly: the Active Learning Classroom (ALC).  It has a legal capacity of 93 people (including instructors), has movable tables and chairs, and has a grid of floor outlets, as well as wall outlets. The ALC is a bit of a boondoggle, paid for with grant money.  They had a consultant come in to design it, and so it has very expensive equipment (12 interactive whiteboards each with a Mac mini, 5 projectors with screens, a fancy lighting control system, video switching to allow any of the whiteboards to be connected to any of the projectors, … ).

I’m not using any of the equipment that the consultant put in the ALC—instead I had about $10,000 worth of equipment bought to equip 25 stations.  The main expenses were Analog Discovery 2 USB oscilloscopes (which also serve as power supplies and function generators) and temperature-controlled soldering irons and fume extractors.

I don’t currently have access to any storage near the ALC, so I’m keeping 9 huge tubs of stuff in my office and carrying the lab setup over every Tuesday and Thursday with a cart.  I have to push or pull the cart all the way around the building, because I was denied permission to use the handicap entrance with it—on days when we are using the soldering stations, the cart weighs about 200 lbs, so pulling it up the steep hill behind the building gives me quite a bit of exercise. I’m a little worried that the wheels won’t last two quarters on the rough asphalt—they seem designed for indoor use only.  We’ll probably have to get some heavier duty wheels for the cart for next year.


Here is the cart, set up for use in the thermistor lab, where the students need access to boiling water and ice water. It is nice that the cart can serve as secondary containment, as this reduces the number of containers needed.

In the picture of the cart above, you can also see a couple of the power towers provided with the ALC (I think that they are Steelcase products).  These are very expensive surge protectors with very short cords.  At least, I assume they are surge protectors, since they do have circuit breakers with a reset button at the base of the tower. We’d have been better off with some 15′ or 25′ extension cords—at least they would reach the tables from the floor outlets or wall outlets.

I did order surge protectors for each station, but either I goofed in specifying them or the staff ordered the wrong ones—I wanted ones with 8′ cords and I got ones with 4′ cords.  There are enough floor outlets to make this work, but we often have to move the tables around to get close enough to have every station powered.

The tables are a fairly flexible setup of narrow tables on wheels, though there isn’t really time in 25 minutes I have to set up the lab to go around unlocking the wheels and moving the tables.  I have the feeling that the tables are not moved in any of the courses that use the classroom.

The chairs are expensive “node chairs”, which seem to have been designed by someone who has not recently been in a classroom.  They have oversize bases, ostensibly to provide a place for students to stash their backpacks.  Of course, almost no one does.  (I made a count on Thursday—about 6% of the students used them as intended.

Students put their backpacks on the floor, even when it interferes with where they need to put their feet.

The ends of the tables are a much more popular place to put backpacks than under the seat, where they are both difficult to access and not visible to the owner.

The wide bases and flaring arms for the chairs make them take up a lot of room, even when no one is sitting in them:

It is rather difficult to pass between the tables here, though it would have been straightforward with less bulky chairs. Note: this picture shows one of the rare students using the space under the seat as the designer intended. 

I think that we would have done better with the $40–50 padded shop stools that were bought for the School of Engineering labs, but the consultant apparently preferred the over-$300 node chairs from Steelcase.

So far, the labs have gone pretty well in the new space.  With 4 people working (me, a TA, and 2 undergrad group tutors), we’ve been able to set up each lab in the 25 minutes we have between the previous class leaving and our lab starting.  It is fortunate that I got the last choice of time slots (TTh 5:20–6:55 p.m. and 7:10–8:45 p.m.), because the gap before the 5:20 slot is the longest one of the day—the rest are only 15 minutes, not 25. We’ve also usually been able to clean up and repack everything into the tubs and onto the cart in about 40 minutes, so I’m back in my office by about 9:30 p.m. and home by 10 p.m. to get supper (unless there is urgent e-mail to attend to, in which case I don’t get supper until 11 p.m.).

The ALC is somewhat strangely located in the Science and Engineering Library.  I’m not quite sure why they still call the building a library, as there are almost no books left in it, no periodicals, no reference desk, and no librarians.  Perhaps it should be renamed the Science and Engineering Study Hall, since that, the ALC, and the video game room seem to be all it is used for now.


  1. With the wheel locks on the tables, why not just ask students to reach down and do it? Or, leave them unlocked?

    And why not just tell students to put their stuff in the basket under the chair, if it’s a problem?

    Comment by Robert Talbert (@RobertTalbert) — 2018 January 21 @ 09:29 | Reply

    • The tables need to be moved before class starts during lab setup, if they are moved at all. Although there are 10–20 classes using the active learning classroom, I’ve seen no evidence that any of the classes moves the tables from the default set up. (Of course, we were instructed to return the tables to the default setup if we do move them, so I might not notice.) If I were running the classroom, I’d probably leave the wheels unlocked, but I only have the use of the classroom TTh 5:20pm—8:45pm (though I extend that to 4:55pm–9:30pm, moving in as soon as the previous class ends and staying until cleanup is completed, as there is no later slot on TTh).

      The student stuff on the floor is not a problem (usually) in this lab, as we have plenty of floorspace. In the tiny lab we had in previous years, I did have to remind students to put their backpacks under the lab benches, so that people could avoid stepping on them. My comment about the chairs was mainly that they don’t work the way the designers intended—if students need instructions on how to use their chairs, then the chairs are not well-designed.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2018 January 21 @ 10:15 | Reply

      • You really should drop by that room during the day and see if there is any active learning going on. Seriously. If they moved the desks for every class, I would expect the wheels would be left unlocked. There is no way students would lock the wheels after moving the desks back, and I doubt if most faculty are as careful as you are.

        We have some new rooms with those same (or nearly identical) chairs. I’ll have to track one down and see how the chairs are used. I don’t see a problem with the storage area under the chair. There is a rule against backpacks underfoot in our labs, so everyone quickly learns to check its dedicated storage area before leaving the room.

        Snark on:

        You need permission to use a handicap ramp and entrance? What nanny state do you live in? Oh, right.

        No sympathy on the power bars. When we needed some for our lab, all we could find were 8′ or real short ones that meet some annoying code. It took forever to find the 4′ ones we needed. Those fancy power towers probably have short cords for the same reason that new appliances have uselessly short cords.

        Comment by CCPhysicist — 2018 January 22 @ 17:09 | Reply

        • The handicap entrance requires a staff member to come and turn off the alarm every time it is used. The problem here is one of bad architecture and bad engineering, more than it is of bad policy. Our campus is not very good for wheelchair riders or others with movement disabilities, because we are built on hills cut by deep ravines. My daily bike ride averages 4% slope for 3 miles getting to my office, and that route avoids the steep hills.

          Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2018 January 22 @ 20:55 | Reply

        • So why do appliances have uselessly short cords? I’ve always assumed it was because cords cost money and manufacturers cut corners wherever they can. Is there a better reason?

          Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2018 January 22 @ 20:56 | Reply

          • My understanding is that it is required by UL if the item is intended to be used in the kitchen.

            Now go unlock those wheels table wheels and see if anyone notices …

            Comment by CCPhysicist — 2018 January 22 @ 21:46 | Reply

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