Brattain Auditorium renovation launches pedagogical advancement

New Brattain Auditorium

A significant renovation this summer to the Hall of Science’s Brattain Auditorium propelled it light years ahead in technology and usefulness in demonstrating that science is “approachable, interesting, logical and understandable,” said U.J. Sofia, professor of astronomy. The renovation was made possible by a generous gift from Whitman parents Greg and Nancy Serrurier (Ben ’11).

“Science is no longer just for scientists,” Sofia explained. “The world has become so technological that scientific issues are naturally a part of our daily lives. Turn on the news, and you are likely to hear about global climate change, genetically engineered foods, stem cell research, cloning or new energy technologies. These are not esoteric issues; each has the potential to affect all of us in the very near future, and we as a society will have to decide how to proceed,” Sofia said.

The infrastructure of the renovated Brattain classroom is the nexus of a new pedagogical style that utilizes simulation lab exercises interspersed with lectures “to make students comfortable with science in general and to teach them how to identify the important questions about technological issues.”

The Brattain Auditorium renovation is “a great example of how a donor can make a real difference,” Sofia said. The Serruriers are “excited by the vision of incorporating new technology in a lecture hall to make learning more enjoyable and accessible, especially for nonscience majors,” Nancy said.

Brattain Auditorium as it was Brattain Auditorium prior to the renovation.

In the place of the early 1980s-vintage orange plastic chairs lined up behind six rows of tables parallel to the chalkboard, now sit five curved rows of tables with recessed laptop computers every few seats. At the front of the room are chalkboards with bottom panels that can be raised to expose whiteboards. Two large projection screens to the left and right of center can be pulled down over the top of the whiteboards/chalkboards. Any of the computer screens in the room can be projected onto the main classroom screens, so the entire class can learn from the work being done by smaller groups. (See inset box for an example of how the technology will enhance a lesson.)

The classroom was renovated with the objective of making the space as flexible as possible so faculty in many disciplines may utilize the resource.

“Faculty today use a range of teaching styles, sometimes even within one class period,” said Andrea Dobson ’82, associate professor of astronomy and chair of Division III (basic sciences and mathematics). “We told the architects that we needed a design that would facilitate classroom discussions and computer projects while still permitting lectures and demonstrations. A space that works can definitely improve a student’s experience in class and encourage learning,” Dobson said.

It is this focus on undergraduate learning, sense of community and great range of opportunities inside and outside the classroom that make Whitman “easy to love,” Nancy said. “The minute Ben set foot on campus, he felt at home among bright, energetic, unpretentious kids who loved the outdoors.”

The Serruriers shared Ben’s enthusiasm, becoming members of the Parent Leadership Committee immediately. Greg was asked to put his investment expertise to work as a member of the college’s Investment Committee, and this spring he was elected to the Board of Overseers.

After the Serruriers met with President George Bridges and other administrators, they decided they wanted “to help support their vision of making Whitman even better,” Nancy said. “We asked what we could do to help attract and retain the best faculty, and improve teaching and learning.” From several options discussed, the Serruriers chose to help fund the Brattain technology renovation.

“Professor Sofia told us professors in other sciences also are enthusiastic about the new technology and are working with him to incorporate it into their courses,” Nancy said. “We were delighted to help see his passion become reality.”

A lesson on the sun, the moon and how this new classroom works

Students often have trouble understanding the relative motions of objects in the sky. Stars, planets, the sun and the moon all move through the sky at different rates. Since the Earth is rotating on its axis, and the planets and moon are revolving around the sun or Earth, it's a complex, but logical, picture. A class on this topic will involve a short (20-minute) lecture explaining why we see the motions as we do. The relative motions of the bodies are much easier to understand when they're visualized both from the Earth looking outward (our normal view), and from outside of the sphere of stars that we see looking inward toward the Earth (an impossible view without simulations).

I would use those simulations in the lecture for clarification. The students would then do a 30-minute lab on celestial motions using the same simulation software used in the lecture, but now they will have control over it. Within their small groups of two or three, the students can see motions produced by moving time forwards or backwards, and placing the Earth at any point around the sun and the moon at any point around the Earth. The students will have questions to answer for the lab, but there will be enough time for them to “play” with the simulation, seeing what happens in the sky if they do this or that. They can go at their own pace, replaying a motion if they want to see it again, or moving on quickly if they understand the concept and are ready to proceed. After the lab, we will discuss the questions, having individual groups explain their answers to the class by projecting their computer screen onto the main classroom screen.

This differs from a typical lecture where after the professor discusses a topic she or he simply moves on to the next one. Here we learn with the lecture, reinforce the material immediately with a lab conducted at the student-directed pace, and follow up with a class discussion. At the end the student should understand the concepts of celestial motions and be able to recreate them. With a standard lecture, the students’ impulse is often to memorize how objects move because they really didn't learn why the motions occur. In reality, understanding how things work is simpler than cramming a bunch of static data that is just lost after the exam. If a student understands the concepts, then she or he realizes that science is intelligible and accessible. After that it’s just a short hop to appreciation and curiosity.

U.J. Sofia
professor of astronomy