A New Twist on a Old Tale

The Armory Building has been around more than 100 years, recent renovations from the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning may prove that you can still teach an old dog new tricks. In the past year, the CITL has brought the old military building into the twenty-first century.

The Center for Innovation and Teaching is normally responsible for helping faculty teach as effectively as possible. It provides faculty development programs, holds introductory courses for teaching assistants, and administers the instructor course evaluation system.

However, some in the CITL, like Jamie Nelson, Head of E-Learning, felt they could be doing more. The Armory Innovations Space was how they were going to do just that.

The Innovations Studio is part of a push by CITL to try out other types of classroom experiences and move past the regular lecture-type class. By introducing professors and students with the latest technology, its goal is to remove the mysticism behind these machines, and allow teachers to examine how they could integrate technology into their classrooms.

The Armory Innovations Spaces were created as part of a 4-million-dollar Capital Project, meaning the university fully funded and paid for it. Much of that budget went to building and room renovations. Most of the technology in the Innovation Spaces is either loaned out or only a few thousand dollars.

The 3-D printers, Nelson pointed out, are all loaned out by MakerGirls, a small organization that holds classes and events at the Spaces to help promoted STEM, science technology engineering and mathematics, in young girls.

The Innovations Spaces includes the “Tec-Hub”, Innovations Studio, and a virtual reality room. Each space provides different experiences and resources to the students.

The Tec-Hub is filled with emerging technologies, a VR headset, 3D printers, and a laser-cutting machine. All open for professors and students to try out.

Aside from class tours and events, the Tec-Hub has open hours when it encourages anyone to come and try out their equipment. Some teachers have already taken advantage of the space, leading to them integrating the technologies they tried out into their classrooms.

Dr. Ashley Mitek, a professor in the College of Veterinary Sciences, came during open hours just to look around, but after trying out some of the Computer-Aided Design programs, she has implemented 3D modeling into her class.

When I saw 3D printing at the open house, I immediately knew I needed to use it someway in the course…So for their capstone project, I asked them to design something that facilitates performing a physical examination in any species,” Mitek said.

Using the program introduced by the Tec-Hub, Mitek’s students designed a variety of 3D designs meant to aid veterinarian examinations. After the success of her first technological trial, Mitek now plans to advocate for the implementation of 3D technology for other classes at the Faculty Summer Institute, an annual conference for educators held at the University.

Lisette Chapa, a recent graduate of UIUC works at both the Tec-Hub, and another of the Innovations Spaces, the Innovation Studio,  a super high-tech classroom, according to her.

“It has two computers, both are touchscreens. One that is a touch table, and then one is on the big screen… It’s a space where you can really share stuff over the computers,” Chapa said.

This focus on sharing is part of an experiment to move away from lecture-based classes. Instead of receiving a majority of the information from the professor in class, it is instead learned out of class. The class is then focused on classmate interaction and projects, with the Innovations Studio’s sharing capabilities facilitating this.

Jim Wentworth, an E-Learning Specialist, is head of the Innovation Spaces as well as in charge of the CITL’s VR, virtual reality, room. It consists of one small helmet, a computer, a TV screen, and a small space to allow for movement during VR sessions. While the Tech-Hub also has a VR setup, the VR room is more to explore the teaching capabilities of virtual reality as well as look into building specific environments for VR to aid teachers.

When you put on the virtual reality helmet, everything a person sees and hears is artificial and is designed for different purposes. Biology students have used it to examine body parts and molecular structures up close, and architecture students are to walk around and study rooms and buildings entirely designed by themselves.

The room has already garnered some interest from faculty as Wentworth explains. One business professor, Professor Madhubalan Viswanathan of Business Administration, is looking into the difference in the experience of VR versus the real life, as Wentworth explains,

The past year has been a trial period for these Innovation Spaces, and according to the CITL, the university has been more than welcoming to the changes. Now all that is left is for the university to decide where the CITL should go from here, a decision the provost is in charge of making.

“We are trying to determine whether it makes sense for the CITL to be in the business of producing VR experiences. They are costly… Right now it’s not really a mandate from campus that we are in that business,” Wentworth said.

While the CITL’s Innovation Spaces have been open only a single year, it has already inspired many teachers and projects. It would seem that even after a century, Armory still has a few tricks up its sleeve.



Liam Dwyer

Author: Liam Dwyer

Liam Dwyer, journalism junior