Campus building renovations reflect shifts in technology and student learning

Over the past five years, Norwich University has undertaken major renovations and construction projects to reinforce a “general push for collaborative learning,” according to the University’s chief administrative officer, David Magida.

Dewey Hall under renovation, with Webb Hall in the background. Photo by Stephanie White

In schools across the country, traditional education methods are evolving largely to collaborative and conversational classroom settings, where “students and faculty interact on a more personal and progressive level,” said Magida, who oversees a transformative revamp of campus buildings.

With the completion of Mack Hall and the current renovation projects on Webb and Dewey, Magida is hoping to do just that. In Magida’s view, the traditional classroom setting is “outdated,” restricting what a professor can do, and what techniques he or she can employ to help students learn and retain information.

“We want the classes to be very flexible,” Magida said. “We want to make it very easy for the faculty members to change things up.” To achieve this goal, Magida and his team have introduced a new era of teaching spaces known as the “smart classrooms.”

Smart classrooms are technologically driven rooms that generally have a touchscreen or a control panel able to alter the learning environment, allowing professors to control everything, from dimming the lights, to presenting PowerPoints to, in some cases, remotely closing window shades.

These upgrades will not only strengthen enrollment at Norwich, but it will also make teaching and learning more effective for both faculty and students, said Min Li, assistant professor for the School of Justice Studies and Sociology, who often taught in the outdated and aged Webb and Dewey Halls.

“(Collaborative Learning) is a good way of learning and it encourages students to be more motivated,” Li said. “When the room is well-designed and easy to maneuver, it creates a whole new learning environment, the students are happy to come to class.”

The aging infrastructure of both Webb and Dewey, buildings designed in a very different era, caused a host of technology problems, slowing down the professors’ effectiveness in the classroom, “I had to call tech help frequently, technology never worked well,” said Li.

The same holds true for professor Lea Williams, chairperson of the Department of English and Communications, whose office was displaced from Webb Hall to Marsilius Hall in May of the 2018 spring semester.

“The building was a mess,” Williams said. “(Webb) was very dated, not inspiring, none of the technology was dependable, and it had the old tablet desks that made you feel like you’re in elementary school.”

To Williams’ way of thinking, “aesthetics is important, you want to feel good about the space you’re in, and the technology encourages us to take more liberty in our teaching.”

Over the years, professor Li has noticed a trend in the way students learn. “It’s a new generation,” she said. “(This generation) grew up with computers.” The traditional lecture is outdated and “ready to be replaced by newer, more dynamic teaching styles,” that the new technology being installed in Webb and Dewey Halls would make easier to employ.

With the completion of Dewey, and especially Webb, Li said it will be “easier to teach and communicate with students.” She added that she felt the renovation of the two halls was long overdue. “I cannot wait, I’m really looking forward to that.”

The renovations to Webb, Dewey and Ainsworth Halls and completion of the new Mack Hall are part of a $48.5 million project to upgrade campus facilities as part of the $100 million Forging the Future campaign leading to Norwich’s bicentennial in 2019.

Mack’s high-tech four-story space epitomizes the campaign’s aims, said Magida, noting Mack Hall is the perfect showcase for what smart classrooms will look like following their completion in Webb and Dewey Halls.

Professor Li is confident that the two halls will have the same look and feel as Mack and the library, which, according to Magida, was used as a sandbox to test smart classrooms with the addition of the North and South instruction rooms. “It’s going to be like an addition to the library,” Li said. “Students will hang out there more often.”

Webb and Dewey halls will provide more than just additional classroom space. “It’s a classroom, but it also serves extra functions,” Li added.

Floorplan for renovation of the second floor of Dewey Hall. Picture by Norwich University

The new learning space will add more areas for students to spread out, study, and examine the material they learn in class, something that was a rare sight in the old Webb and Dewey Halls.

“The intent is to have the same look and feel as Mack Hall,” Magida said. Mack Hall, which was opened for classes in the 2018 fall semester, has the same building style that Webb and Dewey will have at the completion of their renovations.

“It’s going to be really wonderful and will add to the beauty of the campus,” Li said, noting the renovations preserve the historical exterior character of the buildings while still incorporating a sleek modern feel to the campus – the perfect mix, according to Li.

Despite the major overhaul of the buildings, Norwich has been able to press an aggressive timeline for renovations. According to Magida, both renovation projects are on track. “Webb has to be ready for the start of spring semester classes,” he said. “Dewey will be ready next August.”

According to Hank Shedd, superintendent of Engleberth Construction Inc., the company spearheading the renovation projects currently taking place on campus, progress is “right on schedule with where we need to be.”

Shedd’s company has a lot of experience in working on projects taking place on college campuses, hospitals, and buildings that remain in use even when construction is occurring. “This is pretty average for us,” Shedd said. Dewey Hall, which the company got a head start on this summer, is a prime example. “We do this a lot, we actually have a lot of pretty well-trained guys that are out there doing the work.”

Shedd explained that the schedule is “pretty fast-paced,” with anywhere from “60 to 100 workers” on site at any given moment. He added that he expects things will continue to “go pretty smooth.”

While Magida stated that the completion of Webb and Dewey and the surrounding area “will make a huge difference,” in the overall environment at Norwich, the projects come at a cost and some construction ideas were shelved. The renovations for Webb and Dewey are budgeted in total at upwards of $21 million ($13.5 million earmarked for Webb and the remaining $7.7 million earmarked for Dewey.)

Magida noted the original floor plans for Webb and Mack called for a covered walkway to connect the two buildings but due to building code restrictions that idea proved to “become much more expensive” and it was shelved.

Floorplan for renovation of the first floor of Webb Hall. Picture by Norwich University

According to Norwich University President Richard Schneider in an address at the University’s annual convocation that took place on Monday, Sept. 3, the funding for the projects came solely from alumni donations as part of the bicentennial campaign to reach $100 million for the renovation and upgrading of the campus.

“Norwich is lucky enough to have supportive and generous alumni to help with funding for projects like these,” said Jennifer Passalacqua, assistant director of admissions and alumna of Norwich University. Passalacqua added that many of her fellow alumni, faculty and staff have also been generous with donations.

“We’ve been known to only use chalk boards and have a standardized classroom. It’s worked for us in the past, but, when you look at other schools, and other academic buildings, they’re more up-to-date, more technology-savvy, and have newer and better learning environments,” she said.

“As academics change, and as technology changes, it’s important that we change with it so we can provide our students with the best possible learning experience,” Passalacqua said.

These changes are what she said will largely help to drive Norwich University’s recruitment mission.

Passalacqua’s hope is that the new learning environments the university has undertaken to create “will benefit all students, especially students that are liberal arts, or business and cyber security majors. This will also benefit faculty members, as they will have a better environment to teach, and better technology to use.”

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