UA-AAU STEM Collaborative Learning Spaces Project

Lisa Elfring, The University of Arizona

Selected as a Rapid Talk at the NSEC 2016 National Conference

Program Activities Type

Teaching Circles/Learning Communities

Program Components

Course Evaluation
Evaluating Teaching
Interdepartmental Collaboration
Pedagogical Training
Institutional Systems:Physical Infrastructure
Professional Development:Diversity/Inclusion
Professional Development:Student Assessment
Supporting Students:Student Engagement

Target Audience

College/University Staff
English Language Learners
First-year College Students
First Generation College Students
Graduate Students
Institution Administration
Non-tenure Track Faculty
Pre-Service K12 Teachers
Teaching/Learning Assistants
Tenured/Tenure-track Faculty
Transfer Students
Undergraduate Majors
Undergraduate Non-Majors
Underrepresented Minority Students

Program Point of Intervention


Program Description

The Collaborative Learning Spaces Project (CLSP), an extension of the UA AAU Undergraduate STEM Education Project, is a university-wide collaborative effort at the University of Arizona to develop classroom environments that are more suitable for active learning pedagogies than traditional lecture halls. Instructors and their teaching teams who are using these rooms receive training and participate in faculty learning communities (FLCs) to explore best practices and innovative ideas for use of these spaces.

Program Purpose

Instructors in several large, introductory STEM courses who were implementing active-learning pedagogies were frustrated by the limitations imposed by traditional auditorium-style, tiered classrooms. They wanted to find spaces to teach where they could promote student-student engagement and meaningful problem solving during large-class sessions.

Members of our AAU-STEM project leadership team identified space in the libraries and other large spaces on campus that could be converted to flexible collaborative teaching space, and approached campus leadership to promote the idea of converting space in a flexible way.

Program Goals

  • Create space in libraries, as well as existing centrally-scheduled classroom buildings, that could be used to promote active-learning strategies in a variety of disciplines.
  • Engage faculty who use active-learning strategies in professional learning communities to share and explore best practices in the redesigned classrooms
  • Collect data on student engagement and on faculty practices in the redesigned teaching spaces

Program Activities

  1. A faculty member committed to active-learning pedagogies, and who was eager to explore ways to promote them through supportive space, identified potential space that could be reconfigured.
  2. That faculty member approached an upper administrator who is deeply committed to undergraduate STEM education reform.
  3. The team then recruited personnel from UA Libraries to discuss use of space, and then the bigger team collaborated with facilities and IT staff to identify potential resources and needs.
  4. In mid-semester, a one-month pilot implementation was carried out. The collaborative space was configured with borrowed or rented furniture and appropriate technology, and other instructors who were interested in trying out the space were recruited so that they and their students could give feedback.
  5. Students and faculty were surveyed at the end of the pilot to assess attitudes and strategies around the temporary learning space and to discuss potential limitations of the space and technology.
  6. During the pilot, we scheduled a site visit from the Learning Spaces Collaboratory ( to learn about the national conversation on learning spaces and to learn about best practices.
  7. Due to the overwhelming enthusiasm during the pilot, resources were committed to reconfigure two large classrooms and several smaller classrooms. Less than a year after the initial meetings, these rooms were available for use.
  8. A faculty learning community was created to support those who were interested in teaching in the reconfigured collaborative learning classrooms so they could explore the pedagogies and technologies that would support the best use of these spaces.

We were able to carry out this project quickly due to its intersection with our existing AAU-STEM undergraduate education project, which had already brought together adventurous instructors from several STEM departments. Having an advocate in the upper administration who is passionately committed to STEM education reform was key, as was the involvement of our library division.

Notes and Tips

  1. Think "outside the box" to identify potential collaborative learning spaces. Our biggest collaborative learning space to date is the former periodicals room in our Science/Engineering library, and we are interested in rehabilitating other under-utilized spaces that are not currently serving as classrooms.
  2. Identify key collaborators in the upper administration, facilities, library, and IT teams. Often, these people are eager to support innovative ideas that will drive projects forward, and they have expertise and contacts you will need to make these projects happen.
  3. Identify a "coalition of the willing" among faculty and instructors, and share your plans with them. Involve them in thinking about what collaborative work looks like in their disciplines, so that the spaces you create will be useful across disciplines.
  4. Provide both pedagogical support and technical/logistic support for instructors who are new to the use of the collaborative spaces.
  5. Involve the use of graduate and undergraduate learning assistants in large classes that use collaborative learning spaces, and help faculty to train the course personnel so that they understand their roles in supporting active learning. These people can be enthusiastic advocates to support the movement to evidence-based and collaborative teaching strategies, as well as providing important support for student learning in the spaces.


  1. Let just anyone use the space. The early adopters should be among the most skilled instructors and they should demonstrate their enthusiasm and ability to utilize best practices in active learning.
  2. Underestimate the importance of novelty. Students who might complain about group work or other aspects of class design are often excited if the same activities take place in a "new" or redesigned space.
  3. Forget to consult campus disability centers. Their input on room setup and design is key, and their experiences with adaptive resources will increase the accessibility of classes taught in these spaces.

Evidence of Success

Student surveys from classes using the collaborative learning spaces have demonstrated overwhelming support for these spaces, as well as technical issues that are informing future decision-making about how classes should be structured to make best use of these spaces. Instructor surveys have also demonstrated a high degree of enthusiasm, faculty belief that students using these spaces are engaging in more high-level dialog. Analysis of instructors using these rooms using the COPUS instrument show a high degree of best-practices implementation among instructors in this cohort.

Future Work

Based on the success of this project, several additional collaborative learning spaces have been identified and grant funding has been secured to support the reconfiguration of these spaces. Research is ongoing to compare student performance (with the same instructors and curriculum) in the collaborative-learning spaces compared with traditional lecture facilities.

References and Accessory Materials

- Learning Spaces Collaboratory:
- The Classroom Observation Protocol for Undergraduate STEM (COPUS): A New Instrument to Characterize University STEM Classroom Practices. M. K. Smith, F. H. M. Jones, S. L. Gilbert, and C. E Weiman. CBE Life Sci Educ. 2013 Winter; 12(4) 618-627.