All day Monday, students attending their first classes of the fall semester were looking up, mouth agape at something they’d never seen before. And, no, that isn’t in reference to the eclipse.
The Mell Classroom building, after nearly seven years of planning, design and construction, finally opened in front of (and connected to) RBD Library, creating a large atrium filled with natural light from the ceiling-to-floor windows that illuminate the open-air, to the three-story staircase in front of the original building's facade.
This $35 million building offers students twenty-six new classrooms and two lecture halls and several “Engaged and Active Student Learning”, or EASL, rooms that feature state-of-the-art equipment, according to Learning Spaces and Faculty Development Coordinator Wiebke Kuhn.
“[These rooms] are going to put an emphasis on practice and application of the content we are learning in class with the resources and the faculty members close by,” Kuhn said. “I think what we are seeing here at Auburn is a fundamental shift in how we are teaching and how we are learning.”
Kuhn sat on one of the many wooden benches in the ground-floor common study area of the new building as she greeted wide-eyed students, pointed faculty in the right direction and made sure everything was happening according to schedule throughout the inaugural day of the Mell Classrooms.
She said that the day went smoothly and the reaction from students and faculty alike were only positive.
"I think they are in awe," Kuhn said. "I overheard a conversation where one student said 'I'm so jealous, I wish I had a class in here.' I mean, how often do you hear that about a classroom building?"
English professor Douglas O’Keefe is teaching English Composition and British Literature this fall in an “EASL Lite” room, a smaller EASL space with the same glass-boards and modular, moveable furniture as its larger counterpart but substituting a mobile-device-connectable projector for the 12 wall-mounted screens.
O’Keefe said that the biggest difference between the new Mell Classrooms and the traditional ones found in other buildings on campus is the ability to change the room to a class’s needs.
“By far the biggest difference is the geography — the chairs on wheels and tables on wheels and the flexibility of the room design,” O’Keefe said. “That's something you always want to be able to do easily but can be very difficult to do in Haley or Lowder.”
O’Keefe and other professors with classes in the new building took faculty development courses over the summer that helped them shape their classes to the new, more functional spaces.
“I made new plans for Comp especially, which was the one I kind of focused on during that training, and I think it's going to be a lot of fun,” O’Keefe said. “It's always an experiment."
Faculty still having trouble with the classrooms this fall have nothing to fear, Kuhn said, as a team of 12 undergraduate students called “Learning Consultants” will be available from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day to live chat with professors if they are having any issues.
Learning Consultants will also be tasked with checking equipment every day to make sure any IT problems are due to user error rather than a technical error, Kuhn said.
New classrooms aren’t the only things offered in the new Mell Building, however, as there are 30 new private study rooms that students can reserve online, full-size classrooms open to reservations after classes end every day and common study spaces scattered around all three floors.
A new Panera Bread is also slated to open in November in the area of the library renovated as part of the Mell Building project.
“You have this amazing combination of innovative formal learning spaces as in the classrooms, then you have lots of informal study spaces that students can check out online,” Kuhn said. “Any time the library is open, this building is open.”
Students took advantage of these new study spaces immediately and could be seen doing homework, studying with a group or just marveling at the open-air design of the Mell Classroom Building.
“I was just amazed,” said Ryan Conner, senior in history, about his first step into the building. “I walked in here and it felt almost like a fancy corporate office.”