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Building a CASTLE at UMBC: CNMS Giving Priority Focuses on Active Learning

Dr. Philip Rous, dean of the College of Natural and Mathematical Sciences, walks into an empty room in the University Center. As he describes the future of this room, it’s almost as if he sees the tables, computers and other equipment appearing before his very eyes.

Rous recently made CASTLE the top giving priority for his college in hopes of sparking donor interest in new methods of teaching. Like its counterpart, the Chemistry Discovery Center, CASTLE will target introductory classes, which often have lower pass rates.

On one side of the CASTLE - or CNMS Active Science Teaching and Learning Environment - flat panel screens will display physics and math problems as they’re being solved by students. On the other, tables will transform from flat work surfaces to computer stations with the touch of a button. Every bit of it will be designed for optimal active learning - a teaching method proven to boost student success and retention.

“You’ve got to send the message to students that they’re not entering a normal classroom,” said Rous. “One thing about active learning is you don’t want people hiding behind computers. You can’t just sit in the back in this classroom…you can’t just show up 10 minutes late. You have to be engaged.”

The Chemistry Discovery Center - which also has received funding from Annual Fund gifts - boosted Chemistry 101 pass rates by ten to 15 percent since its full launch in Fall 2006.

Instructors will test some math and physics classes in CASTLE in the spring 2010 semester, but Rous hopes to expand it to the point where lectures are eliminated entirely from both majors. As he sees it, active learning is the best way to help students truly understand the subject matter.

“It’s the right thing to do for our students,” he said.