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AAMC 2014: The Future of Medical School


The evolution of medical school is changing the very look of the buildings where the students are taught. Architect Mary Jo Olenick tells us how new group learning structures are leading to very different looking classrooms. 

Announcer: Broadcasting from the Algorithms for Innovation booth at the AAMC in Chicago. The Health Care Insider is on The Scope, University of Utah Health Sciences Radio.

Interviewer: How are classrooms going to have to change to teach the medical student of the future? It's actually fascinating and we have architect Mary Jo Olenick here. She is with Slam Collaborative. Tell me how are the classrooms changing in response to how medical students are being taught?

Olenick: Well, one of the things I really find exciting about classrooms design now is that because medical students are being taught in a professional way, classes are getting bigger. Because they're being taught in groups, we also need to think about group learning. But we also need to think about how groups learn from each other. So classrooms are almost taking on this idea of going to the theater in Las Vegas. How people can work together in groups so you have a group of the people that you know, but then they can see each other and they can see the front of the room, which is a totally different way of thinking about designing a classroom.

So that the traditional lecture hall is becoming this morph between the case-based classrooms we might find in a business school and a lecture hall that we might find in a traditional medical school and then a studio classrooms that we might find in an engineering school. So they're all morphing together and the rooms are getting bigger because we want multiple groups to learn from each other.

Interviewer: So it's not sitting in an auditorium anymore? It's about learning.

Olenick: No. And it's also thinking about as people learn that they need to change what they're doing probably every 15 minutes in order for them to remain engaged. So they need to go from individual learning to group learning, back to looking at the front of the room. And so all of that change in activity needs to be considered as we design the room. So it's a really fun thing to do right now.

Interviewer: What about distance learning? How is that playing into the modern-day classroom?

Olenick: What we're seeing is that distance learning is happening more outside the classroom than it used to. So people don't sit in the classroom so much and watch TV. They may acquire that content outside the classroom. And so that when they go to the classroom, they're really more engaged with the people who are in the room. We're not seeing as much distance learning, although it is happening.

And there's the global sort of learning where, especially in the medical schools that have brand schools or affiliated schools in other parts of the world that we really want to connect those people. But, again, that's often done outside the classroom. Gaming, techniques, all kind of techniques to connect people as teams and then to allow the people who are physically in the space to really be the ones who really relate to it. So it's not going away, but I think it's changing a little bit

Interviewer: What are some of the other things you're seeing in the classroom of the future, some of the challenges in designing them?

Olenick: I think that technology, ironically, is becoming less of a challenge. As technology has become more sophisticated, the dark room is no longer important, it's smaller, it's going away. So the challenges, really, are how you connect people to each other because I think we also recognize that people learn as much from each other in the classroom as they do from whoever may be facilitating the class. And so that connection is one of the things that I think is really interesting. And the ability for people to display things in the classroom, from your computer, how do you do that? How do you create wall space? Wall space is becoming really important.

Interviewer: What does that mean, wall space?

Olenick: Places for people to write on the walls, project on the wall. And when you have multiple groups, you have to think about where their wall space is. And so if you have a big, giant room that has four walls and you have tables in the middle of the room, how do those people really relate to each other and participate with each other? So that's another sort of interesting physical ramification that I've been exploring ways to solve.

Interviewer: So the classroom is kind of the thing that we think about most of all when it comes to learning. What are some other new spaces that you have to design now for learning?

Olenick: The informal learning spaces are really important now, so how students learn outside the classroom. Project space is really important. Especially in medical schools, study space is very important. And we differentiate between project space and sort of breakout spaces in that it's a space that you can secure. You might be spending an hour or two hours, three hours there so you need a place where you can leave your stuff. Students have a lot of stuff. And so that has become a real issue.

Interviewer: And then go to the bathroom and know your stuff is going to be okay.

Olenick: It's going to be okay. I have my food and I've got everything. And so that becomes important. So that space outside the classroom has become more important. I think space for students to socialize, downtime. It's not a lot of space. It's often of the informal learning space that we might provide in an education building, maybe a quarter of it might be this kind of social space. So it's not a whole bunch of space, but it's really important. So where you put it, how you locate it, access to the outside, access to food, those things are all really important.

Interviewer: So I'm an instructor. I'm like, "Why is social space important? My classroom is what's important."

Olenick: Well, I think that the social space and learning, research, studies have shown that how innovation really happens is people are friends first. Studies have also shown that student success depends on how many friends they have in their class. And so if we can make those connections between people, their opportunities for success go up. So it's actually proven results. And that's the thing I love about it. It's not sort of like, "Well, we think this is true." We know it's true. And so really in some of the most difficult subject matters, it's really true. And that's why it's so important because it's that medicine and engineering that . . . that's hard. So we want to make sure that the students get as much support as they can from their peers because that's one of the indicators of success. So it becomes important.

Announcer: Sparking conversations to transform academic medicine. For more, stop by our booth at the AAMC or go to, University of Utah Health Sciences Radio.

By: Scot Singpiel

Scot Singpiel is a senior producer for University of Utah's Scope Radio