Space is at a premium these days at Texas A&M University, home of the 12th Man. Booming enrollment and, as a result, one of the nation's largest student bodies that's rapidly closing in on 65,000 means that construction can't keep pace.
While most of those students head home for the holidays with the conclusion of final exams and another fall semester, the long days and all-nighters are just beginning for construction crews, subcontractors and one campus committee charged with maximizing Texas A&M's space for all its possible instructional worth.
For the past two years, Texas A&M Department of Chemistry assistant head Ronald G. Carter '74 has served as chair of the Classroom Improvement Committee (CIC), created in fall 2013 by the Texas A&M Council for the Built Environment (CBE) Maintenance Review sub-council. Its goal is to identify, evaluate and execute potential improvements within all Office of the Registrar-controlled classroom facilities across the campus.
Using deferred maintenance money earmarked each year by Texas A&M's top officials, the CIC has since renovated more than 56,000 square feet of the campus' most in-demand space for teaching and instruction as part of a sweeping collaborative effort to better serve all Aggie students. Most of them will spend time in at least one or more of those classrooms at some point during their time at Texas A&M.
"The students can physically see the improvements, and they are pleased," Carter said. "They are amazed that we're consistently able to turn something dark and dingy into a bright, state-of-the-art classroom."
With 12 rooms already under their transformational belt and their budget doubled for 2015-16, the committee is taking aim at six classrooms slated for complete makeovers during the winter break: Academic Building 224, Blocker Building 149 and 150, Harrington 207, and Scoates 115 and 116. Combined crews of university and contract employees already have begun gutting the rooms, tearing out all existing furniture, carpet and equipment. By January 15, the new campus standard—durable nora® flooring, seats featuring technology integration and additional writing surface that were test-marketed to Aggie students last fall and are now custom-made for Texas A&M by American Seating, and top-of-the-line multimedia, courtesy of a turnkey partnership with Texas A&M Instructional Media Services—will turn these ugly duckling rooms into state-of-the-art swans just in time for the beginning of spring-semester classes.
Decision-Makers by Design
For Carter, what began as a white paper expressing his observations during decades as an administrator in one of Texas A&M's largest undergraduate service-course colleges turned into a committee-chair assignment by popular demand.
"I was a member of a different university committee at the time, and I was about to rotate off," Carter said. "During that meeting, they announced that they wanted to form a committee on classrooms. I raised my hand and said that I wanted to be on it. The room went quiet, and when I looked up a few seconds later, everyone was looking at me. That's when I was informed I would not only be on it, I would be the chair."
Carter's volunteer offer came with one important caveat: permission to pick his own team. The 14 members, all but two of whom are original, represent a cross-section of campus and a solid mix of academic and auxiliary services, from faculty to administration and staff. He says the one consistent factor beyond extensive classroom experience and campus connections is an absolute passion for both quality instruction and decisive action.
"Everybody on this committee is a decision-maker by design," Carter said. "Each is a phone call away from getting results. And they all realize the dismal conditions of some of these classrooms. They're all very passionate about wanting to make a significant difference."
Devil in the Details
One of the committee's first tasks at hand in 2013 was to come up with an effective but impartial method of selecting its makeover candidates each fiscal year, both for shorter-term, winter-break consideration and longer-term work during the summers. They eventually settled on a combination of quantitative factors, including the building's age, number of seats in the room, and how many hours per week it is in use. Combining these metrics with other Registrar-reported data, they generate a ranking for each room on the list, which they pare down to the top seven or eight. As a committee, they then visit each room and talk with the respective building proctor, affiliated dean, department heads and key faculty.
"The goal is to concentrate on larger classrooms first to enhance those affecting the most students," Carter said. "In every case, we've been met with open arms. I rarely get through more than a few sentences before they ask, 'When can you start?'"
After getting administrative approval and buy-in, the committee uses Qualtrics to survey university stakeholders for each project, including faculty who have taught or who are scheduled to teach in the room in question. Based on survey responses and other analyses, the committee develops a draft scope of work, which it presents in an open forum. After adjusting the scope for relevant forum feedback and CBE sub-council comment, the committee sends the project out for bid and works with the approved contractors to schedule the work.
Numbers and Legacies
The number 12 holds special significance for most Aggies, and Carter, a 1974 Texas A&M management graduate, is no exception. Although he says each renovation is as distinct as it is memorable, he admits he wouldn't be human if he didn't have his favorites.
"For me personally, it's the three beauties—what we call the legacy classrooms," Carter said. "Chemistry 100, Scoates 208 and Animal Industries 215. Halbouty 101 is the last of the four legacy classrooms, and we're scheduled to take it on in summer 2017."
The committee works closely with university architect Lilia Gonzalez '94 on all renovations, but where the legacy classrooms are concerned, Carter says they also consult with an expert in historic preservation—Nancy T. McCoy '81, a partner in Dallas-based Quimby McCoy Preservation Architecture who earned a bachelor's in environmental design from Texas A&M. The renovation of Scoates 208 was a broader combined effort involving not only the university but also two colleges and private donors.
"After talking to the deans of engineering and agriculture about the scope of work and timeline involved, we decided to approach the Texas A&M Foundation for private support," Carter said. "The building would have been offline for at least a year, but with the help of Texas A&M donors, we were able to start and finish it in one summer."
Service with a Smile
Beyond the timelines and ta-da moments, Carter says no job is complete in his eyes until he sees the results in person—a palpable satisfaction best measured in smiles.
"When I go back and visit, people say 'thank you' so much, it's almost overwhelming," he said. "There are lots of smiles as we listen to both the faculty and students. Things have changed tremendously about how we teach in today's classrooms."
Carter fondly recalls one student he encountered during his post-transformational trek last year to Biological Sciences Building East. The student had walked out of a newly renovated Room 115, and Carter, who was jotting down some quick notes in the hall, took the opportunity to ask how he liked the new room. The student responded, "Actually, sir, that's why I just walked back out—to make sure I was in the right room!"
For more information on the Classroom Improvement Committee, including goals, members, and before and after photographs of each classroom renovated, visit http://cbe.tamu.edu/classroom-improvement-committee.aspx.
To learn more about the Council for the Built Environment, go to http://cbe.tamu.edu/Default.aspx.
Contact: Shana K. Hutchins at (979) 862-1237 or email@example.com or Ronald G. Carter at (979) 845-3335 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was originally published by the College of Science.
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