Benet Academy says goodbye to computer lab, hello to Idea Studio

 
 
Updated 3/4/2016 2:14 PM
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  • Christopher Yates works with his group to solve one of the problems in his advanced placement economics class at Benet Academy in the school's new Idea Studio.

      Christopher Yates works with his group to solve one of the problems in his advanced placement economics class at Benet Academy in the school's new Idea Studio. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Projectors can display images on all four walls of the Idea Studio at Benet Academy in Lisle, a collaborative classroom that opened this year.

      Projectors can display images on all four walls of the Idea Studio at Benet Academy in Lisle, a collaborative classroom that opened this year. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

Editor's Note: This article has been updated to correct the location of the Idea Studio, which is inside St. Joseph Hall.

It used to be a computer lab designed by a monk in the 1980s. Thirty-three computers, lined up in rows, and a printer. Pretty typical.

It remains part of a building that dates to 1911, the historic St. Joseph Hall, a segment of Benet Academy in Lisle.

But the space is much more forward-thinking now, and more future-focused, as it's been transformed into a collaborative learning space called the Idea Studio.

"It's an active learning center," said Matt Murphy, Benet's IT director, who developed the space. "It can be changed or morphed. The kids come in and create the classroom they want to learn in."

All four walls of the Idea Studio at Benet Academy in Lisle are covered with 5-foot-tall whiteboards and equipped with projectors so teachers can display content anywhere and students can use wide spaces to work in teams. Desks on wheels allow motion without distraction as students collaborate in the new space.
  All four walls of the Idea Studio at Benet Academy in Lisle are covered with 5-foot-tall whiteboards and equipped with projectors so teachers can display content anywhere and students can use wide spaces to work in teams. Desks on wheels allow motion without distraction as students collaborate in the new space. - Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

Within the school founded in 1887, the new-tech Idea Studio starts with a shell. Not with plainly painted walls or even colorful bulletin boards, but with 5-foot-tall whiteboards on all four walls.

Projectors point at each wall so teachers aren't limited to one place to present information. The room is equipped with Internet for the iPads that freshmen, sophomores and juniors were given this year as the academy launched a digital initiative. Next year all students will have personal tablets, making the room even more of a haven for technology and enjoyment.

"Kids come and they're excited to be here," Benet librarian Kathy Swanson said. "There's a certain energy, a positive energy."

Inside the Idea Studio are 33 flexible, swivel desks on wheels in a modern slate gray, matching the dominant hue of the slightly red-specked carpeting. Each desk's base is a shelf of sorts, perfect for holding books so nothing gets left on the floor. Anything on the floor would risk being run over, as students push and pull with their heels, sliding their workspace from one corner to another as they collaborate in groups.

Marty Gaughan teaches advanced placement economics at Benet Academy in Lisle using the new Idea Studio. With whiteboards on every wall and movable desks, the studio offers a space for group work and collaboration.
  Marty Gaughan teaches advanced placement economics at Benet Academy in Lisle using the new Idea Studio. With whiteboards on every wall and movable desks, the studio offers a space for group work and collaboration. - Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

Such is the scene in Marty Gaughan's advanced placement economics class as teams of students sort together through four problems their teacher says would take them much longer than the allotted class time to do on their own.

"You're able to stretch the students more," Gaughan said. "Collectively, they come up with the answer."

Educators at the private Catholic high school developed the Idea Studio using $35,000 in grant money and donations of time and expertise from Chicago design firm Gensler and 1992 alum Dave Broz. Before the space opened for schoolwide use the third week of January, a few select teachers like Gaughan tested it starting after Thanksgiving.

Matt Murphy, IT director at Benet Academy in Lisle, says the school's new Idea Studio will help students focus on research, organization and collaboration in a technology-oriented environment.
  Matt Murphy, IT director at Benet Academy in Lisle, says the school's new Idea Studio will help students focus on research, organization and collaboration in a technology-oriented environment. - Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

"For a school that's this steeped in tradition to do something this different, this new, we needed to take our time with it," Murphy said.

The school board now has met in the new studio and it's getting positive reviews from some of Benet's 1,350 students.

"It's a really cool space," senior Matt O'Connor said after one of Gaughan's economics sessions in the studio. "We can have more of an in-depth learning experience."

The first time Gaughan took his economics students into the studio, O'Connor said he was skeptical. It's a room with whiteboards, just like any other room, he thought. But inside the space, he began to see how its nondistracting desks, its panoramic whiteboards and its tech connections make the room inviting and functional. Plus the updated design looks cool, and that never hurts.

"It draws kids into it on top of being useful," O'Connor said.

Students in Marty Gaughan's advanced placement economics class at Benet Academy in Lisle use whiteboards on all four walls to work in teams and solve problems. Gaughan is among the Benet teachers who have been using the new Idea Studio to increase classroom collaboration.
  Students in Marty Gaughan's advanced placement economics class at Benet Academy in Lisle use whiteboards on all four walls to work in teams and solve problems. Gaughan is among the Benet teachers who have been using the new Idea Studio to increase classroom collaboration. - Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

As more teachers bring their students to the Idea Studio, Murphy and Benet leaders are testing whether it could become the classroom of the future.

They aren't planning any more studios yet, but they are marketing this one to alumni and the Benet community, promoting its benefits in offering a space without the constraints of typical desks stuck in straight, boring rows.

"It's a wonderful space," Gaughan said. "We can challenge them even more than we normally would in the classroom."

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