November 2, 2017

By Katie Moen New Jersey Herald/Photo of Centenary Senior, Amy Miller, pictured below by Katie Moen

If someone were to take the inner workings of the human brain and put them on display, the end result might look something like Centenary University’s new Innovation Cave.

The small alcove, with its floor-to-ceiling whiteboard walls, starts each day as a perfect blank slate. By noon, however, the space is filled with a hodgepodge of math equations, cartoon sketches, quotes and meeting reminders, all scrawled in different colors by different hands.

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to walk past the cave without wanting to grab a dry-erase marker and add something to the collective visual din.

Alternative learning environments like the Innovation Cave, said Kathy Naasz, Centenary’s vice president of innovation and acting vice president of advancement, are intended to provide students with a much-needed bridge between logic and creativity, two educational ideologies that are often treated, for better or worse, as separate entities.

“We like to think of this as a low-tech, high-touch space,” Naasz said. “It’s fascinating to see how different people use this room. I think in words, and in bullet points, so I would probably immediately start to list out the steps to solving whatever problem I might be facing. Other people, though, come in here and start to draw, or to map things out in different ways. It’s like live-action brainstorming, in a way.”

The back of the “cave,” a previously underused alcove located on the second floor of the Lackland Center, opens up into a hallway that leads to the university’s new top-of-the-line STEM lab. The lab, funded by an educational grant, is a fully-operational work station that offers 3-D printers, virtual and augmented reality programs, drones, coding software and a new Google Jam Board designed to connect the classroom to Google suite users around the world.

“We’re calling this area of the building Innovation Alley,” Naasz said. “The goal is to let students ideate and share concepts in the cave and then move into the lab to create actual prototypes. It’s a pretty accurate representation of how problem solving actually works in the real world.”

Innovation Alley celebrated its grand opening on Oct. 25.

Since then, said Timothy Frederiks, assistant professor of education and chair of the Education Department, Centenary students have already begun to gravitate toward the new spaces.

“This all started when we were able to procure a grant for our education department,” Frederiks said. “Maker’s spaces and STEM labs are all the rage right now, especially at the middle and elementary school levels. We felt that it was important to create a space where our students who are looking to become teachers themselves could learn how to work effectively in a non-traditional classroom setting.”

Frederiks said that the university has already invited a group of Hope Elementary School students to come check out all that Innovation Alley has to offer.

“One of our biggest objectives in creating this space was to be able to involve the community,” he said.

While it is true that alternative learning spaces are more commonly geared toward younger students, Assistant Professor of Psychology Kris Gunawan said that Centenary students have already started to gravitate towards the space.

“For younger students, spaces like this are intended to inspire a love of learning,” he said. “They are very hands-on and tactile environments, which is great, but there are also a lot of practical applications to having access to resources like this. The university students have really seized the opportunity to get out of their comfort zones and try something new. This equipment is not just for engineering majors, either. This has all been designed to allow all of our students to use it whenever they want to as they see fit.”

Matthew Drohan, a senior at Centenary, said that the new spaces have already been put to good use.

“I’m an equestrian studies major,” he said. “I’ve been in the cave with some of my classmates to map out jumping exercises. I know criminal justice majors who want to set up a mock crime lab in here. The psychology students are actually just fascinated with the idea of being able to see someone’s thought process come to life. Everyone who walks into this space sees a different kind of potential, and I think that’s what makes it unique.”

Frederiks said that for now, at least, Innovation Alley doesn’t have that many restrictions.

“The cave is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he said. “Sometimes you just have that idea that won’t let you sleep at night, and now there is an area on campus where you can come flesh it out without bugging your roommate. In that respect, it’s a very communal space. Students can come here to work on projects, get advice from their peers, or just hang out and contribute to the conversation.”

The STEM lab, though under lock and key when not in use, can also be made accessible to any student or staff member who needs it.

“There’s a time and a place for traditional lectures,” Drohan said, “but I think part of the university experience is to figure out how you handle things on your own. I’ve been on a few job interviews, and I don’t care what kind of job you’re trying to get, every employer out there is looking for someone who can think outside of the box. That’s what these spaces are here for, and I really think that we as students are going to take advantage of them in ways we haven’t even thought of yet.”

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