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RPI looking to reinvent learning with Mercer XLab

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the classroom and laid bare the differences in learning styles of students, with many college-age learners struggling to connect with traditional teaching methods. Investments at one upstate New York university are intended to reach students in new ways.

Last November, the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute launched the Mercer XLab, a new way of promoting non-traditional teaching methods at the school. The original Mercer Lab, unveiled in 2012, is located within RPI’s J. Erik Jonsson Engineering Center. A small classroom space filled with electrical devices and machines, it was developed thanks to a half-million-dollar gift from 1977 graduate and RPI Fellow Emeritus Doug Mercer. A pioneer in analog-to-digital technology with a career that spans more than four decades, Mercer saw a need for change in the institute’s academic ecosystem.

“One of the things that I had noticed is that the students were really struggling when we would ask questions about just a course that they had taken last semester. There’s a thing on their resume, and we would say, OK, tell me about what you did in this class or what you thought was interesting. And then we dive into some more detail,” said Mercer.

With a new $2 million gift from Mercer, the funds will have an impact beyond the lab space.

RPI hopes the XLab will bring students and faculty together to share ideas and tinker in fields like robotics and electrical engineering. XLab currently includes the existing physical classroom and a planned online portal, which would give staff and students individualized levels of access to resources.

XLab’s director, Shayla Sawyer, a professor of electrical, computer, and systems engineering at RPI, envisions the new concept will make the space, as well as online resources and services available for everyone on campus and beyond.

“The X Lab is looking to kind of pollinate or cross-pollinate ideas across schools and departments, and potentially across universities. So, I'm really, really excited about this idea of extending knowledge. The X in X Lab partly represents multiplication, like, as people come together, how do we multiply great ideas, and it's about that interconnection, again, between schools between pedagogical ideas and across departments,” said Sawyer.

Student leader Cait Bennett, an RPI MBA candidate and 156th Grand Marshal, has been a proponent of the university’s embrace of new teaching methods.

“There's all types of thinkers, all types of learners, the part that went into the Mercer laboratory is this idea of exploratory education and developing slowly but surely, a classroom where everybody is set up for success. Lectures are easy, right? People who learn by listening to information? Easy, we got that in lectures. What's harder is the piece where you've got a bunch of students who don't learn from lectures, and who learn from tinkering and playing with something, seeing what happens,” said Bennett.

For Daegen Fuss, a senior majoring in electrical engineering and applied mathematics, the shift from by-the-book learning to a hands-on, collaborative approach has been especially helpful.

“I was diagnosed when I was younger as dyslexic so my learning style has always been avoiding words at all costs,” said Fuss.

Fuss finds the methods encouraged with the Mercer XLab allow him to solve engineering problems in a way that simply following a lab manual does not.

“Because you learn the material, you have a set number of restrictions, but still enough flexibility to do what you want.”

With the online portal still under construction, RPI is also seeking to add new physical equipment, software, and more physical space, with expansions to continue over the summer. It’s these developments which school president Marty Schmidt says mark a turning point university.

“Indeed, the Capital Region is fast becoming a hub of the most innovative and necessary technology of our time. So, the timing for the launch of the Mercer XLab could not be better. It will foster a learning ecosystem that actively engages faculty, students and staff in an educational experiment to amplify the learning experience of RPI students,” said Schmidt.