MEDEX Seattle Opens New Classroom

On January 6th, the current MEDEX Seattle didactic students returned from winter break to a new classroom, effectively doubling the size of the previous space. “This represents a significant investment that MEDEX is making to provide a state-of-the-art classroom, and a great learning environment for our students,” says Donna Lewin, Administrator for MEDEX and a key player in this capitol project. “We’re very excited to provide this to our students.”

MEDEX Program Director, Terry Scott, was in the previous classroom 22 years ago. “It’s been a long time in that one little room,” he says. “This new classroom is a big step forward for us. It moves us to the modern era, allowing us to provide education in new and innovative ways. It’s an exciting time for us.

By Class 45 graduation in August, the old classroom was shut down for five months to accommodate the remodel. In fact, the entire process has been five years in the making. MEDEX Section Chief Ruth Ballweg met with Medical School leader Marjorie Wenrich about our deficient classroom. Ruth kicked off a process with the Health Sciences Building to negotiate for reconfigured classroom space to be remodeled with MEDEX funding.

MEDEX brokered a deal with Health Sciences Classroom Services to return the old classroom to a wet lab for 25 people. In exchange MEDEX would take over the neighboring double wet lab built to hold 50 people, and remodel it into the new, larger classroom.

For the remodel, both Linda and Donna shared the project management role for MEDEX—interacting with contractors, making decisions, reviewing specs and materials, etc. Linda, it turns out, was exceptionally well suited for this task. “My father owned a ceiling installation business,” she says. “I worked for him on construction sites for seven years, including during my first two years in medical school.”

At first they considered some really high-end technology, like interactive electronic boards, but decided against them in favor of glass boards. “You can write on them, and you can clean them,” says Linda. “Even Sharpies come off glass boards. We put seven glass boards around the room. Six are enabled with technology that allows students to plug their computers into HDMI inputs. Switching hardware then allows us to pick any of those six inputs to project on the central screens.” A seventh glass board behind the lectern allows the instructor to pick up a marker and draw while they’re teaching. “This allows us to use seven different stations for teaching and collaborating all around these glass boards.”

Another key feature includes two built-in video cameras that allow for real time interactivity with the other MEDEX sites in Tacoma, Spokane and Anchorage. “We have our Polycom system in there, so we have the ability to project people lecturing in Seattle to any of our other sites,” says Linda. “We’ll have the ability to project lectures from other sites to the students here as well, which we’ve not been able to do in the past. That’s not our preferred method of teaching but, occasionally, that’s something that we need to do.”

In the end, the MEDEX team insists it’s not so much about the technology in the room. “Really, it’s the physical space,” says Linda. “In order to teach we’re able to use a lot of real estate on the walls. For the first time the students have the ability to pick up their desks, move them around, and form groups of different sizes. That’s what we really expect to be the big enhancement here. We’re not overly invested in whiz-bang technology as much as we’re invested in space that’s flexible, and allows us to teach differently.”

Since the program’s origins in 1968, the MEDEX Northwest classroom has been staged at five different physical locations. Under Dr. Richard Smith the MEDEX program began in 1970 at 444 NE Ravenna Boulevard, a mile and a half north of the UW near Green Lake. From 1974 to 1978 MEDEX centered its operations in the privately owned University District Building, corner of NE 45th Street and 11th Avenue NE. In 1979 MEDEX secured a teaching space at the UW Health Sciences Building, furthering the formal relationship with the University of Washington.  Always in the T-Wing, MEDEX started in room T498 in 1979, then moved to room T479 in 1990 where classes were held through last year. The new classroom is in T483.

This current classroom is located in the T-wing of the UW Health Sciences Building, which has been the site of MEDEX learning since 1979. We asked Linda Vorvick for her thoughts on the previous classroom. “It was really an inadequate place to have our students,” she says. “I think the students really understood the instructors gave them the best education they could, and that the space was a huge constraint. People adapted the best they could, but we all felt hemmed in by the physical space and the furniture.”

To get the full flavor of what student life was like in the old classroom, we turned to DJ Smith, now out of the classroom and in his clinical year at MEDEX. “The biggest impression I had of the old classroom was how congested it was,” he says. “We had these ridiculously small desks, and for every lecture you had to make a decision. Do I use my laptop, or am I going to take the paper handout and make handwritten notes? You could never do both.” Then, there was the limited size of the room itself. “We had eight rows of students,” DJ says. “As you moved up and down these rows during break you were constantly tripping over backpacks and knocking over coffee. The lack of space always made for it difficult for group work.”

Linda is the first to credit the students for their adaptability over the years. “First of all, congratulations for surviving that small windowless room,” she says. “Every one of them has a little bit of their soul in this new classroom. They should look at this new space as, partly, the fruition of their having lived through that small space, and be proud we’re now in a space that we believe can take the good MEDEX curriculum we have, and enhance it with some new teaching techniques.”

Having served on the MEDEX faculty since 1981—and having experienced the full range of past MEDEX teaching environments—MEDEX Section Chief Ruth Ballweg says, “I’m so pleased with this new classroom! It provides another opportunity for MEDEX to continue to define ourselves as an innovative leader in medical education.  We’re excited to show off our classroom to other faculty members throughout the Health Sciences programs, and to be able to use it to demonstrate new types of teaching and learning experiences with our students.”