Educator Spotlight: David Fannon

David Fannon
Assistant Professor
School of Architecture, CAMD
Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering, COE

Can you describe your role at Northeastern?
I’m an assistant professor, jointly appointed in Architecture and in Civil and Environmental Engineering. I research and I teach about the science and design of buildings from different approaches.

How has CATLR helped you in your work?
I teach mostly upper-level courses in Architecture and Engineering, both design studios and more technical classes. I joke that I’m a frequent flyer at CATLR. Environmental Systems is a long, ongoing project I’ve been working on with a lot of support from CATLR, both in the form of classes and one-on-one mentoring. The class I inherited was just lectures and tests. I moved to a lecture-plus-lab model, then to a team-based learning model, which I learned from CATLR. Students are actually working together during the class and the lab. I also do readiness assessments at the start of class to help prime that. For three years now, I’ve used a student feedback team in that class, which was also a CATLR idea. I joke that class is perennially about 85% finished, it will never be 100%, because there will always be room to make it better.

Working with CATLR, we launched a program in the School of Architecture for all of our TAs to help them prepare, and then give them ongoing support. 

Can you expand on the student feedback team and the team-based learning?
The student feedback team is the idea that you can have continuous improvement during a class, rather than improve it for the next time around, allowing students the opportunity to speak openly. I meet about every other week with them. All the students in the class do a survey, the team compiles the results, we meet and go over it and plan the next one, and then they do another survey. We do that three or four times in the semester.

Learning science tells us I can influence learning, but at the end of the day, it’s the students that do the learning. If we’re not working together to try to make learning happen, if we’re working across purposes, or I’m the only one who’s working, that’s never going to happen. It’s important that we’re on the same team to get students the best class that we can, so that’s why I think the student feedback team is great.

The team-based learning also brings with it this idea of the readiness assessment. Students take it first individually, then they take it again in their teams, they take it again and can talk about the answers together. Generally the readiness assessment isn’t factual knowledge, they are design problems. For example, here’s a drawing, pick the spot where you would put the building, and why. So there are a bunch of choices, you have to make judgment calls.

And what’s cool is the team-based assessment uses nifty little scratch-off cards. Students in their teams scratch off the answer that they think is right. If they get it right, then they know, and they get instant feedback. Then, if they don’t get the right answer, they can scratch the next best answer. If the team settles on one answer, and it turns out to be wrong, then you go back into the discussion and say, huh, why did we get that wrong.

What I love about that is the instant feedback. A lot of times if you take a quiz, you hand it to me, I grade it, or my TA grades it, and we enter the grades. Maybe a week later we return it to you. You don’t care. You look at the grade, you don’t worry about what was marked up, you didn’t learn anything from that. With the instantaneous feedback, you know immediately, and we’re about to have a class, so if you still don’t understand, you can ask a quick question.

What’s even better is I collect the scratch-off cards, and I can look through them and see if the whole class had to scratch off four answers before they got question nine right. Then I know question nine is a problem, and I can tweak the way we run the class to focus on the content that question nine represents. So it’s feedback for them about what they know coming in, and what they should pay attention to and ask about, and it’s feedback for me on where the class is, so I can use our time together most effectively.

Have you attended or participated in any CATLR programming?
I’ve been to a lot of CATLR workshops, like the student feedback team series and the team-based learning workshops. A few years ago I was fortunate to get a Provost Teaching and Learning Grant, and I got some hands-on one-on-one support as I was converting from the lecture model to a lab, experiential model.

I’ve been a CATLR Faculty Liaison for the Architecture Department for the last few years. Once a semester we meet with all the liaisons and share what’s going on and encourage educators across campus. As a liaison, I see my job as knowing what’s going on in CATLR, to make sure that my colleagues know that resources exist.

More than anything I appreciate that CATLR’s work is truly about a research-based approach to teaching, not just how do you make people like you on TRACE, but what methods are going to be effective, how do we define effective, and how do we measure it.

I know you have some good news to share!
I was selected as one of the CAMD Excellence in Teaching winners. I was very honored to be selected, along with two others. I always love seeing colleagues here who teach very different things from me, and are doing an excellent job, but in a totally different way.

What does it mean to you to be both an educator and a learner?
I always try to remember that the things I get to teach are really interesting (luckily they are also my research areas!) If I ever get to a place where I’m not learning, I probably won’t be able to keep up the passion for the teaching either, and I think my students would suffer. But I am pleased to report that even though I have been teaching the same subjects for years, I keep learning new things about them. The two inform each other—especially through the lens of passion, or curiosity, more than anything else.

When I was a second year in architecture school, I distinctly remember learning solar geometry, which is how you can predict where the sun will be in the sky at any given day and time, and how that affects buildings. If you have a building that faces south with a window, and you put a horizontal overhang in it, in the summer, the sun is high in the sky, and the overhang will block the sun and shade the window to keep you cool. In the wintertime, the sun is lower in the sky, it will come in underneath the overhang, it won’t block it, and provide heat when you need it to stay warm. This blew my mind, because it’s so elegant. It’s perfectly tuned to the seasons; with this knowledge you can connect your building to the order of the cosmos, and the motion of the stars. That’s what I strive for in teaching and learning.