5 ways colleges are upgrading classroom acoustics

Sound advice for ensuring students and professors can hear and communicate clearly in college lecture halls and classrooms
By: | September 4, 2019
Hear me now—The Furculo Hall project at UMass Amherst required transforming a gym space with high ceilings into classrooms. Acoustic panel ceilings and upper wall sound-absorbing treatments achieved the look and results sought by the program team. Architect: Perkins + Will Photo: @Anton GrasslHear me now—The Furculo Hall project at UMass Amherst required transforming a gym space with high ceilings into classrooms. Acoustic panel ceilings and upper wall sound-absorbing treatments achieved the look and results sought by the program team. Architect: Perkins + Will Photo: @Anton Grassl

Initiatives to enhance acoustics and reduce background noise in instructional spaces can cost up to tens of thousands of dollars. Yet campus leaders are increasingly recognizing the critical role of acoustic design in creating an environment where speech is intelligible. Many classrooms have a speech intelligibility rating of 75% or less, according to the Acoustical Society of America.

Here are five rules that acoustic experts hope campus administrators will hear.

1. Work on acoustic problems in older classrooms.

Lecture halls constructed decades ago often have concrete ceilings and floors, brick walls, and hard plastic seating—all factors that make it difficult for students attending class to hear the professor.

Acoustic consultants can help reduce reverberation by installing wall panels, carpeting and soft-surfaced seats. Other renovations could include upgrading the microphone system and adding more speakers on the stage, depending on the classroom type.

2. Smart classrooms have different acoustic needs.

As instructors continue to move away from lecturing and to encourage collaboration in the classroom, all students speaking need to be heard clearly. The solution for one university creating an active classroom was to install chairs that can rotate 180 degrees, allowing students to swivel and work at a common table with the row next to them. Other features can include floor carpeting, acoustic paneling across all the walls, and acoustic baffles (rectangular beams hung on their side to absorb sound and reduce echoes) on the ceiling. Speakers throughout a room can also help.

3. Consider acoustics from the beginning of a project.

Because acoustics dictate many key elements of an academic building—such as its shape or materials—the type of sound system that will be used must be a key early consideration.

Successfully designed acoustic systems keep sound where it should be. For example, one university installed a shaft next to a café to filter noise away from an adjacent classroom. And a dropped Sheetrock ceiling in a classroom below a dance studio now prevents noise from disturbing the instructor and students.

4. Be proactive by assessing the existing space.

Annual classroom audits can determine if there are acoustic problems. One institution used funding from its operating budget to install carpet tiles and sound-absorbing paneling on the walls and ceilings in classrooms with acoustic issues.

Sound system reviews often reveal that acoustic ceiling tiles, which have been a standard for at least 40 years, need to be replaced.

5. Don’t forget hearing-impaired student needs.

Students with hearing challenges can struggle even in rooms with the best acoustics. Institutions receiving federal funding, including all public colleges and universities, are required by law to provide hearing-impaired students equal access to all on-campus activities.

To achieve inclusive communication, consider the following options:

  • Interpreting: Professional sign language interpreters provide services in classrooms and for nonacademic activities.
  • Note taking: Trained student note takers record information during class and upload it to the web.
  • Real-time captioning services: These services provide a text display of classroom lectures and discussions that students can read during class and print out.
  • Personal FM systems: Frequency-modulated (FM) systems use radio waves to deliver speech signals directly from a speaker to a student’s hearing aids or cochlear implant.

Read the full original article on upgrading classroom acoustics, which includes a quiz to help determine if acoustics is getting enough attention on your campus.


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