It’s a good thing Chris Higgins ’91 likes to solve puzzles.
As the classroom and scheduling manager in the Office of the Registrar, he faces the challenge each semester of finding rooms where approximately 1,000 classes can be taught. (Another 1,000 classes that are offered involve individual study and don’t require classrooms.)
Unlike a crossword or sudoku puzzle that Higgins can finish in 20 minutes, the classroom scheduling puzzle takes months to complete, due to its complexity and dynamic nature.
Higgins manages about 100 classrooms in 28 buildings across campus. (The Shepherd School of Music and some departments assign their own classrooms.)
While class size is an obvious factor – “We don’t plan to put a three-student class in Herzstein Amphitheater with almost 300 seats,” Higgins said – other details also impact where a course can be taught.
“Instructor and departmental preferences for specific classroom features often are crucial constraints. For example, we aim to put every math class in a room with a blackboard, not a whiteboard, to meet the instructors’ desires,” Higgins said.
Some classes require special audiovisual equipment. Some need movable chairs to accommodate small-group discussions. Location also merits consideration. “We place psychology courses as close to Sewall Hall as possible,” Higgins said. And for faculty who teach back-to-back courses in different buildings, the classroom locations must be close enough to allow the faculty member to get from one to the other on time.
The time of the class can put limitations on which classrooms are available. “On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 11 a.m., we have almost 100 percent classroom use,” Higgins said. “At 8 a.m. or 4 p.m., instructors can teach just about wherever they want.”
After the departments inform the Office of the Registrar of the courses they are offering for the semester, Higgins sets the parameters based on the specific needs for those classes and uses a software scheduling program called Ad Astra to perform the first pass at optimizing the room assignments. He then has to sort through the 10-30 percent of classes that the software was unable to assign a classroom to and match them to locations that fit their requirements.
“We spend about six to eight weeks planning what we think will be a good matrix, and a month before classes start, we begin to tweak and shuffle the assignments as departments cancel and add more sections,” said Higgins, who collaborates with John Martinez, catalog and scheduling assistant.
The puzzle that Higgins has put together by the first day of classes will need additional tweaks during the first three weeks of the semester as departments add and cancel courses and sections, as students add and drop courses, and as faculty request changes based on the final enrollment and other circumstances.
A professor might have told Higgins that 80 students are expected for a class, so he assigned a room to accommodate that size. But after the first week, 40 more students may ask to take the course, and if the professor is willing to expand the enrollment, Higgins has to find a larger room. By that time, however, all of the larger rooms may be booked, so Higgins then has to contact other faculty members to see if they’re able to change locations to open up a bigger room for the other professor.
“It’s a logistical and political puzzle,” Higgins said. “It involves research, shuffling, investigating possibilities and checking on the willingness of faculty to move. Some instructors are incredibly flexible and can teach in almost any room, and others need specific AV equipment or a particular physical location that limits their options.”
Higgins said it’s not uncommon to have to make 120 to 150 classroom changes. “Academic departments can add or drop sections and change meeting patterns after the semester starts, so that adds another layer of jigsaw puzzling. We do a lot of monitoring and listen to communications from staff and faculty requesting room changes for various reasons.”
The completed puzzle is displayed at https://classrooms.rice.edu where faculty, staff and students can see which rooms are booked.
If faculty encounter technical difficulties in a classroom, such as a computer not working, they contact the Information Technology Help Desk. But problems with the room, such as missing chairs, are directed to Higgins. “Chairs have a way of disappearing from the classrooms we manage in the residential colleges,” he said. “When a class of 16 students arrives to find only 10 chairs, that’s a problem.”
Higgins has been solving the classroom scheduling puzzle since spring 2007. He has a B.S. in mechanical engineering from Rice, and he said his familiarity with the layout of the campus and room locations from his days as an undergraduate gives him an edge. “From a planning perspective, knowing where rooms are located in buildings and how long it will take to go from point A to point B is very helpful,” he said.
“The biggest challenge is trying to make all the puzzle pieces fit, given that each department has an opportunity to add to Rice’s overall puzzle nearly whatever pieces it wants,” he said.
Registrar David Tenney remembers that Higgins had one request when he accepted the job at Rice. “He wanted a huge whiteboard,” Tenney said. “We got him one, and I must admit it’s fun to watch him as he processes information on that whiteboard. Chris is a mechanical engineer, and he brings that engineering knowledge and experience to Rice’s complicated classroom scheduling function. We’re very lucky to have him.”