It’s Time to Shelve the Traditional Library

What do you remember about your elementary or high school library? If you’re anything like me, you remember dull colors, cubicles, and lots of shelves. The seating wasn’t all that comfortable. Chatting was discouraged. Not the most welcoming place.

Today the library/learning resource center/media center—call it what you will—is undergoing a metamorphosis. The library has emerged as a pivotal space with the potential to encourage community participation, support group learning, and tout exciting curricular undertakings.

At the Oak Ridge Elementary School media center, most shelves are confined to the walls, creating more room for group activities. Bright colors, natural light, and mobile furniture make the space not just a library, but a meeting place for staff and community.

The Place to Be

Major strides in technology and collaborative learning have propelled a movement toward libraries that are less about shelves and cubicles and more about flexibility, openness, and even invention.

Particularly influential is one-to-one computing (i.e., a device for every student). If you can get books on devices, why not get rid of some shelves and create a presentation lab? Here the teacher uses different media to present to ten to fifteen students, or students give their own presentations.

Maybe the school is launching exciting new curricular offerings. Wouldn’t the library, with its typically central location, be an ideal place to showcase these programs?

What if students meandering the library see, instead of rows and rows of books, a large window that displays a “makers’ space” that displays 3D printing and model making? Or what about a space rich with technologies for music and video editing?

If it’s flexible enough, the library can also function as a community meeting space. The new media center at Oak Ridge Elementary School (Palos Hills, IL), for instance, transforms from a group research hub to a venue for special events.

You Don’t Have to Build New to Feel New

A school doesn’t have to create a major addition to achieve an impressive library. Older high schools can aspire to Governor State University’s renewed library.

The library hadn’t had a major renovation for over 25 years. The seating was uncomfortable, the lighting was poor, and there were no group study rooms. It desperately needed a makeover.

Renovations transformed dark, dull spaces into vibrant and collaborative learning settings to which Governors State University students are flocking.

Renovations transformed dark, dull spaces into vibrant and collaborative learning settings to which Governors State University students are flocking.

A complete face-lift created breakout conference spaces and study nooks equipped with technology that enables students to practice their presentations. New student service points improved peer-to-peer interaction. Inviting spaces and open views have reduced “library anxiety” among students.

The overall feel of the library has shifted dramatically. With its bright colors and contemporary furnishings, it’s closer to an internet café or coffee house than to a traditional library.

Untuck the Library

The memories we have and the movies we watch continue to pigeonhole the library as a hideaway filled with reclusive students.

Also, the librarian is no longer someone who goes around shushing kids, but instead a guide to help students access what they need in an age of information overload.

I hope that you’ll join me in “untucking” the library from its traditional role. Yes, the library should still be a place where students can go to study quietly, but it should also be a place of shared ideas and experimentation.

When we walk into a library today, we should see a space that is bright, flexible, and welcoming. Then we will see the most rewarding sight: fulfilled staff and engaged students.


Sustainable Natatorium/Aquatics Center Design – Part One

Swimming consistently ranks among the top sports for building muscle, strengthening the heart, and controlling weight. Sadly, many facilities that host swimming programs are out of shape.

By embracing sustainable design strategies, a high school can achieve a natatorium that stands as a reflection of the activities it hosts!

The design of the Niles North High School Aquatics Center reduces both energy and water use by over forty percent. Photo copyright Emery Architectural Photography.

The design of the Niles North High School Aquatics Center reduces both energy and water use by over forty percent. Photo copyright Emery Architectural Photography.

Four years ago, Niles Township High School District 219 (D219) set out to transform its 48-year-old pool at Niles North High School into a model for sustainable aquatics centers. Recently, the expanded and renovated Niles North Aquatics Center earned LEED Gold certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.

How can a high school create a natatorium/aquatics center that mirrors the health and efficiency of its athletes? Over the next few weeks, I’ll be offering a few tips based on my experience at Niles North. Here’s the first:

Stop Wasting Water!
Aquatics facilities have the potential to waste a lot of water. So designers and districts embarking on natatorium construction should prioritize water efficiency.

It starts before people even enter the building. Permeable pavers can help reduce stormwater runoff. Native plantings limit irrigation needs. More advanced rainwater harvesting systems can even collect water for non-potable (i.e., non-drinking) use.

Then the pool itself should be outfitted with efficient systems. For instance, the regenerative media system at Niles North helps reduce backwash by 89% compared to a regular pool filtration system.

The right collection of water-friendly support systems can further reduce water use: Niles North uses electronic water coolers with bottle fill stations. The stations have tickers that keep track of how many plastic bottles are saved. Low-flow plumbing fixtures and staff-monitored shower controls reduce student and staff water use by 42% compared to a regular building.

In my next post, I’ll discuss the importance of welcoming (and controlling) natural light.


STEM in Demand: The Importance of K-12 STEM Research Programs

Photo courtesy Nancy Tarnai, UAF

Photo courtesy Nancy Tarnai, UAF

 

Today’s guest blog comes to us from Janice Dawe, Ph.D., research assistant professor of natural resource education and outreach at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF). Jan also coordinates the university’s OneTree Alaska program. We asked her why STEM research programs are so important in today’s K-12 schools. 

 

STEM research programs in K-12 schools can be very important as part of the school turnaround movement. They create and test innovative approaches to STEM teaching and learning and, with attention paid to critical assessment, decrease the time between testing different approaches and establishing best practices for improving STEM learning outcomes. (Ultimately, evidence-based results depend on longitudinal studies).

Not tomorrow, but today: The workforce has its sights set on young professionals with the skills that STEM research programs help build. Photo courtesy Niles Township High School District 219.

Not tomorrow, but today: The workforce has its sights set on young professionals with the skills that STEM research programs help build. Photo courtesy Niles Township High School District 219.

Forward-thinking K-12 leaders have tuned into identifying STEM approaches—and propagating those approaches throughout the country’s education system.

STEM research programs are important because the 21st century workforce needs well-prepared students NOW!

STEM studies cultivate critical thinking, problem-solving habits of mind, and science/engineering process thinking. These skills will benefit any student’s choice of careers and should lead to the development of a more engaged, confident, and competent civil society; one that’s capable of taking on the big issues that face us.

Stay tuned for another post from Jan about her OneTree Alaska program, which has grown from a simple public outreach project to a STEM to STEAM K-20 year-round inquiry art and science program.


Adventures in Curiosity: Beneficiaries of Early Learning Centers

Early learning centers provide an opportunity to truly customize design for a particular age group. They also have the potential to set the tone for making the learning experience an adventure in curiosity.

When all early learning functions are joined in one place, the students, educators, and community benefit with an efficient and focused facility layered with learning environments.

Designers of the Community Consolidated School District 59 Early Learning Center are animating spaces that were once ignored. Pockets of space within the corridor are expanded and themed according to the adjacent Learning Gardens: Sensory, Nature, and Fine Arts. The floor pattern and materials, the ceiling heights and colors, and the wall materials help to define these learning and interaction spaces.

Designers of the Community Consolidated School District 59 Early Learning Center are animating spaces that were once ignored. Pockets of space within the corridor are expanded and themed according to the adjacent Learning Gardens: Sensory, Nature, and Fine Arts. The floor pattern and materials, the ceiling heights and colors, and the wall materials help to define these learning and interaction spaces.

Students First

A student’s first experience with school can be intimidating. As educators and architects, we have to create a welcoming early learning environment that supports students’ curiosity while easing their fears of separation.

Many spaces can be adapted to the child’s view and experience: classrooms, hallways, courtyards, entries, play spaces. To create adaptive and flexible learning spaces, designers can tweak factors such as color, textures, displays, counters, sinks, and furniture.

Getting Educators Excited

Because the 21st century early learning center centralizes this function, it gives teachers the opportunity to cross-pollinate ideas and resources. I’ve repeatedly seen teachers get excited about collaborating and sharing spaces in early learning centers. Examples include teaching one to one, small groups, “in-between spaces” for combined resources, and staging spaces for special needs.

A Community Resource

Not only does the dedicated early learning center start learners on the right foot, but it also supports families with special needs and builds community within the framework of the center. It even reaches out beyond the facility to the community at large.

Early childhood is a pivotal time for students to retain their natural curiosity and fall in love with learning. The research-based early learning facility encourages that passion, while boosting teacher morale and supporting families.

Here are Five Tips to Achieve a Program-driven Early Childhood Center.


Design That Links the Next Generation and the Environment

Nature is a closed loop, and we as humans have broken that loop; we’re the only species on Earth that creates waste that cannot be used by anything else. We designed ourselves into this dilemma. I believe that we’re smart enough to design ourselves out of it.

The bad news: the next generation will have to assume much of the burden of meeting this challenge. The good news: we as architects and building owners can do something about it now!

Half the classrooms at Hubble Middle School have views to a five-acre detention basin planted with native prairie grasses.

Half the classrooms at Hubble Middle School have views to a five-acre detention basin planted with native prairie grasses.

Our challenge today is to build bridges between today’s youngsters and their natural surroundings. We do this by designing schools that encourage a more intimate knowledge of the environment and an appreciation for its value. If that happens, students are much more likely to become agents for the change that we need.

Outdoor classrooms inspire teachers to get their students outside and connect with their natural surroundings.

Outdoor classrooms inspire teachers to get their students outside and connect with their natural surroundings.

It starts with simple techniques, like designing spaces with a variety of colors and textures similar to what is found outdoors. If a campus has a natural element, do classrooms have good views to it? Also, how can outdoor areas encourage teachers to take their students outside?

Designers also have to embrace biomimicry, which involves using patterns found in nature to solve design problems. For instance, how can buildings mimic plants to better absorb the sun’s energy? Learn more about the different types of biomimicry.

I often tell my students that this is one of the most exciting times to practice architecture. That’s particularly true when it comes to environmental concerns.


Plants on the inside: Here’s the data to support your suspicions

Some corporations and government agencies advocate “lean” facilities with little to no décor including plants. That’s too bad: research reveals that having plants in the office makes a big difference. You’re probably not surprised.

Unfortunately, many school districts have followed suit with the “lean” mentality.

Research proves that interior vegetation boosts productivity, concentration, and satisfaction. Photo courtesy Sage Vertical Gardens.

Research proves that interior vegetation boosts productivity, concentration, and satisfaction.
Photo courtesy Sage Vertical Gardens.

A recent report from the Universities of Cardiff, Exeter, Queensland, and Groningen suggests plants in offices increase productivity by 15% and workplace satisfaction by up to 40%, according to a press release from Ambius. The study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, states that employees in green environments also report higher concentration levels.

If the presence of plants in the workplace can do this for adults, think about the implications for children in schools.

Internal foliage systems like vertical gardens have the potential to not only improve focus and productivity, but also help boost a child’s overall experience of the educational process. The concept of biophilia tells us that humans have an innate need for nature. So why not fulfill that need in the corridors, atriums, and classrooms of our schools?

Vertical wall systems come in all sizes. Here Scott Mehaffey with Sage Vertical Gardens shows students how the lighting system is calculated for a smaller unit.

Vertical wall systems come in all sizes. Here Scott Mehaffey with Sage Vertical Gardens shows students how the lighting system is calculated for a smaller unit.

If you’re coming to the IASB/IASA/IASBO 2014 Joint Annual Conference in Chicago this November, please stop by Legat Architects and Sage Vertical Gardens’ booth. We want to get your thoughts on where educational environments are headed in the coming years.


Buildings that Teach: A Framework for Curiosity and Curriculum

Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods created an international movement to reconnect children and nature. He coined the term “nature-deficit disorder” to describe what happens when people detach from their natural surroundings: diminished use of senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illness.

A concept for a nature learning lab includes a geothermal heating/cooling system, an adjustable photovoltaic (solar) panel system, wind turbines, and a biodiversity machine. Rendering courtesy Judson University Graduate Immersive Studio, Winter 2012

A concept for a nature learning lab includes a geothermal heating/cooling system, an adjustable photovoltaic (solar) panel system, wind turbines, and a biodiversity machine. Rendering courtesy Judson University Graduate Immersive Studio, Winter 2012

Louv’s newer book, The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age, delivers another powerful call to action, this time for families. “The more high-tech we become,” he says, “the more nature we need.”

What better place to promote the human/technology/nature connection than our educational facilities? When architects integrate nature into their design, the building creates a biophilic connection, which promotes that instinctive bond between humans and nature.

If you’re going to the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) Conference & Expo in Portland this year, I encourage you to register for my October 27 presentation “Buildings that Teach: A Framework for Curiosity and Curriculum.”

Craig Schiller (Rocky Mountain Institute), Daniel Hellmuth (Hellmuth + Bicknese Architects, LLC), and I will reveal how sustainable education can be integrated into the built environment. We will cite examples of high performing and living buildings throughout the country for both K-12 and higher education institutions. Those who attend will be able to identify and overcome challenges that come with concepts like immersion, diversity, and biomimicry. Dan will even talk about a Living Building Petal registered dorm at Berea College.

A biodiversity wall acts as a natural filter for wastewater. Rendering courtesy Loren Johnson, Judson University Graduate Immersive Studio, Winter 2012

A biodiversity wall acts as a natural filter for wastewater. Rendering courtesy Loren Johnson, Judson University Graduate Immersive Studio, Winter 2012

Just as technology influences the learning process, the building and its surroundings have the potential to inspire a renaissance in the way that students think and learn. Join me in Portland later this month to get the renaissance started!


How Buildings Teach Part 5: Immersion

Video games. Television. Advertisements. iPads. Cell phones. Laptops. Our technology-driven society has overstimulated children.

Schools and educational programmers are, in a sense, competing with all of these platforms for the attention of our children. It is very difficult for today’s students to narrow their focus in a traditional educational setting when they are constantly bombarded with visual stimuli.

The Challenger Learning Center in Pennsylvania will include a NASA-designed mission that challenges students to apply STEM skills that they have acquired in the program. Sketch courtesy Desmone & Associates Architects and Legat Architects.

The Challenger Learning Center in Pennsylvania will include a NASA-designed mission that challenges students to apply STEM skills that they have acquired in the program. Sketch courtesy Desmone & Associates Architects and Legat Architects.

The final lesson in how buildings teach, then, looks at how we can create educational settings as engaging and as flexible as the platforms with which they compete. The answer lies in immersion, or creating an authentic environment.

A multi-sensory, technology-driven design solution offers a new perspective for tomorrow’s leaders by plunging them into an environment much like that they will encounter in the real world.

The Challenger Learning Center now in conceptual design exemplifies the concept of immersion. As the first facility of its kind in Pennsylvania, the facility will replicate the look and feel of a real spacecraft and put students at the helm of a NASA-designed virtual space mission that integrates STEM lessons. The role-playing and hands-on challenges build problem-solving skills.

Imagine an immersive educational setting that allow students to step into a cathedral, a forest, and the aurora borealis all in the course of a day. Renderings courtesy David Merlo.

Imagine an immersive educational setting that allow students to step into a cathedral, a forest, and the aurora borealis all in the course of a day. Renderings courtesy David Merlo.

Technology can also help us create classrooms that transport students across the world or into the past to support lessons in science, history, and other subjects. David Merlo, a student of mine at Judson University, created a design concept for an immersive learning setting that gives students the opportunity to “almost experience first-hand” a variety of environments.

Thus ends our series on how buildings teach. Only one question remains: how can we as teachers and educational programmers move forward with these concepts?


How Buildings Teach Part 4: Adaptability

We cannot predict the future of curriculum delivery, but we can prepare for it. This challenge introduces the fourth way that buildings can teach: by offering spaces that can easily be modified to accommodate the curricular changes that are sure to happen.

One facility component that has the potential to be adaptable is the wall. A “kit of parts” approach to wall design involves sections that can be quickly reassembled.

The membrane wall functions as a kit of parts that can adapt to changes in delivery. Images courtesy Legat Architects and Moore Ruble Yudell.

The membrane wall functions as a kit of parts that can adapt to changes in delivery. Images courtesy Legat Architects and Moore Ruble Yudell.

The above example, extracted from a conceptual design for New Trier High School, takes the typical corridor wall to the next level. This “membrane wall” offers learning interfaces on both the corridor and the classroom side: exhibit niches, technology screens, views into the classroom or corridor, and even an aquarium.

The kit of parts on the corridor side might also include recessed seating, lockers, and recycling stations. Possibilities on the classroom side include shelving and display space, storage, and interactive seating and critique space.

Read more about the role that walls play in supporting education:

A Shared Interlude: Between the Walls

What If Walls Could Teach?


How Buildings Teach Part 3: Diversity

The next lesson in how buildings teach relates to the role that educational settings play in supporting learning preferences.

Students have different learning styles. When K-12 planners and school leaders work together to understand those viewpoints, we can customize educational environments.

Diversity in educational settings leads to better student performance in the short term and the long term. Photo courtesy Kingscott Associates

Diversity in educational settings leads to better student performance in the short term and the long term. Photo courtesy Kingscott Associates

Many older schools were designed with a different mindset: the architects figured that most students would go on to work in factories. This is evident in the design of these old facilities, where replication and uniformity dominate.

Today’s students have much more varied career trajectories. We can help these students achieve success by creating settings that respond to their different learning styles.

Children gravitate toward their ideal learning environment when classrooms offer a variety of scales, shapes, colors, and textures. When place matches strategy, optimal learning results.