How Buildings Teach Part 2: Exposure

There is so much happening “behind the scenes” of school buildings. Unfortunately, most students never get a chance to see it. Architects have traditionally masked these inner workings behind walls and ceilings. Why not celebrate them?

The second lesson in how buildings teach has to do with exposure. With the current emphasis on energy-efficiency, this is a great time to highlight, rather than conceal sustainable building systems.

School designers should think of ways to encourage children to explore what’s happening behind the scenes. “Scan10222” by ttumlin, used under CC / Cropped from original

School designers should think of ways to encourage children to explore what’s happening behind the scenes. “Scan10222” by ttumlin, used under CC / Cropped from original

When different viewpoints are exposed, students see new solutions to standard construction practices. Exposing these technologies to students can provoke “why” questions within and beyond the classroom.

A green room monitors rooftop solar panels and supports the science curriculum at Niles West High School.

A green room monitors rooftop solar panels and supports the science curriculum at Niles West High School.

By revealing what makes buildings tick, we can transform the way that students think about the mundane.

How Buildings Teach Part 1: Interaction

When architects put students and educators in the center of the design process, we can customize places to stimulate curiosity and learning. At every step of the process, we should be asking ourselves, “How can this material or object educate?”

Water features not only make public spaces more enticing, but can also support science classes.

Water features not only make public spaces more enticing, but can also support science classes.

There are several strategies to achieve environmental learning: interaction, exposure, diversity, adaptability, and immersion. These measures can lead to spontaneous collaboration and the transformation of purpose into place.

Design that celebrates both traditional instruments and modern technologies promotes curiosity and experimentation. Pulley image copyright Brian Jeffery Beggerly through creative commons (https://www.flickr.com/photos/beggs/).

Design that celebrates both traditional instruments and modern technologies promotes curiosity and experimentation. Pulley image copyright Brian Jeffery Beggerly through creative commons (https://www.flickr.com/photos/beggs/).

What Does That Do?

Objects at rest and in motion can teach physics without instruction. Think of all the instruments that can be built into exterior and interior environments: pulleys, wheels, pivot and sliding doors, balance and counter balance, water and kinetic sculptures. Not to mention all the current technologies, including both the flashy systems and the “guts” that make them work.

These “tools of the trade” promote demonstration by doing and experimentation.

At the Hamilton Elementary School now under construction, clear “garage doors” between classrooms will inspire interaction among students and support co-curricular projects.

At the Hamilton Elementary School now under construction, clear “garage doors” between classrooms will inspire interaction among students and support co-curricular projects.

Nature-based Learning Part 2: Biomimicry

When Leonardo da Vinci wanted to solve the problem of human flight, he turned to nature: birds and bats. His sketches set the course for today’s advancements in modern aviation.

da Vinci’s story illustrates biomimicry, the second of the environmental concepts poised to influence the design of educational facilities in the coming years. While biophilia acknowledges the bond between humans and nature, biomimicry involves creating facilities that imitate nature to solve problems.

A birch forest inspired a design concept for atrium space at New Trier High School.

A birch forest inspired a design concept for atrium space at New Trier High School.

The design concept for an atrium at New Trier High School exemplifies systems biomimicry, which draws from natural systems. In this case, the structural elements mimic tree trunks and branch extensions. The roof encourages light to penetrate the space, similar to a forest.

There are several other types of biomimicry:

  • Some leading tech companies use the term “swarm” to achieve a kind of cultural biomimicry. This practice, modeled after a swarm of bees, brings together diverse viewpoints to brainstorm a quick solution to a problem.
  • Velcro was invented by a Swiss engineer after he studied the surface of the burrs that stuck to him and his dog during a hike. That’s element biomimicry.
  • Evocative biomimicry looks to abstract patterns in nature to inspire design. For instance, the roof of the proposed atrium at New Trier High School uses a transparent plastic material called ETFE. The abstract pattern, based roughly on a forest canopy, lets in and lets out light based on different solar exposures and different times of the year.
The roof of the New Trier concept borrows from natural patterns to control light within the space.

The roof of the New Trier concept borrows from natural patterns to control light within the space.

For hundreds of years, architects have struggled to create the most efficient and beautiful facilities. Biomimicry suggests that perhaps Mother Nature has already achieved that ideal. Now, as educational planners and leaders, we have to learn from her methods!

 

Nature-based Learning Part 1: Biophilia

When students are exposed to nature (whether outside or inside with views to the outdoors) their senses are activated. And when the senses are engaged, the brain is more receptive to receiving new information.

Studies have shown that exposure to nature:

  • Increases attention span
  • Strengthens memory
  • Reduces stress
  • Improves mood
  • Enhances creativity
Conceptual design of an atrium at New Trier High School recognizes the instinctive bond between humans and natural living systems.

Conceptual design of an atrium at New Trier High School recognizes the instinctive bond between humans and natural living systems.

It was with this research in mind that we designed an atrium for a design competition at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois.

Two nature-related concepts propelled the design of the atrium: biophilia and biomimicry.

The Way We Connect

Biophilia. Sounds a bit like a disease, doesn’t it? Actually, it’s quite the opposite.

In 1984, naturalist Edward O. Wilson defined biophilia as “the innate tendency [in human beings] to focus on life and lifelike process…our existence depends on this propensity, our spirit is woven from it, hopes rise on its currents.”

Since then, biophilia has become part of the contemporary architectural vocabulary. Not only does biophilia support learning, but it also supports the bottom line. Terrapin Bright Green recently launched a paper titled “The Economics of Biophilia.” It explains why designing with nature in mind makes financial sense.

The landscape plan for New Trier High School shows many connections to nature.

The landscape plan for New Trier High School shows many connections to nature.

The New Trier project integrates biophilia with living wall systems and vegetative roofs. Natural light and views to the outdoors fill the atrium. Circulation patterns connect the space with outdoor learning environments in the landscapes surrounding the facility.

Stay tuned for a discussion on biomimicry, the other half of the nature/design equation.

 

Five Tips to Achieve a Program-driven Early Childhood Center

As communities continue to grow, school districts struggle to meet intensified early childhood education demands. Lack of early learning space can lead to makeshift “classrooms” that fail to support current instructional and learning styles. Also, I’m seeing a ripple effect in that insufficient early childhood space is creating inequalities among other schools within districts.

Recent research in early childhood learning reinforces the importance of early childhood centers (ECCs) that respond to current teaching strategies and to student needs. Following are a few potential key elements of program-driven early childhood centers.

Early learning communities promote therapy, exercise, and group activities.

Early learning communities promote therapy, exercise, and group activities.

Early Learning Communities

Today’s early childhood classrooms need to promote collaboration since the rooms have one instructor and one or two specialists.

We propose zoning ECCs into early learning communities. The plan above, for instance, shows a two communities along a corridor in an ECC. Each community has various learning stations that accommodate three to four students. An observation/office area connects the classrooms. The corridor offers community gathering space and leads to other communities.

Multi-purpose spaces can encourage activity and create connections with the outdoors.

Multi-purpose spaces can encourage activity and create connections with the outdoors.

Activity Space and Pathways to Nature

The multi-purpose room can function as an indoor play center with stations for small group activities and movement. The right design not only fills the space with natural light, but also enables students to see the outdoors.

Outdoor learning should also be taken into account; research reveals that exposure to nature improves focus, prolongs attention span, and encourages exploration.

Enlarge corridors to encourage learning beyond the classroom.

Enlarge corridors to encourage learning beyond the classroom.

Corridors that Teach

Even corridors can support a collaborative learning environment. Widening hallways opens up opportunities for students to receive therapy, exercise large motor muscles, or write/draw together on a “wonder wall.”

Teacher Collaboration Rooms

These rooms allow for meeting and office space for up to six staff members (e.g., four classroom teachers, a speech pathologist, and an OT/P therapist). They work in a team to best address the needs of their students. This allows the teacher’s desk to move out of the classroom, thereby enlarging each classroom by 100 to 150 square feet.

A smaller version of the teacher collaboration room is the integrated therapy room. It doubles as an observation room for therapists and parents to view student behavior during diagnostics/assessments. The therapists have a desk and a workstation so the rooms can be shared.

The media center can function as not only a vibrant learning environment, but also a place to welcome parents.

The media center can function as not only a vibrant learning environment, but also a place to welcome parents.

Media Center/Welcome Center

Every ECC should have a safe welcome area that stimulates curiosity and allows children to interact while parents talk with teachers. The media center has the potential to do the job. Flexible furnishings, vibrant colors, and light-filled nooks enable a range of activities: parent/teacher discussions, collaborative learning sessions with therapists and teachers, and student break-out areas.

The Social Studies Classroom of Tomorrow

A social studies teacher who was near retirement showed up at one of my educational planning sessions for a new classroom building. I asked him about the social studies classroom of the future. At first he hemmed and hawed, but after some prodding, he said, “Do you really want to know what I think?”

I was all ears.

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Taking the next step in the evolution of classroom design requires the insights of those who know students best: the teachers.

World Connections, Kitchen Table Comfort

The first thing that teacher said would impact his educational space would be a much more hands-on educational model. Watch this video from UT Austin CTL for a primer on the flipped classroom:

Bob explained that tomorrow’s social studies classroom should be a much more flexible setting akin to a CNN studio. When students walk in, flat screens and electronic ticker tape show them what’s happening around the world. If students type any date into an iPad, the screens shift to summarize what happened then. There are places for independent study, and places for group presentation and real-time video mentoring.

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A kitchen table setting that encourages project-based learning.

Another area for the room focuses on project-based learning. Mobile devices meet old-fashioned tools like glue, tape, and scissors as students create projects based on subject matter. This environment, in which it’s okay to make a mistake, combines future technologies with the kitchen table-like comfort of the past.

No other teachers showed that afternoon. However, the twenty minutes that I spent with that social studies teacher turned out to be critical for planning for that district. His insights revealed that in the social studies classroom of tomorrow, students are connected to their world the moment that they walk into the room.

The Path to Insights

No matter what point they are in their careers, teachers have the knowledge that educational programmers need to evolve the classroom space. Sometimes, extracting that knowledge is tough, but as the above story shows, it’s worth the effort.

Educational programming, whether it involves an informal discussion with one teacher or a design charette with an entire community, sometimes takes asking the same question over and over, perhaps framing it in different ways.

Your Favorite Place to Learn? Probably Not a Classroom

I have a good friend who is a college professor. She wanted to take advantage of her students’ love of ubiquitous technology and change how they received information. She had been teaching the same class for several years and thought that she was not engaging with students like she hoped she could.

The verdict is in: today’s students prefer group-based activities over the traditional lecture format. Photo copyright Truckee Meadows Community College through Creative Commons.

The verdict is in: today’s students prefer group-based activities over the traditional lecture format. Photo copyright Truckee Meadows Community College through Creative Commons.

After much trepidation and preparation, she started an experiment with one of her private college classes: she “flipped” the curriculum. Students were provided videos of lectures, research, and reading assignments to complete prior to getting to class. When they arrived, they found that the standard lecture format was out. Instead, they were immersed in group-based activities, discussion groups, and problem solving. Some were even asked to lead discussions amongst their peers. The in-class activities were an opportunity to apply what was absorbed through their out-of-classroom assignments.

The excitement of trying something new carried student morale at a high level for the first semester. All were engaged in the active learning process and performance on finals proved the professor’s suspicion that this model was indeed working well.

However, upon return from winter break, the professor surveyed the class. Students noted that they were a bit jarred by this new approach. One student asked, “Aren’t we paying you to teach?  Why are we working in groups to learn from each other if we came to learn from you?”

In response, the professor reverted back to the traditional lecture format with the same cohort. After all, it was a lot of work for her to facilitate learning in the new model. Two weeks into the spring semester, the same student stated, “Hang on. We are here and participating but it is harder to understand some of the information, and we don’t look forward to class like we did last semester.” Others chimed in that the experimental semester was more work, but that the material was easier to absorb and recall. They preferred the more interactive model. So my friend went back to the flipped curriculum model with an active learning classroom. It was the first ever flipped curriculum on this small college campus. She hasn’t looked back since!

This story illustrates the resistance to and effectiveness of concepts like the flipped classroom, which reverses the typical pedagogical model by having students absorb the lesson (via video or text) at home, then come into school the next day to apply that knowledge with their peers.

I believe that my acquaintance’s students, accustomed to just sitting there while a teacher lectured, weren’t fully engaged in the learning experience. Her experiment opened their eyes to a methodology that makes learning less about seeking information, and more about applying it.

Great story….but how does this impact the classroom?

From Factory to Stage

I’ve asked many architects and educators to describe their favorite place to learn. Though the responses have been quite diverse, there is one space that none of them has named: the classroom!

The new classroom adapts to group efforts with a variety of configurations.

The new classroom adapts to group efforts with a variety of configurations.

We Baby Boomers and Gen Xers grew up with a factory model classroom based on efficiency and lectures rather than on flexibility and interaction. The rooms were designed so light came in over the student’s left shoulder and everyone was packed in rows.

That scenario does not accommodate today’s students, who’ve grown up with unlimited information just a couple mouse clicks away. “The new classroom focuses less on students taking in information, and more on what to do with that information,” says Sylvia Kowalk, senior interior design at Legat Architects. “It’s less about individual performance, and more about group efforts for inquiry-based, project-based, and work-based formats.”

Here are a few skills that today’s students have to master to compete effectively in a global environment:

  • Guidance/coaching
  • Critical thinking
  • Communication
  • Problem solving
  • Innovation
  • IT/media literacy
  • Entrepreneurship
  • Leadership
  • Global sensitivities

If we as architects and interior designers are to develop educational settings that truly help instructors teach these skills, then we have to reexamine the traditional classroom design. Students shouldn’t be stifled in that factory model. They should thrive in an environment that is as flexible and exciting as a Broadway stage.

 

Where Two Paths Meet: Five Ways to Create Learning Opportunities at Corridor Intersections

Every school has areas where two or more corridors meet. However, is that circulation intersection just another place to pass through between classes? Or does it reinforce the school’s mission by providing a provocative educational experience? Walls, technology, and even ceilings can spark curiosity and incite learning.

Following are a few ways to build interest where two path meet:

Corridor_Display_Legat_Architects

Display

Exhibit three-dimensional science projects and artwork to entice learners to participate, or create grade level themed exhibits that promote group activities.

MRY_Trier-Boards.indd

Natural and Artificial Lighting

Contrasting levels and colors of light can accent intersections and encourage curiosity. Natural lighting through light tubes and skylights enhances productivity and wellness even at intersections. 

Corridor_Feature_Wall_Legat_Architects

Color and Texture Studies

Something as simple as paint color and pattern can stimulate interest. Find opportunities to integrate natural textures and fibers to enliven and enrich the learning environment.

Corridor_Technology_Legat_Architects

Technology Screens

What is the latest international news? How much renewable energy is a facility generating? What time does the chess club meet? Electronic media can deliver answers to these and many other questions to monitors at intersections. Staying current with the latest technology sets an example for students and prepares them for higher education.

Corridor_Mural_Legat_Architects

Collage of Visual Arts

Exhibit 2D visual art examples to encourage curiosity in programs and to enliven the circulation experience. Weekly or monthly rotations stimulate visual learners and surprise educators with the talent within their school.

A Shared Interlude: Between the Walls

Where the educational curriculum is headed is impossible to predict, but take heart: an intelligently designed school can adapt to the curricular changes that are sure to come.

Meeting and breakout rooms between classrooms enable schools to prepare for curricular changes.

Meeting and breakout rooms between classrooms enable schools to prepare for curricular changes.

In my last post, I discussed the importance of walls in creating vibrant, curriculum-focused learning environments. This time, I’d like to take it one step further by asking an important question: what’s happening between the walls?

The walls between classrooms present another opportunity to promote flexibility. For example, a shared meeting room between two classrooms can open to a foyer entry.

Flexible, technology-embedded walls between classrooms enable a variety of learning arrangements.

Flexible, technology-embedded walls between classrooms enable a variety of learning arrangements.

Some possibilities for furniture and wall configurations with technology include:

  • Option 1: What if an auto executive visits the school for 30 minutes to talk about hybrid and electric cars? Both walls can open so that two classes benefit from the visit
  • Option 2: What if a student in China Skypes in and a small group from another subject wants to join in? One wall opens to the class for collaboration.
  • Option 3: What if a small group needs space to build a model project? Both walls are closed to create small group learning environments.
  • Option 4: What if in the next period, the small group members presents their project to the class? One wall opens to provide viewing of the project.

We cannot predict the future, but by designing adaptable solutions, we can be prepared to change the learning setting as changes in curriculum delivery arise.

What If Walls Could Teach?

We can’t predict the future, and we can’t predict the curriculum that schools will teach in 5 years, let alone 50 years or 250 years (the expected life of current educational construction). However, we can prepare for the future by building for adaptability and change.

The next couple of blog posts will offer a few tips to achieve learning settings that are prepared for the fluid and ever-changing nature of curriculum delivery.

Observation windows along the corridor build curiosity about subject matter.

Observation windows along the corridor build curiosity about subject matter.

For too long, students have zipped by uninspiring entries and trudged down dull corridors on the way from one class to another. However, these spaces offer an opportunity to gear up for those curricular changes.

It starts with walls. Think about all the potential benefits that walls offer: showcase student achievement, build excitement about learning, display technology, and reinforce a school’s commitment to sustainability.

A concept for the New Trier High School design competition advises a “kit of parts” in which walls promote flexibility, and allow for a variety of settings. Image courtesy Legat Architects and Moore Ruble Yudell

A concept for the New Trier High School design competition advises a “kit of parts” in which walls promote flexibility, and allow for a variety of settings. Image courtesy Legat Architects and Moore Ruble Yudell

Here are a few ways that walls can help schools prepare for change:

  • Exhibit niches display student projects and accomplishments.
  • Technology screens keep students aware of what’s happening in their school, in their communities, and in the world at large.
  • Recessed seating offers a way to break away from fellow students while remaining connected to the school at large.
  • Color accent walls draw attention to the instructor and create a more vibrant classroom atmosphere
  • Observation windows entice passersby to look in on classroom or lab activities. “That looks like fun. Perhaps I should take that course next semester.”
  • Interior living planted walls teeming with vegetation create a natural connection, and help filter indoor air.